Nemerov, the chair of the art and art history department at Stanford University, confines himself to the period of Frankenthaler’s youth. His book opens in 1950 with a costume party where Frankenthaler, then unknown in the art world, is dressed as Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, and ends with her 1960 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, when she was thirty-one years old. This was a dazzlingly productive era with obvious appeal for the scholar and reader. It was the decade in which Frankenthaler pioneered a daring and influential process of 'soaking' canvases with diluted paint poured directly from a can, combining these pools of color with loose drawings that remained tethered to reality even as they eschewed representation ... His book is informative and erudite, but his goal is not so much to communicate the facts of Frankenthaler’s life as to persuade the reader of her spiritual greatness ... As in his recent book on the poet Howard Nemerov (his father) and the photographer Diane Arbus (his aunt), his point of view is personal ... He describes her work as intimate and eternal, offering no term that might mediate between the poles of inscrutable interiority and mystical cosmos. He treats the encounter between painting and viewer as something sacred, and the plane on which so much of mundane human life actually transpires doesn’t hold his interest—the plane of the prosaic, the plane of compromise and commerce, the plane of the perpetual datejust ... In the end, Fierce Poise is less a biography than a work of ekphrasis that relies on an idealized vessel. It is criticism as communion.
Fierce Poise focuses on the artist in an unconventional way: It covers the years 1950-60 in 11 chapters, each jumping off a specific date during one of those years. The resulting book is lively but short, skimming the surface of Frankenthaler’s work ... The conceit is that the early days capture the essence of her work, but the constraint only shortchanges her contested legacy by eliding the rest of her long career ... The book ends with a Coda the reader a ghostly witness to Frankenthaler’s coming into her celebrity in 1969 with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Nemerov describes the artist’s 'radiance' in this moment, but without context the conclusion rings a bit hollow. We are missing what it was truly like for Frankenthaler to be 'the artist alone before her picture,' standing in front of those epic canvases, fatigued but thrilled, looking in. Perhaps a sequel is in order.
Alexander Nemerov never pretends he’s an objective observer in his masterful new biography ... He seems to take pleasure in throwing caution to the wind. His narrative combines an intense infatuation for his subject with his own autobiographical confessions, and the result is a dazzling collage of impressions and interpretations that leaves the reader spellbound ... Nemerov is not hampered by a desire to remain impartial, and that is his strength. He has a unique sensibility that allows him to imaginatively show us not only the person Helen might have been but also who he is or was, and what they both might become together. It is their collision, even with its blind spots, that takes center stage here, setting off brilliant sparks of perception and recognition.
This book serves as a corrective to those dismissals. It’s part of an insistence by many of today’s art historians that attention must be paid to female artists and artists of color who have been denied respect and recognition for their achievements. The book also greatly enriches our knowledge of a critically important decade in American art.
In recent years it seems to have become standard practice for biographers to insert themselves in the story. Mr. Nemerov is no exception. Do book editors push writers in this direction? Do they see it as a way of heating up potentially chilly subject matter? Mr. Nemerov may not have needed any persuading; he has often aimed to give his writing a strong personal slant—a bit of essayistic pizzazz. He’s not wrong to feel that his family background gives him a privileged view of the mid-20th-century cultural milieu, but I’m not sure that he knows what to do with the experiences he’s had ... The whole question of proximity—of how close we are and what we can ever really know—becomes a problem. In a book this brief, some of the more personal material suggests an understanding of the dramatis personae that Mr. Nemerov hasn’t really earned ... I can’t see that Mr. Nemerov sheds much light on the work of this painter who had little or no interest in preparatory processes or definable structures and symbols. The best he can offer are on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand formulations ... Doesn’t he realize that even as he prepares to salute Frankenthaler as a painter he’s turning her into a feminine cliché? Reading this book, I found myself wondering whether Mr. Nemerov would be on a first-name basis with his subject if the artist were a man.
... sharp and vibrant ... offers a distinctive portrait of the sustained challenges of a woman with considerable advantages ... Nemerov seizes upon Frankenthaler’s ability to draw from private experience to articulate public feelings that create a more expansive and universal emotion rather than a personal narrative ... What’s curious is that Gordon Parks, the photographer, is the only person of color mentioned in this book. His struggle as well as his vivid use of color photography to convey life and emotion is less abstract but no less pure or potent than Frankenthaler’s painting. Here were two radically different people who knew how to best package art and emotion. It’s an overlap that a longer book could explore at greater length and marks a rare moment where I was disappointed by Nemerov’s disciplined and narrow focus ... Keeping the biography tightly drawn to the 1950s gives Nemerov the space to speak at length about her work as well as the theory and motivation behind it ... This slim biography touches upon considerable facets of history, art, and society in such a way that leaves you eager to read further and return to museum halls. It’s also a clear-eyed assessment. Based on a thumbnail biographical sketch, Frankenthaler possesses the potential of an Edith Wharton heroine. Yet Nemerov doesn’t slide into an easy narrative about an orphaned rich girl, striving to be an artist. Frankenthaler’s far too savvy and complicated for that. At the time of this biography’s publication, after years of waxing and waning interest in her work, the price for Frankenthaler’s work is rising as her auction sales climb dramatically. Yet, her life and legacy stands as a lesson that success, like fashion, comes and goes. What matters is the devotion you bring to your passion and your willingness to explore it.
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 ... 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 ... Nemerov has read a lot of letters, diaries, and interviews, mining, in particular, Frankenthaler’s correspondence with her close friend the writer Sonya Rudikoff ... 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? ... 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 ... Nemerov’s concentration on the 1950s results in odd gaps and elisions, diminishing the importance of some of Frankenthaler’s enduring early connections ... 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 ... 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? ... 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'?
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 ... 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 ... Nemerov’s disregard for Frankenthaler’s interiority may connect to his broader stance toward the book ... Gender amplifies this effect. Nemerov is sometimes sharp on the constraints imposed on women of Frankenthaler’s generation, yet elsewhere seems blinkered at best ... Fierce Poise has pleasures to offer. Nemerov is excellent on Frankenthaler’s devotion to work, her socially taboo careerism ... 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.
[A] vibrant, sympathetic portrait ... It's good he finally undertook the project because Frankenthaler, one of the five women artists profiled in Mary Gabriel's highly regarded 2018 Ninth Street Women is a fascinating subject ... Nemerov is a thoughtful and judicious writer. He does a good job of sorting through various criticisms leveled at Frankenthaler over the years ... But brevity can be a virtue. In just over 200 pages, Nemerov takes us on a fast, exhilarating ride through the formative decade of her career, providing a lucid introduction to an artist we're likely to hear more about in the near future.
While some may disagree with the author’s assumption about audience appreciation of Frankenthaler’s oeuvre, this book will appeal to those interested in the developmental years of a 1950s artist, and her creative process.
Art historian Nemerov chose not to write a full biography of abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler, a student of his father’s at Bennington College, but rather to follow her footsteps as she created her uniquely fluid, liberated, personal, and animated visual language and techniques and attained prominence in her twenties ... Pairing vivid anecdotal biography with energetic descriptive analysis, the author recalibrates our perception of Frankenthaler’s undulating and entrancing canvases, on which she channeled in-the-moment feelings and celebrated the 'beauty and power and glory' of life. With reverence and irreverent wit, nimble narration, pertinent art history, and a vibrant cast of characters, Nemerov chronicles the first round in Frankenthaler’s extraordinary artistic adventure.