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. 

The cover of Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York (Penguin Press, 2021), by Alexander Nemerov (image courtesy the publisher)

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. 

Helen Frankenthaler, “Jacob’s Ladder” (1957) (image courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, licensed by SCALA Art Resource, NY; © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

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.

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Lily Meyer

Lily Meyer is a writer, critic, and translator from Washington, DC. Her work appears in the Atlantic, NPR Books, Public Books, the Sewanee Review, and more, and her translation of Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s...