Elegant Stains

“She had money, she had means, and she knew how to get ahead,” Alexander Nemerov says straight out in the introduction to his brisk, aptly elegant Helen Frankenthaler biography. And there is more than a shade of defensiveness in his account of how he came to write Fierce Poise. He never met Frankenthaler, he admits, although he easily could have. His father, the poet Howard Nemerov, was Frankenthaler’s English teacher at Bennington. Clement Greenberg (Frankenthaler’s first significant romantic partner) and Nemerov père had dinner together the night after Alexander was born. Once the young man became an art historian—decades later, Nemerov fils is now at Stanford—occasions presented themselves. But in his blinkered youth, when he was, by his current lights, narrowly committed to politically engaged artists, he had no use for Frankenthaler. He still recalls that she condemned Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano during the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s, a time when Frankenthaler, as a member of the National Endowment for the Arts advisory council, called for “more connoisseurs of culture.” Yet he uses her first name throughout, to affirm the intimacy he has come to feel.

What changed? He grew up, he says, had kids, started teaching the history of art from the Renaissance forward. In a word, he found beauty. “My feelings for Helen’s kind of grace were waiting for the moment when I could discover that joy is itself serious,” he writes, and for the realization “that guilt, anger, and indignation were not the only games in town.” Are guilt and anger, and the social concerns that arouse them, really games? Never mind. The book Nemerov has produced, neither hagiography nor takedown, is better for his ambivalence.

Its organization is simplicity itself: a chapter for each year from 1950 through 1960, the artist’s key decade of youth, experiment, agitation, triumph. Nemerov does dip back into Frankenthaler’s privileged if sorrow-darkened childhood. Her beloved father, a New York State Supreme Court justice, died when she was eleven, in 1939. Her glamorous mother was cold and imperious. A string of tony private schools—Horace Mann, Brearley, and Dalton (where she was taught by Rufino Tamayo)—led her to Bennington; Paul Feeley was her instructor there. A brief stint of graduate work in art history followed, with Meyer Schapiro, at Columbia. (“Helen was unimpressed,” Nemerov explains. “She did not need credentials.”)

cover of Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov

Alexander Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, New York, Penguin Press, 2021; 288 pages, $28 hardcover.

But the story proper begins a year after Frankenthaler’s college graduation. Invited to organize a show in Manhattan of work by recent graduates, she cold-called Greenberg. “Oh, I love Bennington!” he told her. “I love Bennington girls.” Soon they were dating; she was 21, he, twenty years older. Unsurprisingly, her relationship with the notoriously mercurial critic was rocky, if greatly beneficial to her career. And instructive: early on, when they went to galleries, they each graded the works on view and compared notes. Greenberg came to find her “coarse,” and not up to the intellectual standards of such Partisan Review comrades as Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, and Saul Bellow. The dismay was soon reciprocated.

Like her other relationships, Frankenthaler’s liaison with Greenberg was grounded in dynamics that all concerned understood as distinctly Freudian. Greenberg would not be her last father figure. Her precipitous 1958 marriage to Robert Motherwell, himself a wealthy artist with a troubled family, and another older and more established figure in the art world, also foundered. Nemerov more than once refers to a fateful childhood bathroom scene, in which Frankenthaler watched, enchanted, as the bloodred nail polish she dropped into a water-filled sink swirled and spread, leaving stains on the porcelain as the sink drained. Her mother’s death, by suicide following a protracted illness, came when Frankenthaler was 25. A psychoanalyst was on hand at every juncture.

Her interest in analysis did not extend to world politics. Leading with an account of an Artists Equity benefit ball Frankenthaler attended in 1950, Nemerov allows that equity, whether personal or social, was perhaps not her guiding principle. He returns to the theme in describing her 1953 trip to Franco’s Spain, newly open to tourists. While she was there, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried and executed; Stalin died. Frankenthaler noted none of this in her letters; writes Nemerov, she had “more important things on her mind”—Rubens at the Prado, for instance. It’s not clear why one interest excludes the other. But, he says, she put her time in the Prado to good use.

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler: Jacob’s Ladder, 1975.

Nemerov does full justice to the artistic result. Concentrating on the early years allows him to show Frankenthaler’s work unfolding, and he attends closely to spunky early paintings, with their bumptious forms and gauche reds and browns. He does not, as he accuses some critics of doing, turn her fierce tornadoes to zephyrs. But Nemerov is especially good on the undeniably graceful and gorgeous—and paradigm-shifting—Mountains and Sea of 1952, which arose, by Frankenthaler’s own account, from a combination of laziness and impatience. Faced with a big (roughly 7-by-10-foot) unprimed canvas, and spurred by having recently seen Pollock’s new black paintings, she knelt, drew some charcoal lines, then laid on some turpentine-thinned colors, and watched as they spread and pooled. Three hours later she was done. Nemerov, using a pair of wonderful phrases, calls it “a venture in speculative freedom” and “palpably a lifting painting.” Of course it was more deliberate, regulated, and fussed over than it looks. Beauty is work. And grand as the gesture was, in size and ambition, Pollock’s largest new paintings, to which she had been paying close attention, were bigger, his drama deeper. But that wasn’t what Frankenthaler was after. For her, Nemerov says, “anguish was a cliché.” Her goal was making paintings that were metaphorically as well as physically expansive, spreading. Venus and the Mirror (1956), Nemerov writes, has “the unlikely stuff of an ongoing dream,” making it “a work that, goddess-like, does not grow old because it is, though complete, never finished.”

