A Slice of the Stone Itself: A Print by Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler was born in 1928 and came to be a very successful artist.  Known as an abstract expressionist, as well as a color field or lyric abstraction painter she had an expansive career, pioneering a method of staining the canvas that would influence later generations of artists.  She is famous for painting, but she has a large print oeuvre, coinciding with a rise of print medium in the 20th century.  She made the print, A Slice of the Stone Itself, in 1969 in conjunction with Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) printing.[1]

This print is a lithograph printed in red, yellow ocher, and blue on a 19×15 in sheet of French paper.[2]  The paper is a warm tan grey.  There is an intense economy of mark that characterizes this piece.  Each mark feels like a distinct player on the paper.  There are six total marks in this piece, three in red ink, one in yellow ink, one in red crayon, and one in blue crayon.

Two large red brush strokes bilaterally occupy vertical halves of the print.  The left stroke begins in the top left, in a dense opaque red, going down vertically but tapering quickly at the end.  A small red stroke of the same material and application rests at its right side, separated by an almost imperceptible distance.  The large stroke collides with and stretches over the edge of the paper, the wavy edges of the paper undulating alongside the mark.  The red brush stroke on the right side begins on the vertical axis on the bottom of the page, and veers to the right until it bends to straighten out and stops just before the top of the page.  At the end of the mark there is a jagged edge, allowing the viewer to infer the direction the hand moved.  This mark is characterized by a watery center where the color of the paper shows thought and is barely masked by a thin veil of red.  The quality of watercolor paint is somewhat evoked in this mark.  Together these two marks form an off center V shape that draws the eye down to the bottom left corner, but also create a nebulous center which is conspicuous in it’s emptiness.  There is nothing ‘there’ and yet is the thing that is being enclosed, and due to the dispersed nature of the composition you have to focus on it in, so that your eyes aren’t constantly lead around in a circle.

The yellow line is in crayon, although it has none of the roughness of the other two lines, and the color is very concentrated and bright.  It tilts and forms another V, mimicking the shape of the brushes, with the red crayon line.  That closes in the bottom, while at the top of the composition the blue line stretches horizontally along the edge of the paper.  That end of that line is the one moment of contact in the composition, and blue line only gently touches the red brush stroke.  Otherwise it is a piece of almost touching, where the parts of the piece dance around each other, never making contact.  Frankenthaler said of her work, “the whole business of spotting; the small area of color in a big canvas, how edges meet; how accidents are controlled; all this fascinates me.”[3]  She is playing with those elements, even in this print, where she can arrange and subtract as she wishes, keeping the parts just separate, and drawing your eye to tiny margins of space.

The title of the piece, A Slice of the Stone Itself, implicates nature, natural elements like stone, but also a highly sophisticated method of slicing a stone. Cutting a stone gives a cross section, revealing the inside of something.  The slice can either be read as the image that is frontally presented, or perhaps as the movement of the brush that forms the center right red stroke.  Frankenthaler painted landscapes early in her career and was conscious of the way that her paintings referenced landscapes abstractly.  According to one writer, “Frankenthaler learned how to reinforce her ties to nature, already inherent in her landscape image, by imitating the process of nature- by allowing an image to spontaneously grow and evolve from the materials.”[4]  This specific print is decidedly different from the majority of her oeuvre, because of its sparse composition and use of line.  However she does have a cubist background, so this may be a return to some of that language.[5]

This piece is singular in its masterful composition.  Frankenthaler isn’t using her typical language, but she is exploring elegant movement in this piece.  She references nature, but in a resolutely abstract way. Her marks are definitive like those of her painting, but though the medium of print she was able to achieve an exacting image overall.

[1] Harrison, Pegram. Frankenthaler: A Catalogue Raisonne Prints 1961-1994, 110-112.

[2] Harrison, Pegram. Frankenthaler: A Catalogue Raisonne Prints 1961-1994, 110-112.



[3] Stiles, Kristine, and Peter Selz. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, 32.

[4] Rose, Barbara. Frankenthaler, 38.

[5] “Oral History Interview with Helen Frankenthaler, 1968.” Interview by Rose Barbara.Archives of American Art. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-helen-frankenthaler-12171>.

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