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.