Pouring paint the way Frankenthaler did is an act—a full-throated announcement—of confidence. It is also a statement of material comfort. Using oils (even if thinned) on canvas as if they were watercolor on paper is risky; nothing can be walked back. If women are to exercise grace and delicacy, Frankenthaler is their mentor, but in her enactment of ease, she also offers an image of power. Not that she was much interested in representing women’s strength as such. In the middle of the 1950s, she read Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex and found “a lot of French crap in it,” and not much new. Nemerov suggests that “Helen felt her art drew specifically on a woman’s experience and that it could be great for that reason,” and further, “at every point, not just at the origin, each of Helen’s stain paintings is intensely private, intensely bodily, in a specifically feminine way.” But he doesn’t give much evidence that she would have agreed.

On the other hand, she did not spurn fame or influence. She lent herself eagerly to coverage in Life, Time, and Esquire in the later ’50s, drawing the ire of Joan Mitchell and Barnett Newman, among others. Her December 1959 solo exhibition at the Jewish Museum rounds out this decade-long portrait.

In a post-’50s coda, Nemerov brings Warhol on stage, along with Roy Lichtenstein, John Cage, and the psychedelic painter Paul Jenkins, a Frankenthaler friend. It’s a selective list—Johns and Rauschenberg aren’t on it, nor Ellsworth Kelly or Ad Reinhardt, all active in the period. In Nemerov’s account, the 1950s had been a decade of bated breath, and Frankenthaler’s place in it was, and remains, hard to define—she was at once belated and ahead of her time. Unlike Mary Gabriel in her 2017 Ninth Street Women, Nemerov doesn’t really contextualize Frankenthaler among other women painters of her generation (nor men either, apart from Pollock), even those she was closest with, such as Grace Hartigan. Nor does the author offer much on her legacy; there is no mention, for instance, of the Rose Art Museum exhibition “Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler,” organized by art historian Katy Siegel in 2015, the same year she edited the multiauthor volume The heroine Paint: After Helen Frankenthaler. Framing his subject tightly, Nemerov instead presents a woman who was, at her best, a remarkable painter, but not a terribly admirable person.

Why, then, a story—however truncated—of her life? In the 2010 essay “The Missing Future: MoMA and Modern Women,” Griselda Pollock writes that biography entered art history with abstraction, as a substitute for nameable content. Of course, that’s not quite right—biographies of artists go back to Vasari—but she’s got a point. Life narratives have indeed become a modernist mainstay: witness, for instance, such doorstops as Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 1989 life of Pollock or Mark Stevens’s 2004 tome on de Kooning. Fierce Poise invites comparison too with Benjamin Moser’s recent monumental biography of Susan Sontag, who was five years younger than Frankenthaler but, wildly precocious, not much behind her in encountering the world of literary, argumentative New York intellectuals, especially those around Partisan Review. The difference could hardly be starker: Sontag’s bracing (if changeable) views of the close interrelationships among art, ideology, and politics could define Frankenthaler by opposition. Patricia Albers’s drink-by-drink portrayal of Joan Mitchell’s messy life is another pertinent contrast; while Mitchell was one of the few women artists of her generation who grew up with the kind of wealth and sophistication Frankenthaler inherited, their dispositions (and their work) could hardly have been more different. Indeed, Nemerov says Mitchell “despised” Frankenthaler, calling her “that Kotex painter.”

Often, in long biographies, evidence emerges of the author’s disappointment in his or her subject, and even in this fairly short one the effort to maintain enthusiasm occasionally shows. So do Nemerov’s hints of hesitancy about the undertaking. “The art of the women among the abstractionists tended to be seen only as a personal statement,” he complains, and reports that Frankenthaler and David Smith shared the belief that “the aim of all great work was to free itself of the artist’s personality.” But in celebrating Mountains and Sea, Nemerov argues convincingly that everything matters: the experiences of the artist’s entire life and those of the moment; gestural habit; specific intentions; chance outcomes. Finally, he writes, this exhilarating painting creates its own world, “complete unto itself as an autonomous kingdom.” It is a good description of this book’s achievement as well.

A new biography examines the decade in which Helen Frankenthaler helped pioneer Post-Painterly Abstraction.Read MoreArt in America, Reviews, Alexander Nemerov, color-field, Helen FrankenthalerARTnews.comRead More

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