Biographies of artists tend to be less interesting than the work itself, where the whole of an artist’s life—dreams, memories, experiences—reside for as long as the work endures. Biographies of artists written by academics tend to be the least interesting of all; they’re too critical, too cold-blooded. Typically, I wouldn’t bother to read one if it was given to me as a brand-new hardcover. But something about Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York caught me by surprise. It could have been the author, Alexander Nemerov, whose father had once written of "the clean war, the war in the air" is in one of more than a dozen volumes of poetry, and who flew the Bristol Beaufighter in combat during World War II. It might have been the cover art, a photograph of young Helen Frankenthaler seated on a blue and white canvas in her New York City studio, she's surrounded by colorful abstracts hanging on the walls to either side of her, as she stares into the camera. Whatever it was that got me to crack open the book, it was Nemerov who kept me turning the pages. “I had to learn how to do a storytelling book here compared to academic writing, which is argument-based,” the author told me from his home in California, where he teaches courses in art history at Stanford University. "This is breezier and freer, and I enjoyed trying to generate a narrative that propels the story."
It’s all here and in less than 300 pages. The sights and sounds of postwar New York City, full of energy and ambition. The first encounter with Jackson Pollock. The intensity and talent that boosted Frankenthaler to bigger success than many of her contemporaries, the established male stars of America’s innovation in art, abstract expressionism. And there’s plenty of romance, too, including with the much older Clement Greenberg and, at the time, more accomplished Robert Motherwell. Nemerov disputes the cynical opinion that Frankenthaler allied herself with Greenberg and Motherwell to solidify her place in the art world. That view is too simplistic, he says. “She knew it was important to create these strategic alliances, but that was not the intent of the relationships.” I tend to agree. One look at the photograph of Frankenthaler and Motherwell on their wedding day—her forearm resting on his shoulder as she stares into his eyes—is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Fierce Poise is a great trip through the iconic art world of 1950's New York and a vivid glimpse of one of the era's greatest painters. What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with the author.
You refer to Frankenthaler as 'Helen' in the book, which I appreciated, by the way. What about Helen surprised you?
It is a very logical question, but in a complicated way, maybe nothing really surprised me. I did not know much about her when I started, but the impetus for the book was very personal in the sense that she and I would have had something to say to one another, and that is a very complicated thing because she is someone I never met and never will meet. There is a shared sensibility between us. At the same time, everything I found out was a surprise, technically, because I did not know anything about Helen Frankenthaler before beginning my research for this book, but the feeling of being drawn to her art was something like an intuition, small or panoramic, that proved to be accurate to my fascination with her.
She was a leading painter in the 1950's post-World War II art scene in New York, and yet she called herself a 'square' – why did she describe herself that way?
She said that in the 1980’s while I was in grad school at Yale. Helen was a square at that time – it was the time of postmodernism and the reigning attitudes of skepticism and suspicion and even contempt of art as a form of privilege. Helen's world in the 1950s was one in which art was a religious pursuit—when an artist was meant to deliver us into a revelatory experience. That was all old by then. When Helen was saying 'square,' she was not backing down from the belief that art has the power to change our lives. As a teacher, I continue to emphasize that point to my students and see how they respond to it, painting after painting, the ways that art pierces us and makes us vulnerable to new experiences. Postmodernism notwithstanding, the evidence of my teaching shows that this way of thinking about art is alive and well, even if it's not out there in the mainstream or if it's not deemed acceptable. Art still has an ethical pull on us, as it did on Helen.
You write that Helen traveled to Spain in the early 1950s, shortly after Dictator Francisco Franco began promoting American tourism in that country, and she basically had nothing to say about the political situation. I gather she was not interested in politics, am I right?
Helen was not a political person. In the book, I talk about her best friend in many respects, Sonia Rudikoff, who was much more knowledgeable about politics, and there was quite a contrast between them in that regard, evidenced in their correspondence. Helen noticed the Rosenberg's were on trial—how could she not—but the electoral politics did not consume her in the same way as Sonia. These two even had an argument in their 20's, where Sonia said the primary criterion in looking at art is intellectual and Helen said that's not the case. The primary criterion, according to Helen, is does it knock you out, does it blow you away. "Does it deliver a charge," is how she phrased it. The piecing it together or analyzing it may come later, but it's not the ultimate judgment of the work. Perhaps that gives some insight into her priorities.
You're not a painter, but you write convincingly about what it's like to paint. How did you gain the insight into the process of painting?
Well, it is a compliment that you did not find the paintings lost their power by virtue of being put into words. Art history is putting into words that which we see. It's that, or it's nothing. There is a lot at stake in being able to describe a work of art, and so I try to write with a light touch and to inhabit the artist's fantasy instead of being a cold academic off to the side trying to analyze or critique it. Writing about art should ideally be a form of art itself.
And for Helen, that meant immersing myself in the whole messy world of rivalry, ego, jealousy. Her ambition and the intensity with which she pursued it is important to describe even though it can get a little bloodless in the belated telling of art history. There's an anecdote in the book that relates a time when Helen considered giving up being a full-time painter and taking a position at LIFE magazine, relegating her painting to off-hours, but there was so much invested in her art by that point that—she was 23—that she could not leave it behind. Helen painted "Mountains and Sea" that same month, which is now regarded as one of her greatest works.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with ‘the rule of 10’, are you?
Essentially, the ‘rule of 10’ holds that most artists who are accomplished—very accomplished, usually—must suffer a great loss by the age of 10, and Helen lost her father at 11, so...
I have never heard that, but I, of course, know that beauty comes out of darkness. Helen had grit even though she lived in a more serene environment, especially compared to Ruth Ann Fredenthal. Helen's upbringing in a serene environment gave her a lot of aristocratic confidence. Even though her life story lacked the grit and hardship of friend Grace Hartigan, there is Macbeth and Midsummer Night’s Dream in Helen’s painting—she felt a Shakespearean sense of her own work and struggle. There is nothing that predicts whether someone will become an accomplished artist.
But the wounds we suffer make us greater than we could have been otherwise. Helen's paintings were her defeat of the darkness, though, in a complicated way, she was choosing light and levity. Light is as serious as anything in our lives. Sometimes when I teach, I show my students the "three Americans" magazine piece from LIFE. For the first half of America’s involvement in World War II, there was censorship of all pictures of casualties. 1943 was an about-face, the first time in almost two years that American civilians got to see images of dead American servicemen. People needed to know why they were rationing and why they were going to the factories and sacrificing. It was about gravity. People need to know the costs. Helen was one of the greatest at creating the “life as lived” moments in painting, transmitting without apology or fear what it is like to live life so that we can experience for ourselves what is available to us but so often missed – the power of lightness.
War brings out the contrast. I think James Jones in From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line was able to combine ruminations on aesthetic life with combat scenes. Of both, The Thin Red Line is the movie to see, and I show a clip to my students, just setting the whole tone of the course when Private Bell asks, "who lit this flame in us?"
What would you like people to know about this book to entice them to read it?
This is a book about being in your twenties, which is a time when we experience the world incredibly intensely, partly because we are so confused. We are so much more emotionally and sensually involved with existence, even though we know so little about it. Helen got all that down as she lived it. She was the Shakespeare of the 1950s for what it was like to be in your twenties at that time. Nobody else did. All the clumsiness and awkwardness and emotionally disturbing, exhilarating things—she portrayed them. Writing in my fifties, it was a chance for me to think back retrospectively on my own life in the 1980s and celebrate who I was in my twenties. Helen's work helped me, and I imagine it could help other readers.
I’ll add that any aspiring artist should read this book, particularly in their twenties. But even me—old and grizzled—was still inspired.
I appreciate that sentiment. When we’re young, it’s important we feel superior to everything because the world can be scornful and mean, but I became less cynical with age. It is counterintuitive to open yourself up—it’s also a more painterly way of being.
David E. Richardson is an artist based in Arlington, Virginia.