“I’m doing a book on Helen Frankenthaler,” Alexander Nemerov told me a few years ago, when we were at a symposium at the University of California, Davis: “About her work of the 1950s.” “Why just the 1950s?” I asked: “Helen was making strong work well into the 2000s.” “Those are the only works that speak to me.”
While I pitied Nemerov’s inability to see almost half a century of Frankenthaler’s work (born in 1928, she died in 2011), I understood his appetite for her paintings of the 1950s. She was notably strong and inventive, almost from the start, at a time when artists were expected to spend years maturing before their work was considered to be worthy of attention. Witness the exhibition “Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959,” organized by John Elderfield for Gagosian in 2013. The spectacular selection ranged from works made the year after she was graduated from Bennington College to those painted just before her first retrospective, organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, then a bastion of vanguardism, when Frankenthaler was a precocious thirty-one. (A decade later, the Museum of Modern Art’s 1970 retrospective of paintings by the thirty-three-year-old Frank Stella was considered scandalous.) “Painted on 21st Street” allowed us to watch the young painter rapidly finding her distinctive voice, first wrestling with her admiration for Joan Miró, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning—dealing with the influence of these chosen ancestors, sometimes all in the same painting—and still somehow ending up with Frankenthalers. We followed the evolution of her exuberant, seemingly unfettered soak-stain method, at times seduced by paintings notable for radiant color, at other times engaged by brooding, deliberately uningratiating canvases, always exhilarated by the energy and fearlessness of the work.
Nemerov is not alone in his interest in that early period of the artist’s history. The enthusiastic reception of Mary Gabriel’s 2017 overview of the 1950s New York art world, Ninth Street Women, in which Frankenthaler plays a leading role, attests to widespread fascination with her life and with her relationship to her peers and colleagues during this formative decade. There seems, too, to be a concerted effort, encouraged by the Frankenthaler Foundation, to position her as an Abstract Expressionist, a view that emphasizes her achievement during the 1950s but oddly downplays her importance in definitively challenging the gestural, contingent Ab Ex–derived approach to picture-making endemic in New York at the time, not to mention ignoring much of her later work.
Frankenthaler always acknowledged her debt to the previous generation, frequently saying that “having New York in the 1950s” was crucial to her development as a painter. Like the work of the Abstract Expressionists—many of whom she got to know through her early relationship with Clement Greenberg, their most articulate and perceptive champion—Frankenthaler’s early efforts were informed by surrealist theory and psychoanalytic thought, with an admixture of existential angst. Like her older colleagues, as well, she believed that the artist’s mission was to reveal the unseen, not to report on the visible, and that a painting was a manifestation of its maker’s most deeply held inchoate beliefs and emotions.
Frankenthaler always acknowledged her debt to the previous generation.
Frankenthaler’s repudiation of the mannerist version of gestural Abstract Expressionism rife among younger New York artists of the time—her uninhibited soak-stain method, her disembodied expanses of color, and her bold sense of scale—profoundly influenced her real contemporaries, later known as the Color Field painters: Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Friedel Dzubas, and Jules Olitski. Louis, after seeing Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea (1952), famously described her as “the bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” But although she exhibited with these friends and colleagues, unlike them, she never worked in series nor deduced her compositions from the shape and proportion of her canvases. Nor was she ever as “cool” and dispassionate as the Color Field painters. The passionate inwardness typical of Frankenthaler’s work throughout her long working life first declares itself in her untrammeled works of the 1950s, providing, it could be argued, reason enough to concentrate on this decade of her long working life. Nonetheless, I was perplexed by the narrowness of Nemerov’s focus.
Now, with the publication of his promised volume, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, I confess to being even more perplexed. The book is a kind of staccato biography. We learn a good deal about Frankenthaler’s aspirations, ambitions, insecurity, conflicts, joys, and relationships, both personal and professional. Far from being a continuous chronological narrative, Fierce Poise is divided into eleven chapters, each triggered by what Nemerov sees as a significant date in the years from 1950 to 1960, beginning with May 19, 1950, when Frankenthaler and her friend and roommate, Gaby Rodgers, created a minor sensation at the enormous Spring Fantasia, an artists’ benefit costume ball, and ending with January 26, 1960, the opening of her retrospective at the Jewish Museum. Other chapters are triggered by October 26, 1952, when Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea, and May 13, 1957, when, photographed by Gordon Parks, she appeared in a Life magazine article titled “Women Artists in Ascendance,” along with Nell Blaine, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Jane Wilson. (It’s worth noting that while Frankenthaler was twenty-eight when the spread appeared, the others were in their thirties.) The precise connotation of other dates is harder to pin down. Unless I missed something, August 29, 1959, for example, seems to refer to Frankenthaler’s entire summer stay in Falmouth, Massachusetts, with her husband of slightly more than a year, Robert Motherwell, and his small daughters from a previous marriage; to her relationship with the girls, generally; to the paintings she made that summer; and more.
Do we really need to know what Greenberg wrote in his journals about his dislike of Frankenthaler’s body, after she ended their relationship?
Nemerov has read a lot of letters, diaries, and interviews, mining, in particular, Frankenthaler’s correspondence with her close friend the writer Sonya Rudikoff; the diaries of Clement Greenberg, with whom the painter was involved before she married Motherwell; the journals of Hartigan, her friend and rival; and a well-known interview by the art historian Barbara Rose. He has spoken to many people who knew Frankenthaler (myself included), especially her nephew—the photographer Clifford Ross—and such informed sources as Jeannie Motherwell, the older of her stepdaughters. We are given a sampling of critical responses to Frankenthaler’s paintings when they were originally exhibited and occasional quotations from curators ranging from the poet and critic Frank O’Hara, a close friend and the author of the revelatory catalogue essay for the 1960 retrospective, to John Elderfield, also a friend and an extensive, illuminating commentator. Despite the syncopated pace of the individual chapters, we get a sense of the continuity of Frankenthaler’s life in the 1950s, with some backstory of her New York upbringing, before her return to the city after Bennington. Nemerov concentrates on her connection with Greenberg, her travels to look at art in Europe, her friendship with O’Hara, her sometimes warm, sometimes vexed relationships with other female artists, and her marriage to Motherwell. Some inclusions seem problematic. Do we really need to know what Greenberg, a brilliant critic but a matchless holder of grudges, who liked to see how cruel he could be to the people around him before they fought back, wrote in his journals about his dislike of Frankenthaler’s body, after she ended their relationship? There are ample excerpts from a spiteful and unperceptive review by an ARTnews critic whom Nemerov praises as “bold enough to name the childlike connotations of Helen’s art and fault her for it,” although it is far from clear why he sees as a problem what he calls Frankenthaler’s “commitment to a redemptively naïve pleasure,” manifest in “the boldness and excitement of her color.” The outcry the review provoked from Frankenthaler’s supporters may justify Nemerov’s attention to it, but it was hardly typical of the response to her work at the time. Such digressions notwithstanding, the flavor of the rapidly evolving New York vanguard art world of the period comes through as we follow the trajectory of Frankenthaler’s increasingly important place within it.
We also get a great deal of Nemerov’s response to Frankenthaler’s work, long passages of description and self-referential free association, noticeably low on formal analysis, that tell us more about the author than about the painter or the works under review. He chastises the hostile ARTnews critic for drawing “too neat a link between the painter and her paintings” and for “crudely” treating “the art as a direct revelation of the artist’s personality,” but he does much the same thing, finding remarkably specific images in Frankenthaler’s paintings and attaching allusive meanings to them, supposedly discovering clues to her state of mind or events in her life, as if her free-wheeling abstract compositions were all disguised, coded references to autobiography or hidden versions of figuration. Nemerov’s “decipherings” and interpretations often seemed based on Frankenthaler’s titles, as if he struggled to find imagery that justified the label. But her titles were attached after the fact, in response to what Frankenthaler was reminded of by the finished work, not the other way around. There’s no doubt that her paintings were provoked by her experiences and perceptions, and no doubt that associative configurations sometimes emerged on the canvas, in the course of working, and were often encouraged. Rarely, she deployed a deliberate, schematically indicated image as a starting point, later all but subsumed by painting events; even more rarely she stamped the painting with a handprint, as Pollock did, asserting her presence.
