What We’re Reading: “Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York” by Alexander Nemerov

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

Nemerov’s book on Helen Frankenthanler, published by Penguin Random House, focuses on the artists life in the 1950s.

Do you have a favorite art movement or style of art? I don’t enjoy playing favorites, but if I have to choose only one my most enduring love is Abstract Expressionism; although, I have always struggled to explain exactly why (just stand in front of a painting by Joan Mitchell or Willem de Kooning!). In Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, Alexander Nemerov puts it into words for me, at least regarding the power of his subject’s work: “A painting was for her the record of a personal experience exalted, transfigured, given staying power and enduring poise, so that the rest of us might be reminded of this special grace we often forget we, too, possess: namely, the feeling that we are alive” (p. xiv).

Each chapter of Fierce Poise uses as its starting point a particular day in Frankenthaler’s life, but the scope is wider than that might suggest. For example, the chapter that starts with Frankenthaler learning of Jackson Pollock’s death focuses on her relationship with the poet and critic Frank O’Hara, connected by their shared admiration of Pollock. When she first experienced Pollock’s drip paintings, they showed her what was possible; she was never a fan of the drip, but his method of working on unstretched canvas on the floor opened new worlds. Less than two years later, she pioneered the soak stain method of pouring thinned paint directly on unprimed canvas. Pollock’s death in 1956 was a sort of release for O’Hara and Frankenthaler, who both produced freer works in their more mature style in the aftermath.

Frankenthaler, in many respects, led a charmed life: the daughter of a respected New York State Supreme Court Justice, she grew up on Park Avenue, the youngest and most-doted-upon of three daughters. She attended an esteemed progressive school where Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo was her art teacher, then Bennington College. She never fit the archetype of the “struggling artist”–at least monetarily–as many of her New York School colleagues did, and she painted her breakthrough Mountains and Sea when she was just 23. She was confident, poised, capable, and well-off; traits that invited the scorn of her fellow artists, even other women like Joan Mitchell who shared a similarly privileged upbringing but still referred to Frankenthaler as a “Kotex painter.” Her work was groundbreaking but often disparaged as “feminine”, too pretty and seemingly effortless to be taken seriously, which belies both the work and thought behind the paintings as well as Frankenthaler’s lifelong impulse to create. She needed to make art, and it wasn’t always pretty. Nemerov calls upon two stories from her childhood that she often told: the first, how she would draw a single chalk line all the way from the playground behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art to her family home, and the second of how she would drip her mother’s red nail polish into a full bathroom sink just to watch the swirling patterns it made. She suffered from bouts of depression throughout her life, significantly after her father died when she was 11, and her mother committed suicide when she was 25. Her paintings suggest vast internal depth, and while they are beautiful, she embraced awkward lines and even accidents that ground them in the realities of everyday life. The book argues that her art “saved” her.

Nemerov made the controversial choice to refer to his subject as “Helen” rather than the more conventionally serious approach of using her last name. This is due, he explains, to the closeness he feels to the artist: his father, Howard Nemerov, was her teacher at Bennington and attended a dinner party with Clement Greenberg, famed critic and Frankenthaler’s first serious boyfriend, the day after the author was born. Nemerov thought about writing this book for twenty long years before finally tackling the subject, but although she died just ten years ago, he never arranged to actually meet her. Fierce Poise was met with somewhat mixed reviews, with this decision one reason why. Some critics question: would he have made the same choice with a male subject? Would Frankenthaler have approved? She was adamant that her gender not play a role in how her work is viewed–she was an artist not a woman artist–so a book about her should be the same. Museum writing typically takes the more academic approach of using surnames, but biographers might decide to use a first name for myriad reasons. It is hard to say which is the better choice, but in this case it does help Fierce Poise feel more personal and less stuffy.

Despite mixed reviews regarding Nemerov’s creative choices, most reviewers agreed that the book is beautifully written. But, be prepared for it to end suddenly! Frankenthaler’s career was long and fruitful, however, true to the title, this story ends promptly at the start of 1960. Rather than a full biography, the book has been described as a “portrait”, really a snapshot, of this formative decade in her life and career. It takes us from her debut on the New York art scene, through her first group and solo exhibitions, her turbulent relationship with Clement Greenberg, her marriage to Robert Motherwell, and ends on a high note with her first solo museum show at the Jewish Museum. 

Helen Frankenthaler’s work will be on display, along with contemporaries Robert Motherwell, Friedl Dzubas, and her former teacher Rufino Tamayo, in FWMoA’s ongoing Century of Making Meaning: 100 Years of Collecting. Pictured L to R: Frankenthaler, Motherwell, and Dzubas. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

We can check in on Frankenthaler and company a decade or so later through the installation of A Century of Making Meaning: 100 Years of Collecting, featuring work acquired during the 1970s, that opens at FWMoA this week. Her London Memos III shares a wall with her (now ex-) husband Motherwell, as well as her studiomate when she painted Mountains and Sea Friedl Dzubas, and her former teacher Rufino Tamayo is just around the corner! She painted the work on view in 1971, the year she and Motherwell divorced. The title suggests, as Frankenthaler’s often do, a personal meaning, a moment in time transposed onto the paper. Was it made during a trip overseas? The scale is relatively small by Frankenthaler’s standards and done on paper (easier to travel with). Or was it her way of planning a later visit, painted notes or memos (she definitely visited London in 1972, to produce her first sculptural works)? The cheery color scheme of grapefruit pink, magenta, and gold is pretty, but there is the kind of clumsiness Frankenthaler sought in the narrow space between the two large forms and the skinny, hooked line just hanging there. You can hear Nemerov discuss Frankenthaler, along with her own voice via archival interview footage, on an excellent podcast from the Getty called “Recording Artists”.

See Helen Frankenthaler’s work, along with that of her contemporaries, on display at FWMoA in A Century of Making Meaning through July 19th, 2021.

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