Helen Frankenthaler: Tales of Genji

14 - 20 January 2022

Helen Frankenthaler's woodcut Tales of Genji I is a tour de force of printmaking and creative collaboration between the trailblazing twentieth-century abstract painter and the master printmaker Kenneth Tyler. The large print, first in a series of six, is Frankenthaler's visual meditation on the text and earliest illustrations of the eleventh-century novel The Tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting in Japan's imperial court. By focusing on the extraordinary processes used to produce the print, this OVR highlights the artistic innovations made possible by ink, wood and paper.


In 1995, Helen Frankenthaler made six paintings that served as the basis for the Tales of Genji series. Using her signature "soak-stain" method, Frankenthaler poured diluted acrylic paint onto sheets of plywood, and exploited the wood's natural absorbency to create richly layered compositions.


Working alongside Frankenthaler in the studio, Kenneth Tyler and his team of woodblock carvers, paper makers, and printers translated her paintings into woodcuts. For Tales of Genji I, woodblock carvers made eleven separate blocks from two different types of wood. They carved certain areas so the block would hold color and applied lacquer to others so they would repel ink. The printers then inked these eleven blocks with thirty-four different colors and carefully aligned each woodblock on specially made paper that mimicked the woodgrain of the playwood used to create Frankenthaler's painting. This process required great precision, as any slight deviations in the registration, or how the blocks were lined up, would result in the rejection and destruction of the sheet. To achieve the final edition of 30 prints, hundreds of imperfect prints were discarded.