Nemerov’s concentration on the 1950s results in odd gaps and elisions.
But any allusions are always oblique and almost never consciously intended. Her acknowledging the suggestion that the three dark shapes at the side of Mother Goose Melody (1959) might refer to herself and her two sisters was a possibility, not an explication. Similarly, her much quoted statement that “the landscapes were in her arms” when she painted Mountains and Sea, having recently returned from painting watercolors on a trip to Nova Scotia, does not mean that she set out to paint an oversized landscape when she began that celebrated work. Frankenthaler’s “source” paintings—improvisations and commentaries on old and modern master works that she admired or that “puzzled” (a favorite word) her—obviously have a different relationship to specific imagery, but even in these, the finished painting could be inverted and key elements of the source could be eliminated, reversed, or otherwise transformed.
Nemerov’s concentration on the 1950s results in odd gaps and elisions, diminishing the importance of some of Frankenthaler’s enduring early connections. There’s no discussion of her relationship with Hans Hofmann because she spent only a few weeks at his Provincetown summer school, in 1950. Yet she and Motherwell spent every summer but one between 1961 and 1969 in Provincetown—years obviously outside the scope of Fierce Poise—and were good friends with Hofmann and his wife; Hofmann, in fact, found the couple’s first studios in the fishing town for them. For the same reason, Frankenthaler’s and Motherwell’s close friendship with David Smith and their responses to his devastating death in an automobile accident in 1965 do not figure in the book, nor do those heady years in the early 1960s when Jules Olitski taught at Bennington College, Anthony Caro was artist-in-residence, Kenneth Noland lived nearby, and Smith, Frankenthaler, and Motherwell, along with other members of the New York avant-garde, visited regularly, resulting in extraordinary cross-fertilization in the work of all these artists.
More troubling are minor lapses in accuracy. None of them is individually important, but cumulatively they raise questions about Nemerov’s approach to research. The glitches make me suspect that he relied on the recollections of his sources without checking or questioning them. He keeps referring to Frankenthaler’s black hair. (It was dark brown, both naturally and with assistance, over the nearly four decades I knew her.) Greenberg is said to have grown up in the Bronx. (He was born there but spent his early childhood in Norfolk, Virginia, and afterwards lived in Brooklyn.) Elsewhere Nemerov embarks on a peculiar discussion of a largely unrecognized younger Bennington alumna. The supposed rival, who, when asked about Frankenthaler, says “I thought I was a much better painter. I still do,” complains of being ignored by the older woman. That, at least, sounds right.
That Nemerov deeply admires and has even been moved by Frankenthaler’s paintings of the 1950s is evident. So why am I resistant to his discussions of her works? In the introduction to Fierce Poise, he tells us that when he first thought of writing about them, twenty years ago, “I loved her pictures and sensed a deep connection to them that I knew was personal.” Why? Because Nemerov’s father taught Frankenthaler at Bennington, where Nemerov grew up. The painter’s “presence must have remained, apart from her periodic visits to the place,” he writes, so, despite Nemerov’s having been born after she left the college and despite his having never met her, he feels “a proximity” that obliged him to refer to her as “Helen” throughout the book. To call her “Frankenthaler,” he claims, “would seem false.” To explain his conviction of intimacy with his subject, Nemerov writes, “Her world and mine were so close that I was not surprised, 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.” Why do I keep thinking of the song (written, no doubt significantly, the year before Frankenthaler was born) “I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales”?
1 Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, by Alexander Nemerov; Penguin Press, 288 pages, $28.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 8, on page 51
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