Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Tyler: a 25 year collaboration

Kenneth Tyler and Helen Frankenthaler worked together on many print projects in a collaborative relationship that spanned 25 years. Below Ken remembers working with Helen and discusses her approach to printmaking.

Helen Frankenthaler’s death on December 27, 2011 is a great loss to the world and, within that, the world of art. She will be remembered for her unshakeable confidence, indefatigable in her creation of abstract images.  Helen was both meticulous and experimental in her painting and printmaking, often challenging the traditional methods.  Her quick-witted and funny side often interrupted her more energetic and demanding personality.  Loyal to her art and friends, Helen will be remembered and missed by all who had the great fortune to know and work with her.

I first formally met Helen in 1972, when she visited me at my Los Angeles workshop, at my invitation.  The workshop impressed her but she felt it too ‘industrial,’ so she declined my offer to work there.  She was quite cordial, however, and we kept in touch.  Then in 1976, we began working together, starting in my small Bedford, New York, workshop and continuing in my expanded Mt. Kisco, New York, workshop from 1987 to 2001.

In 1961, Helen urged Robert Motherwell (to whom she was married from 1958-1971) to join her in working atULAE.  He was 46 and she 33 at the time. Bob had made his very first intaglio prints with Hayter’s Atelier 17 in NYC in the early 1940s.  Until Bob’s death in July 1991, his painting and printmaking had a big influence on Helen, who often referred to him and his work while we were collaborating.  Both Bob and Helen would study what the other had printed in my workshop and usually make favorable comments on each other’s work.

There are many similarities between the working methods of the two artists.  First and foremost, they shared a keen interest in the liquidity and translucency of gestural mark-making.  Many of their prints were created from the first painted marks on a printing element, or that first motion of the wrist in the act of drawing.  Helen would place great importance on precise registration and exact color matching once she started to construct her prints.  When she spent too much time fussing with this, it could be detrimental to the print.  Bob, on the other hand, was not as interested in cross-hair precision and rather liked the accidental.  For him, a poorly inked print on newsprint or a collage element miss-aligned on the page could be exciting; he would question why we couldn’t just make at-random impressions and call them editions.  Yet, he was prone to refine each image he made.  But this was the philosophical mind of Motherwell, who questioned printmaking and the art form it produced, as he did painting. I often mused about what would have  happened if Helen had lived nearer to me and we had spent more time making and discussing prints, as I did with Bob.

My first impression of Helen was that she had little understanding or was not particularly interested in the nitty-gritty processes and techniques of printmaking, and therefore did not fully realize the potential the medium offered.  It seemed that at ULAE, where she had worked primarily since 1961, she formed a general indifference to the details of technique and was not prone to investigate possible alternatives other than the ones she had adopted.  This I think was true when she worked at making screenprints and etchings in other workshops.  Most of her prints up to this time were colorful, of one medium, usually modest in scale, and displayed a fine graphic touch. My view changed once Helen and I developed what became a wonderful confrontational and trusting collaboration, based on pushing the limits of her printmaking.

Helen was fond of mixing her own colors, even though they had to be remixed by the printers during proofing to obtain the effect she wanted (more opaque or more transparent) when printed on the various trial papers that seemed to precede every edition. Helen loved to try many variations in color and select different papers during proofing, and was always eager to work on the trial or color proofs with various drawing and painting materials.  Over the years, this approach produced many proofs, but brings into question whether this made any serious contribution to altering the edition print being worked on.  Exceptions would be when she used color trail proofs to define, refine or alter the color printing order in a print, or edit the use of a printing element(s) in a color print.

My efforts to guide her into new approaches for prints paid off when we ventured into woodcuts.  The first breakthrough was the creation of Essence Mulberry.  After Essence Mulberry, I think Helen started to believe that a print could be as good as a painting.  She certainly started to believe that other hands could be as important (in a limited controlled way) as hers in the making of a print.  This thought was carefully guarded in public until we embarked on the Genji woodcut project when Helen was 67 years old.  By then she was recognized as a major printmaker.

