‘Fierce Poise’ Review: A Splash of Helen Frankenthaler

The art historian Alexander Nemerov is a seductive writer. While his colleagues labor over bulky manuscripts weighed down with extensive footnotes, Mr. Nemerov, who teaches at Stanford, approaches his chosen subject, American art and culture from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, with an essayist’s craft (and maybe craftiness). He’s a great believer in the curated fragment, the revelatory glimpse. He likes to look closely at a few select objects (often photographs) and reveal their panoramic implications. Some of the books that he’s written over the past 15 or so years (“Wartime Kiss,” “Summoning Pearl Harbor,” “Icons of Grief”) amount to compact zeitgeist readings: “Wartime Kiss” is subtitled “Visions of the Moment in the 1940s.” Now, in a book about the painter Helen Frankenthaler, he’s at it again, zeroing in on what he describes as critical moments in her life and career during the 1950s, when she established herself as an artist. I’m sympathetic to what Mr. Nemerov is doing. Why can’t the part stand in for the whole? The danger is that we make too much of too little. The details may become portentous.

Mr. Nemerov begins in May 1950, when Helen Frankenthaler was only 21 and a recent graduate of Bennington, the progressive college in Vermont. We first see her with a friend at Spring Fantasia, an artists’ costume ball that for a number of years was a popular event among New York City’s downtown crowd. Save for a brief coda, Mr. Nemerov’s biographical study concludes 10 years later, in January 1960, with Frankenthaler receiving visitors at the opening of her first retrospective, mounted at New York’s Jewish Museum, which for a time was a major venue for shows of contemporary art by Jewish and non-Jewish artists alike. In between, Mr. Nemerov recounts the development of Frankenthaler’s signature way of making a painting, by pouring, dripping, and sometimes brushing thinned oil paint onto lengths of unprimed canvas placed on the studio floor to create pools and sprays of frequently full-strength color. He describes her encounters with older artists, including Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock, and friendships with her peers, especially Grace Hartigan. At the beginning of the decade there’s a complicated affair with the critic Clement Greenberg and by the end she’s married to the painter Robert Motherwell. The story of her wealthy and distinguished Upper East Side Jewish family is woven in, here and there. Frankenthaler was the youngest of three daughters; her father was a judge at the time of his death (Frankenthaler was 11); her mother, glamorous but troubled, committed suicide in 1954.

Actress Gaby Rodgers (left) and Helen Frankenthaler at the ‘Spring Fantasia’ in 1950.



Photo:

Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Fierce Poise

By Alexander Nemerov

Penguin Press, 269 pages, $28

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In recent years it seems to have become standard practice for biographers to insert themselves in the story. Mr. Nemerov is no exception. Do book editors push writers in this direction? Do they see it as a way of heating up potentially chilly subject matter? Mr. Nemerov may not have needed any persuading; he has often aimed to give his writing a strong personal slant—a bit of essayistic pizzazz. He’s not wrong to feel that his family background gives him a privileged view of the mid-20th-century cultural milieu, but I’m not sure that he knows what to do with the experiences he’s had. His father was the poet Howard Nemerov, his father’s sister the photographer Diane Arbus. When he wrote about them a few years ago—in the book “Silent Dialogues”—he confessed that he had no memories of Arbus, who died 50 years ago, when he was 8. Nevertheless, he seemed to assume that being her nephew—and knowing that his father had grave reservations about her work—gave his own writing an authoritative hum. In the introduction to his biography of Frankenthaler he makes a similar roundabout claim, explaining that his father was one of Frankenthaler’s teachers at Bennington in 1948-49, although, as he hastens to add, that was more than a decade before he was born. What some might regard as a non-connection positively vibrates for Mr. Nemerov, who observes that Frankenthaler’s “world and mine were so close that I was not surprised to discover, doing research for this book, that her first serious romantic partner, Clement Greenberg, attended a dinner party with my father in North Bennington the day after I was born.” I don’t see why this is significant.

Mr. Nemerov describes one of the stranger aspects of this biography—the decision to invariably refer to his subject by her first name—as “a token of the proximity I feel.” I have no problem with a biographer’s being on a first-name basis with his subject, at least some of the time. It may be a necessity when intimate matters are involved. But when Mr. Nemerov is writing about the painter he’s writing about Frankenthaler, not Helen, so the familiarity feels untoward. The whole question of proximity—of how close we are and what we can ever really know—becomes a problem. In a book this brief, some of the more personal material suggests an understanding of the dramatis personae that Mr. Nemerov hasn’t really earned. I’m not sure what he gains by telling us—this comes from Greenberg’s diaries—that the critic “disliked the rounded tips of [Frankenthaler’s] ears, the two or three coarse hairs on her cheeks, the bunions on her feet, the way her feet were set into her ankles.” Later, when Frankenthaler is attempting to make a home for Motherwell’s two daughters by a previous marriage, Mr. Nemerov informs us that the daughters “recognized that Helen’s maternal instincts generally ran cold.” This is meant to lead into a discussion of the way that the “formative experiences of childhood” helped to shape Frankenthaler’s own work. I worry that Mr. Nemerov is on the lookout for gotcha moments—in this case the childless woman who’s trying but somehow failing to be a good mother.

