Helen Frankenthaler: Un Poco Más (A Little More) Through Sunday, Aug. 28 

The Nasher Museum of Art, Durham

Walking into the Nasher’s latest exhibition is like walking into a printmaking studio in the throes of production. In the foyer, you’re immediately met with three large black-and-white vinyl photos of the abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler.

The minimal triptych presents the artist at three distinct stages in her career, captured from contrasting vantage points—smearing paint with a scalpel knife, surveying proofs of the exhibition’s title print, and in consultation with a printmaker.

These photos present her not as she is known in the cultural eye—posed, for instance, in Gordon Parks’s famous Life magazine photo series, on top of her enormous stained canvases—but as an artist consumed in the process.

“A lot of photographs of her made her look very decorative,” says co-curator Alana Hyman. “And so I had the idea to put these large, really colossal photographs of her looking much more active and much more engaged with her art rather than as this decorative, passive art piece herself.”

Helen Frankenthaler: Un Poco Más (A Little More), which opened February 12, collects six prints and eight proofs made over five decades of printmaking, including the title print, “Un Poco Más,” which is displayed alongside five working proofs and a color trial proof.

Un Poco Más was co-curated by four Duke undergraduates—Claire Hutchinson, Alana Hyman, Tristan Kelleher, and Andrew Witte—for the Curatorial Practicum: Exhibition Development and Design course taught by Ellen C. Raimond, assistant curator of academic initiatives at the Nasher Museum. The works are grouped by curatorial theme: the title lithograph and its proofs; sculptural prints; prints inspired by Japanese motifs; an early screenprint; a lithograph that recalls Frankenthaler’s soak-stain paintings; and prints featuring etching and aquatint. Donated by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation in 2019, they represent a broad range of printmaking techniques, studios, and working relationships with different printmakers.

“She was known as a painter, but she collaborated with ceramicists, sculptors, people in metalworking, and also printmakers,” says Hutchinson. “And in each of those different mediums, she kind of pushed to do something new. With printmaking, she sought out working with experimental printmakers who were doing really new things in the field.”

The mid-20th-century printmaking renaissance came at a perfect time for Frankenthaler, who was born in 1928. She’d played a critical role in the second wave of color field painting, pioneering a new “soak-stain” technique, in which she applied aquatint and house paint, then allowed it to soak or drip according to how she manipulated the canvas.

Her early prints—the screenprint “Untitled” (1967) and the lithograph “Altitudes” (1978)—highlight a transitional period in which she relied on a similar technique to create pools of color or soak more or less opaque splotches of ink into a print’s surface.

But in “Ganymede,” also from 1978, there is evidence of increased experimentation. Using etching and aquatint, she and the printmaker produce jagged, intersecting planes of line and color. These same gestural techniques recur in “Tout-à-coup” (All-at-Once), a large earth-toned print from 1987, marked by translucent streaks that stand out like hot scalds on a baking sheet.

She worked using a system of trial and error, a process clearly mapped out in the working proofs for “Un Poco Más.” In one proof, painted scraps of notebook paper are pasted on; in another, scraps of test prints show her alterations in tone and placement of secondary hues.

“She hasn’t even added in the other colors yet,” says Witte, gesturing at an initial proof. “She’s just seeing, how is this white going to appear on the black background? And you can see”—he points to the next proof—“she’s thinking, okay, I want color here; these three spots right here.”

On the far wall are two sculptural pieces made at two different studios: “Bay Area Wednesday I” (1982) and “Guadalupe” (1989). The former is a monotype; its central feature was made using a hydraulic press—a kind of crater with varying coloration around the edges and base, as you might see on a topographical map.

The latter was done using Luis Remba’s trademarked Mixografia process, unique to his studio. By pressing paper pulp into a copper mold, he and Frankenthaler were able to manipulate the surface of a print, adding three-dimensional relief, gashes, and textures. In printmaking, says Kelleher, Frankenthaler found a medium that not only was collaborative but also constituted a more indirect engagement with materials and surfaces.

“With printmaking, there’s another level of separation, which is a lot different than the singular artist working on this singular canvas where they’re directly touching it most of the time,” he says.

On the far left wall are two works that represent Frankenthaler’s abiding interest in Japanese motifs. The first, “A Little Zen” (1970), is a minimalist print consisting of red and green calligraphic marks and a small pool of blue on an open plane. The last print of her career, “Weeping Crabapple” (2009), made two years before her death, is richly layered, requiring the use of over 30 woodblocks to render different marks and patterns.

Frankenthaler conceived of her printmaking process as a conversation, says Hyman: “You talk to the work; the work talks to you.” With Un Poco Más, Frankenthaler’s prints are given a stage. A rapturous dialogue ensues.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.