During the Essence Mulberry project, for the first time I was permitted to assist in shaping her carved marks with sanding during the proofing stages.  Another ‘first’: John Hutcheson and I used the color blend-roll technique and the offset press to print the woodblocks. Our print history and the trust and respect we had, made the ‘trial and error’ method we employed in making the woodcuts possible.  This dynamic give-and-take also set the arena for creating the dyed paper pulp sheets which Freefall and Radius were printed on.  Prior to permitting Yasu Shibata to carve Helen’s blocks, I was given the green light for applying the pochoir technique on her prints: Yellow Jack, This is Not a Book, and the Genji editions…evidence that Helen’s collaborative trust grew deeper and deeper.

The fluidity of the tusche is an important part of Helen’s lithographic vocabulary, one she often referred to when making prints.  She was always fascinated with the flow of liquids and the shapes they formed when dried.  Helen, in my opinion, was at her best when she made a spontaneous gesture drawing in lithography or intaglio, and left it without further addition or correcting.  The exception was with her woodcuts, where refinement seemed necessary to form the image.  For the Genji and Madame Butterfly woodcuts, she made wonderful painted wood panels that were used as the guide for making the color woodcuts on colored handmade papers (made by John Hutcheson and Tom Strianese). Yasu carved the many blocks, closely collaborating with Helen on every nuance of carving and printing.  For Radius and Freefall, she painted color paper pulp maquettes, splashing away in our paper mill.  These studies were interpreted by Tom into numerous stencils, the stencils then employed to apply color pulp to handmade paper substrates.  These lushly colored sheets were used for the woodcut editions.

The initial trial process in printmaking results in inked variations of the printing elements that the printers make on press.  Some are made to test pressure in printing; ink saturation into the paper; quality of color; and most to refine the inked image onto paper for the artist to approve.  Helen used these trials to define her image-making and make the printing involvement much more akin to how she worked in her painting studio – changing direction, cropping of edges or adding a new passage.  When focusing on a single medium and a single printing element, this process is relatively easy to alter using the trial proofs as an initial guide for printing.  However, when there are more than one medium or more than one printing element, the process becomes increasingly complex and time-consuming.

Here lies the conundrum. Spending time proofing and altering the colors and printing elements does produce a lot of proofs, but also taxes the patience of the printer(s).  With certain techniques, it can also jeopardize the quality of the printing element(s) in producing faithful reproductions of the marks originally made by the artist.  For example, a delicate tusche wash on stone or plate is limited by how many times it can be printed, closed down and opened up again for edition printing, without a loss of fidelity to the original printed version.  The same is true when transferring marks from one printing element to another.  Extensive color proofing can be very injurious to the printing element(s) and knowledgeable printers will try to avoid the practice whenever possible.  It is true that the unexpected trial in the printmaking process can often lead the artist into an entirely different direction, and perhaps result in more exciting and successful printed images.  Knowing this risk and having experienced good results in the past, Helen often requested lengthy color proofing sessions and used the resulting proofs to create new ideas for editions, or for finding a new path to improving the printed image.

Keeping this practice in balance and yet encouraging innovation and experimentation is often difficult for a printer with high printing standards, even when one believes in breaking the rules.  Here is where a good collaborator, in my opinion, directs the printing process for the betterment of making the artist’s image without sacrificing the quality of the printed surface.

In my workshop, I always insisted that the technical aspects of the craft be decided mainly by the printer, with the artist controlling the aesthetic aspects. In a highly charged creative atmosphere, these two objectives can easily become blurred.  Therefore, successful collaboration requires mutual respect and trust in each other’s abilities and talent.  This is evident in long protracted projects with complicated histories.  I believe a rich working relationship with an artist takes time and builds from project to project.  With Helen, our collaboration spanned more than 25 years.  It was quite an adventure, for many of the works we produced, the rules in printmaking were broken and quite a few unorthodox methods were employed. Helen’s printmaking, like her life, was filled with color, experimentation, and wonderfully exciting art.  Add to that her, and my, passion for pushing outside the norm, and one can easily see how and why we teamed up with such gusto.


  1. Stephen Lyons

    Hello,I have photographs that Harriet Gans photographed.I want someone to tell me what painting Helen is painting.It was a nude and some other subject .she was not done with this beautiful piece.I am looking for someone to tell me about it and maybe where it is today.Thanks,Steve slyons6974@aol.com

  2. Tina Kino

    Thank you very much for sharing this beautiful article, it’s much appreciated!
    Also wonderful to see the accompanying photos..
    Godspeed and best from Berlin, TK

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