Review: Vibrant new portrait of artist Helen Frankenthaler


“Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York,” by Alexander Nemerov (Penguin Press)

There are doorstop biographies, and then there are appreciations. Alexander Nemerov has taken the latter approach in “Fierce Poise,” his vibrant, sympathetic portrait of Helen Frankenthaler. It focuses on 11 consequential days in the 1950s, the decade when she came of age as one of the leading painters of her generation.

Nemerov, the son of the celebrated poet Howard Nemerov and nephew of photographer Diane Arbus, grew up in the same rarified world as Frankenthaler. He admired her art for years but didn’t feel prepared to write her biography until he got older (he’s 57) and gave himself permission to love her “pretty” art, pictures that portray “fleeting impressions” through “blots and swaths of bright color” poured and stained into canvas, “as surprising and glorious as life itself.”

“The prevailing ways of seeing art over the past 50 years have made it difficult to comprehend the strength and sober delight of her kind of painting,” he writes. “Our culture has become terribly skeptical of romantic art such as hers.”

It’s good he finally undertook the project because Frankenthaler, one of the five women artists profiled in Mary Gabriel’s highly regarded 2018 “Ninth Street Women,” is a fascinating subject. He touches on her privileged life growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; her life-changing encounter with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings; the stormy love affair with the influential, older art critic Clement Greenberg; a later marriage to fellow abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell; and the creation of her breakthrough painting, “Mountains and Sea,” in 1952.

An art historian at Stanford, Nemerov is a thoughtful and judicious writer. He does a good job of sorting through various criticisms leveled at Frankenthaler over the years, including that she was an opportunist, coasted by on family wealth, and was too elitist and apolitical.

Some readers may wish he had delved more deeply into the entire body of work — she died in 2011 at age 83 — and more fully addressed the bizarre criticism, scarcely rebutted here, that her signature stain technique was related to menstruation. Indeed, Joan Mitchell — another of the “Ninth Street Women” — called her “that Kotex painter.”

But brevity can be a virtue. In just over 200 pages, Nemerov takes us on a fast, exhilarating ride through the formative decade of her career, providing a lucid introduction to an artist we’re likely to hear more about in the near future. A year after Gabriel’s book came out, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, creators of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” announced they hoped to develop it for a new series.

Ann Levin worked for The Associated Press for 20 years, including as national news editor at AP headquarters in New York. Since 2009 she’s worked as a freelance writer and editor.

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