Elena Bowes talked to Alexander Nemerov, author of Fierce Poise, an exciting ride through the 1950s New York art scene, as well as a fascinating portrait of the maverick abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler.
Can you tell us about your thinking in your chapter choice? Eleven chapters starting in 1950, ending in 1960, each with a specific date… It’s interesting that you focused on a pivotal ten years versus looking at Helen’s whole life – would you recommend this approach for other biographers?
I never envisioned writing a book about someone from their birth to their death. I think it’s hard to sustain narrative urgency and tension in a book of that length.
But then even more specifically, to focus on individual days, I like that. It creates the condensation of time and narrative, a lot has to happen in a very short period of time for the reader. The narrative story moves fast.
What’s left out… is fine with me – I’ve never anointed myself an expert or encyclopedic novelist in the minutiae of a person’s life. I’m more interested, in this case, in the incredible intensity of one person with this ambition, this talent in New York at that time and what that was like. The day a year structure seemed ideal to explore that.
Fierce Poise – how did you decide on your title?
We had a lot of titles. It was hard. For a long time we had a title The Days of Helen Frankenthaler. My editor wasn’t satisfied with that. We hit on the word poise and then there was some discussion of furious poise. But my editor, Emily Cunningham, thought that was an overused word so we came up with fierce poise.
“The light touch is often the strongest touch of all” – Please can you elaborate on what Helen meant by this…
What Helen has taught me is that It’s very difficult to portray something like joy in a serious way, or that there is a seriousness of lightness. It took a lot of courage for her to pursue that because amongst her coterie of friends and painters, such as Grace Hardigan and Larry Rivers in the early 50’s, they looked at a painting such as Mountain & Sea, which is incredibly light and almost by happenstance in the way that the paint is applied.
They just thought ‘This is terrible. We’re here in our studio, depressed, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, not sleeping, and spending hours pounding away at some work which is very involved and thick with paint, churning out forms and shapes, because the state of the world is such that no expression other than a grave one is commensurate to the times.’ And here’s Helen with these almost bouquet-like arrangements of thin color. They thought it was not serious. But Helen never changed. It’s one thing to realise the lightness of touch… It’s another thing to practise that. It took guts
If you overwork something, create a churning thickness you lose that improvisational suddenness – you could even say going from having an idea of writing a book to actually writing a book, it’s very possible to lose a lot of the joy, and special feeling of that idea itself in the carrying it out. In making a painting and writing a book, you’re trying to make it be light, always have the quality of the inspiration, of the suddenness.
The book jacket is a photo taken by Gordon Parks of Helen sitting on one of her canvases. What’s the significance of that picture, why did you choose it?
That was the best picture by far. It was exciting while I was writing that book, knowing that that would be the cover. Gordon Parks was a very accomplished photographer, a Black man whose showing of segregation in the south is deservedly well-known. He was also quite an accomplished fashion photographer.
Where do you think Helen get her self-confidence in the studio, with her art? It was unusual for a woman artist to be so sure of herself in the 1950s.
Partly it was to do with her upbringing in a well-to-do family. Moreover she was told by her parents, but especially by her doting father that she was special, that she could do anything. Of the three Frankenthaler daughters, she, the youngest, was felt to be the one with special creative flair. She internalised that. It made her impervious to the hostility that might have wrecked another young woman at that time. She was told she was special and she never doubted that.
And conversely, why do you think she was so insecure in her relationships with men, starting with the art critic Clem Greenberg and ending when she met Robert Motherwell?
I think she was very destabilised by her father’s (early) death, and insecure. As to how that played out with relationships with men, I don’t know. She was emotionally needy and sad, in a way that perhaps we all are in different degrees. She was a depressive person who was insecure, who was also supremely confident and haughty at the same time. That’s one reason why she was such a fascinating subject.
Motherwell said, “The act of painting is a deep necessity”. Can you describe the bond between Helen and Motherwell as compared with the cynic’s take?
I think they were both sad people who found each other and bonded over having overcome different kinds of misfortune, and having overcome that misfortune by their belief in painting, abstract painting in particular.
The cynical take- it was a marriage of convenience, a power consolidation. Motherwell was quite prestigious and Helen latched on to that- I wouldn’t say that perception is wrong. It’s both. As with her relationship with Clem Greenberg. She was someone who was aware of getting an upper hand, a toehold, being part of the game and yet she has very genuine, conflicted emotional needs as well. I think Greenberg and Motherwell were both partners in complicated ways.
How long did this book take you to research versus write?
I started it in 2017. It took me a probably a year and a half to research and a year and a half to write. So half and half. I had to learn the art of how to write a book like this, a story-based book as opposed to what academic writing requires which is an argument-based book. It’s been a delightful transition.
I’m working on a new book. While it’s very different than the one on Helen, it’s also a story-based book. It’s about the forest in America in the 1830s, the time of Nathanial Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edger Allen Poe, the Hudson River Painters, the forest as a place of superstition, but also economic desire, wanting to chop it all down. It’s a story told from the point of view of many characters, and told as a fable. It’s called The Forest, a Fable of America in the 1830s. It’s about leaves, trees, different kinds of mystical experiences as people contemplate the startling presence of a tree in front of them.
Can you tell us something surprising about yourself?
I remember as far back as the 1990s telling my wife (my then girlfriend) “I think I could write a book about Helen Frankenthaler”. I think about that sometimes because although I wouldn’t have had a clue how to write that book, I’m so glad I waited to let it penetrate me more fully to the point where I could write it. I had a sense already that she would be someone that I’d like to write about 25 years ago.
Thank you so much Alex. This was an enlightening interview.