Between 2001 and 2009, Shibata worked with Helen Frankenthaler on 5 prints at Pace Editions. Only one, Book of Clouds, was a collaboration with other printmakers.
I want to draw my own images, mix my own colors, approve of registration marks, select paper—all the considerations and reconsiderations. Assuming that those who work in the workshop are all artists at what they do, I can then entrust the actual duplicating process to other hands that possess—hopefully—their kind of magic. Sharing and participating to the end.2
Helen Frankenthaler explored printmaking for 50 years, working in every print medium with the studios that were at the forefront of a modern print renaissance.
It was her foray into woodcut printmaking with ULAE, Kenneth Tyler, and a traditional studio in Kyoto selected by Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press, which contributed toward the artist's passion about the medium. These woodcut prints, as well as the works published by Pace Prints, have been the subject of dozens of exhibitions from 1979 to today.
Frankenthaler began printmaking alongside her peers, many of the greatest artists of her time. She started these projects at the urging of Tatyana and Maurice Grosman, working with Master Printer Robert Blackburn, in the same studios as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg at ULAE. It was there that she created her first woodcut, the iconic East and Beyond.
She expanded her experimentation with Tyler Graphics studio in the 1970s and Crown Point Press in the 1980s. Kathan Brown, of Crown Point Press, invited Frankenthaler to collaborate with a traditional Japanese woodblock studio in Kyoto, along with artists Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis and others.
In 1994, Frankenthaler began a project with Kenneth Tyler, called Tales of Genji, a series of six woodcut prints that heightened her experimentation in woodcutting. This period of collaboration yielded seven works, all printed by Yasu Shibata at Tyler Graphics.
In 2001, Shibata began his tenure as a Master Printer at Pace Editions, where he and Frankenthaler continued their collaborative process. Geisha was the first of these works.
Frankenthaler’s body of woodcuts occupies a singular place both in in her diverse œuvre and in the history of postwar art. Their evanescence and painterly effects are unrivaled. By achieving delicate and transitory states through her merging of color and wood, the artist transformed the underlying conception of ukiyo-e woodcuts and their attention to fleeting beauty into a contemporary abstract idiom.3
Each workshop has its own artisans, men and women who do their own thing there. [They are] trying to accomplish and translate from me …how to literally, physically make this thing and at that point I often leave it to them. …Some of the [workshops] have a sensitivity and a feel and sort of groove right in. That’s really the oil for all the wheels and cogs of the workshop, it is that wonderful working together, and you never get a sense of workshop.
A good workshop will…allow for anything for the personality of, or the whim of, or the insanity, or the habits of the artist... because art is the goal.4
Book of Clouds was completed in 2007. Shibata worked alongside Master Printer Bill Hall, combining Ukiyo-e style woodcut with aquatint, pochoir and hand painting. This layering of techniques, each adding its own distinctive character, builds up a depth of tonality and texture that fully expresses Frankenthaler’s vision for the triptych.
The work begins with a woodblock layer, executed by Shibata, laying out the woodgrain ground that Frankenthaler favored in these later works. Hall then layered plates etched in aquatint over the relief in a translucent veil, creating her cloud-like forms. A stenciled painting process known as pochoir creates yellow and orange elements that come to the foreground. Finally, Frankenthaler hand-painted areas, adding the last unifying layer.
The making of Book of Clouds, encompassing technical exploration and the execution and editioning of the run of thirty prints, required more than two years of work. The print stands as a monument to the strength of Frankenthaler’s vision and the virtuosity and dedication of the printmakers in making it a reality.
1. In Her Mind's Eye [Exhibition Title] Alexandra Schwartz, "Conversations with the Curator at the Clark" (May 18, 2017)
2. I want to draw my own images... Helen Frankenthaler, "The Romance of Learning a New Medium," in The Print Collector’s Newsletter (July – August 1977)
3. Frankenthaler’s body of woodcuts... John Yau, East and Beyond, Knoedler Gallery (2011)
4. Each workshop has its own artisans... Helen Frankenthaler discusses the distinctive nature of her working process with Ruth Fine in this conversation recorded on May 16, 1993