Alexander Nemerov’s biography of artist Helen Frankenthaler finds transcendent value in her work

The Frankenthaler portrayed in art historian Alexander Nemerov’s biography “Fierce Poise” (publishing Monday by Penguin Press) comes from a world that we now find in many ways incomprehensible. It is an age held in disrepute, in which male artists behaved abominably to women and to each other; in which alcohol and drugs weren’t just the lubricant of social discourse but a substrate in which civilized norms were regularly dissolved. Greenberg is now seen not as a greatly talented and greatly flawed intellectual but simply as an ogre, the embodiment of criticism as gatekeeping, the mansplainer in chief of abstract expressionism, who could make or break careers, including those of the women with whom he slept.

Nemerov is connected to Greenberg through his father, the poet Howard Nemerov, a lion of mid-century American culture who served two terms as the country’s poet laureate. While researching the book, the author delved into Greenberg’s diaries, and out of curiosity decided to look up the day of his own birth in 1963. “Sure enough, he was there the day after I was born having dinner with my father,” Nemerov says in an interview from his home in Palo Alto, Calif. That world — fractious, brilliant, seductive and toxic — “is all within shouting distance,” he says. “All that yelling, arguing is within shouting distance of me.”

Nemerov, an arts and humanities professor at Stanford University and an acclaimed scholar of American art, begins his book by noting the family connection. His father taught Frankenthaler at Bennington College in the late 1940s.

“Her presence must have remained,” Nemerov writes, “because I believe I knew of her before I ever said a word.” Yet he never met her, even when it would have been easy to contrive an encounter.

The biography covers the first decade of the artist’s career, in the 1950s, when she was building a formidable New York reputation as an independent artist making vivid and deeply personal abstract works. In his introduction, Nemerov confronts the complexity of his subject: a woman who came from privilege, who identified as “square and bourgeois,” who was described by prominent critic in 1989 as “a character from the old New York world of an Edith Wharton novel.”

Nemerov’s introduction casts a deeply personal shadow on the rest of the text, which he describes as “a young person’s book,” written in middle age to make sense of the intensity of youth and its passions. It is also a courageous book because it obliges Nemerov to indulge a discourse that some readers may find elitist.

Without quite using the word, Nemerov deploys a contemporary take on the old idea of “genius” — that Frankenthaler’s vision was so extraordinary, her talent so profound, that her art transcends her origins, her character and even the darkness of the social world from which it emerged. After recounting how some of Frankenthaler’s contemporaries found her too nakedly careerist — skilled at self-promotion and willing to flatter those who could help her advance — he writes: “Something saved Helen, however. Her paintings stood apart from her question for recognition and sales . . . they had a quality of remaining apart, of being secure in their separate realm of exalted sensations.”

Frankenthaler’s paintings during this period were made with thinned paint applied to unprimed canvas, creating watery fields of color and unruly forms that feel both spontaneous and geometrical. She was deeply inspired by Jackson Pollock but pursued an earthier abstraction that often hints at recognizable forms, a hand, a phallus or a sign of some sort, or a recognizable gesture, such as thrusting, reaching, swooping or reclining. Critics at the time found them naive, even decorative. Today, if you admire mid-century abstraction, you can’t help but love the individuality, spontaneity and sheer vivacity or her work.

Frankenthaler’s work from these years, and the exuberance with which she lived her life, clearly delights Nemerov, and for much of the book he wrestles with the idea of delight, with art that gives pleasure, conveys a sense of lightness or “life lived on the wing,” he says.

“The lightest touch is the hardest one,” Nemerov says in conversation. “The very thing that caused people to dismiss it as pretty or cosmetic, or its home-decor-style attractiveness, was in fact the thing that gave it the greatest power, the power of lightness.”

Identifying, praising and analyzing lightness is complicated intellectual work. We live in a world full of inequities, injustice and unevenly distributed opportunity. Violence surrounds us and corrodes discourse, and the basic structure of democracy, capitalism and America constrains the equal pursuit of happiness. How do you praise lightness without aligning yourself with the social forces that produce lightness — often privilege and wealth, or some extraordinary grace of manners, luck or temperament?

Frankenthaler’s father was a prominent judge. She grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; she was well-educated; when she needed a studio to make art, she simply rented one; and as a young artist, she employed a maid to clean her apartment. In 1989, when homophobic politicians, including Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), attacked the work of Robert Mapplethorpe (for its explicit depictions of gay sexuality) and Andres Serrano (for photographing a crucifix in urine), Frankenthaler rose to the defense — of convention. She attacked the artists as mediocre and concluded a New York Times op-ed piece: “Raise the level. We need more connoisseurs of culture.”

“This was not bound to make Helen popular, not least with me,” Nemerov writes of Frankenthaler, who died in 2011 at age 83. Today, it would probably get her evicted from the art world. And even artists who deplore her 1989 editorial but work within her tradition — one devoted to an ideal of honest self-expression and refinement of sentiment — will probably at some point fall afoul of the informal proscription against “art for art’s sake.”

Nemerov is emphatic about not neglecting the political side of art. He has written extensively about art that is embedded in social life, and the power of art to prod the conscience and change the world. But in this book he wrestles with another kind of art — art that is deeply self-conscious, inward, sensitive and committed to extending a tradition of art as a sacred calling. The ability to convey the particularity of a sensation, at a precise moment, isn’t political in the usual sense, but it can be deeply ethical, reminding another person of a simple fact that is profoundly hard to process: that other conscious beings exist.

On the phone from California, Nemerov looks out his window and tries to make that connection: “I come back to things like light and shade on a stucco wall — what I am looking at now — evanescent phenomenon that can be traced to particular economic and social advantages, to be sure, but are nonetheless free and clear of those things. I believe in that ‘free and clear.’ ”

A year and a half ago, while in Venice, I walked into an upper-level gallery at the Palazzo Grimani and spent a breathless hour looking at a survey of Frankenthaler’s work, including one of the paintings, “Open Wall,” that plays a key role in Nemerov’s biography. I was tired, my head overstuffed with art, and struggling to silence a witches’ chorus of cynicism and doubt: Does any of this matter? Does art change anything? Isn’t it all just solipsism and self-indulgence?

The crowds of Venice were down below, but Frankenthaler’s paintings seemed to bring the best of Venice, its light and water and sea air, into the gallery. After days of social tumult, throngs and bustle, I felt more happily alone with art than I had in a very long time. I left rejuvenated — and deeply embarrassed to have been so lucky, at that moment, to encounter her work. That embarrassment was an ethical feeling, an impulse to connect my current pleasure to some larger obligation to the world. In short, to pay it forward.

Nemerov is a teacher, and good teachers know how to structure the drama of learning, to create the conditions for epiphany.

“Sometimes I show my students a photograph of dead American soldiers on a beach in the South Pacific,” he says of a famous image by George Strock that ran in Life magazine in 1943. “The tide has gone over them at least once; there is this gravity to it. You can’t be an historian without this gravity. But then I show Fred Astaire jumping up in the air — it is a juxtaposition of lightness and darkness. I try to talk about the seriousness of that lightness.”

For a long time, art critics and historians have worked to recover the darker truths obfuscated by the glamour and mystique of America at the mid-century, including the world in which Frankenthaler built her career. Next up is redeeming the lightness from that darkness, without indulging the old myths or perpetuating the old inequities. Nemerov believes that is possible. He has written a book that shows us how it can be done.

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