The immediacy of a child’s experience is among the themes that Mr. Nemerov embraces as he works to describe and define Frankenthaler’s achievement. She doesn’t make it easy. For Frankenthaler the confrontation with the canvas involved spontaneous discovery, a pictorial intuition she may have believed was so deep as to elude definition. Her splashes, flashes, and expanses of color are meant as talismans. Meaning is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I can’t see that Mr. Nemerov sheds much light on the work of this painter who had little or no interest in preparatory processes or definable structures and symbols. The best he can offer are on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand formulations. One painting with “bursts [that] resemble childlike splotches . . . is actually a deeply considered picture.” Another is “arrestingly intimate and grandly declarative,” with a passage suggesting “the graffiti of a schoolgirl’s private confession” and also conveying “a bold strapping air of titanic achievement.” Mr. Nemerov writes that “Helen knew how to take a picture right up to the edge of legibility, to leave it just on the verge of literalism and then how to draw it back, letting the emblems retreat into their groves, away from meaning, away from philosophy, away from all explanation, until we have a subtle feeling of experience, hers and—ultimately—ours as we encounter this never-ending openness.” He labors mightily to demonstrate that these paintings are something more than Rorschach tests. “Every mark on the surface,” he writes, was “deeply personal and vastly public at the same time.”

“Vastly public” is a strange turn of phrase, but also a revealing one coming from Mr. Nemerov, who is fascinated by the ambience and atmospherics of particular times and places. The drama of mid-20th-century New York is very much a part of what he wants to explore in this biography, which is subtitled “Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York.” Two key moments in Mr. Nemerov’s book are shaped by Life magazine photographs, which he regards as having significant evidentiary value. The first is of Frankenthaler and a friend at that Spring Fantasia artists’ ball in 1950, where Frankenthaler came in a costume modeled on Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror,” a painting in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The second is one of a series of photographs that Gordon Parks made to illustrate the 1957 article “Women Artists in Ascendance,” which featured Frankenthaler and some of her friends, among them Hartigan and Joan Mitchell. There is no doubt that Life was taking an interest in the downtown New York art world in the years after World War II. The question is what we are to make of this mainstreaming of the avant-garde, a process that had begun a hundred years earlier, when the growth of literacy and the explosion of urban life made it possible for the work of creative spirits to reach larger and larger audiences.

“Of course, these photographs were pieces of marketing,” Mr. Nemerov writes of the 1957 photo shoot. “Life’s adoration was clear enough: Helen is young, attractive, going places, and in the business of selling—not the clothes she wears but the art she makes.” There is truth to this, but to devote three or four pages to a Life magazine article in a book of barely 200 pages leaves me wondering if Mr. Nemerov is writing about Helen Frankenthaler or 1950s New York, about the evolution of abstract painting or the place of abstract painting in popular culture. He would probably say that he’s doing a bit of both. Maybe so. I think his focus wobbles. He sets out to write the biography of an artist and ends up with something more like the portrait of a careerist. He risks confusing painting culture with pop culture. That would be a grave misunderstanding of Frankenthaler’s work—and her world. In his introduction, Mr. Nemerov argues that Frankenthaler was out of step with what he describes as “the prevailing ways of seeing art over the past fifty years,” when “our culture has become terribly skeptical of romantic art such as hers.” What culture is he talking about? There has been no time in the past 60 years when Frankenthaler hasn’t been taken seriously by many discriminating artists and museumgoers.

Mr. Nemerov relates his growing enthusiasm for Frankenthaler’s work to his discovery that “joy was itself serious, that prettiness had its edges, and that guilt, anger, and indignation were not the only games in town.” He observes that having children of his own made him realize “for the first time that life is precious.” Doesn’t he realize that even as he prepares to salute Frankenthaler as a painter he’s turning her into a feminine cliché? Reading this book, I found myself wondering whether Mr. Nemerov would be on a first-name basis with his subject if the artist were a man. (In his recent book about the photographer Lewis Hine he refers to him as “Hine.”) It seems that several generations after Frankenthaler and some of her friends, including Hartigan and Mitchell, fought for acceptance in a world dominated by men they’re still being ghettoized—now as separate but equal, which isn’t equal at all. A solid biography of Mitchell, published a decade ago, carried the mortifying subtitle “Lady Painter.” A more recent book, the widely acclaimed “Ninth Street Women”—featuring Frankenthaler, Mitchell, Hartigan, Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning—forces artists of significantly different gifts, sensibilities and ambitions into a one-size-fits-all category. I wonder how Frankenthaler would have reacted to the title of Mr. Nemerov’s book: “Fierce Poise.” What is the point of this jazzed-up finishing-school phrase? When did anybody refer to a man’s poise, fierce or otherwise?

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