Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York has two tough acts to follow. Not only must art historian Alexander Nemerov successfully evoke his talented, ambitious subject, he must do as good a job as Mary Gabriel, whose 2018 Ninth Street Women brought Frankenthaler, alongside four other female Abstract Expressionist painters, to dazzlingly full, complex life. Fierce Poise fails to rise to this level. Still, Nemerov is a beautiful writer, and his evocation of Frankenthaler’s groundbreaking artistic process (she invented Color Field painting) is a delight. Yet his structural conceit hobbles the book, and his paternalistic attitude toward Frankenthaler undermines both his gifts and hers.
Fierce Poise’s structural issue is a simple one. Each of its ten chapters centers on a single day in Frankenthaler’s life: the day she met her first husband, Robert Motherwell, or the day she painted her breakthrough work, “Mountains and Sea” (1952), for example. This formal decision provides immediacy, enabling Nemerov to write mainly in scene. However, it also causes him to write too quickly, prioritizing events over emotional and intellectual development. As a result, Frankenthaler’s inner life too often appears as backstory or, worse, as cultural context. For example, Nemerov characterizes “Mountains and Sea” as “recognizably Jewish” in its “specifically inward… freedom” — an idea, it turns out, traceable not to Frankenthaler but to her then-boyfriend, critic Clement Greenberg. Nemerov never describes Frankenthaler’s own feelings toward her religion; whether she herself understood “Mountains and Sea” as a Jewish painting, he neglects to say.
Nemerov’s disregard for Frankenthaler’s interiority may connect to his broader stance toward the book. In his introduction, he writes that Fierce Poise “is about the person Helen was when she was young. It is inspired by my young students… And writing it has made me think about who I was when I was young.” This admiring nostalgia suffuses the biography. It also necessarily positions Nemerov as an authority figure, a voice of late-career wisdom. When he praises Frankenthaler for her “adolescently profound” work or finds the “graffiti of a schoolgirl’s private confession” in her 1955 painting “Blue Territory,” he seems to be talking down.
Gender amplifies this effect. Nemerov is sometimes sharp on the constraints imposed on women of Frankenthaler’s generation, yet elsewhere seems blinkered at best. He compares Frankenthaler favorably to the painter and model Jane Wilson, calling Wilson a “housewife voluptuary” before complimenting Frankenthaler’s “evident dignity.” His gendered approval here is based on Frankenthaler’s behavior, not her talent. Elsewhere, he seems to combine the two by feminizing his descriptions of her art. Though he waffles over the common interpretation of her stain technique as a reference to menstruation, he consistently describes her paintings in language suited to a romantic heroine. Take “Jacob’s Ladder” (1957), which he calls “melting and vulnerable,” with paint that “soaks into the canvas, retiring in the very act of appearing.” Frankenthaler herself was neither shy nor publicly vulnerable, and I, personally, would describe “Jacob’s Ladder” as a thrashing, celebratory painting, not retiring in the slightest. Nemerov softens its edges, and Frankenthaler’s, too much.
Fierce Poise has pleasures to offer. Nemerov is excellent on Frankenthaler’s devotion to work, her socially taboo careerism, her quest for “an honest exploitation of accident, chance, surprise: ugly lines, weird unkempt impulses, their blotchy painterly equivalents.” But his Frankenthaler seems not unkempt in the slightest. Had he written a more unkempt portrait of her as a person, his book would be stronger by far.
Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York (Penguin Press, 2021), by Alexander Nemerov, debuts today on Bookshop.
“Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were…
In 1850, when Dr. Robert W. Gibbes commissioned J. T. Zealy to make daguerreotypes of persons held in slavery in and around Columbia, South Carolina, for Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz to use in support of his theory that African people were a separate species, daguerreotypes were at the height of fashion.
The show, which honors the 50th anniversary of an exhibition history once ignored, continues a series of projects documenting Wilmington’s contemporary art scene.
he ownership of images has a long and nuanced legal history, which has evolved dramatically in recent years as cultural standards and photographic technologies have rapidly advanced
Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor
Two K-12 art teachers will each receive a $1,000 cash gift and an additional $500 to put toward classroom art supplies. Nominations are due October 31.
As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum.
I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier.