‘Fierce Poise’ illuminates the career of an overlooked abstract expressionist

Electrified by Jackson Pollock’s work, painter Helen Frankenthaler blazed her own path and went toe-to-toe with the male artists of the New York School. 

Penguin Random House
“Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York” by Alexander Nemerov, Penguin Press, 288 pp.

American painter Helen Frankenthaler began her career in the rough-and-tumble male art world that boasted the likes of Jackson Pollock, the maestro of the famous drip paintings. New York had overtaken Paris as the center of the artistic universe, and she was determined to be right in the middle of it. A new biography, “Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York” by Alexander Nemerov, gives the inside story of those heady years.

Frankenthaler came onto the scene as part of a second generation of American abstract expressionists who had rejected traditional European painting styles and techniques along with the more recent developments of cubism and surrealism. It’s difficult to overstate the virulence of the factions that lined up on both sides of the Atlantic, with Americans muscling aside Europeans for art-world dominance. 

Frankenthaler was born in 1928 into a wealthy and cultured Jewish family on New York’s Upper East Side. Her father was a New York state Supreme Court judge, and her mother’s family had emigrated from Germany. Because of her privileged background, Frankenthaler never faced the poverty and struggle that the older generation of abstract expressionists endured. This, combined with a five-year romantic liaison with one of the most important art critics of the time, Clement Greenberg, made fellow artists envious and other critics cynical about her achievements.

It was with Greenberg in 1951 that Frankenthaler first encountered Pollock, who hurled paint from cans, dripped it from sticks, and squirted it with turkey-basters onto a huge canvas on the floor. Greenberg had anointed Pollock the next big thing, and had taken Frankenthaler to his studio. She later recalled being “overwhelmed” at the new possibilities it opened for her art. It was like discovering a new continent, she said, adding, “I wanted to live in this land, and I had to live there but I just didn’t know the language.”

Soon, while still in her early 20s, she took the plunge, forsaking her easel and carefully designed, quasi-cubist compositions. She laid a 7-by-10-foot sheet of unprimed canvas on her studio floor, sketched a few charcoal squiggles, and then poured paint, thinned with turpentine, on the fabric. The result, “Mountains and Sea” (1952), was her breakthrough. Without a base coat, the spilled pools of paint soaked into the cotton duck, creating diaphanous, haloed images that evoked landscapes. 

She soon became celebrated for lyrical, atmospheric paintings that exploited happenstance and improvisation, guided by her skill and imagination. The signature style she invented became known as stain painting (later called color-field painting).

When Frankenthaler married artist Robert Motherwell in 1958, they were dubbed the “golden couple” of the art world. As she refined her style, Frankenthaler grew her reputation. In contrast to her male peers, she cultivated a more ethereal style, maintaining, “The light touch is often the strongest gesture of all.” 

The artist was a tough advocate for herself and her legacy in the male-dominated art world. As Nemerov writes, Frankenthaler “wanted to make sure she became well-known, even famous, certainly in her lifetime.” She disliked being called a “woman painter,” for Nemerov notes, “She assumed that it was her perfect right to claim a place among the formidable thicket of accomplished male artists. Talent was the thing: she had it, they had it, and that made them equals.”

The biography concludes in 1960, as pop art and minimalism pushed abstract expressionism into the history books. During her 60-year career, Frankenthaler continued to make stain paintings, but her reputation declined. Her work was dismissed as too soft, too feminine, too pretty. Cultural arbiters were skeptical of romantic art, and Frankenthaler’s luminous abstractions, the author writes, “were increasingly met with scorn.” By the 1980s, critics favored “an art of disquiet and challenge, of abrupt and shocking outcry,” according to Nemerov.

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.

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