I was very privileged to speak to author, art historian and Stanford professor Alexander Nemerov
about his latest book, Fierce Poise, an exciting ride through the 1950’s New York art scene, as well as a fascinating portrait of maverick abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler. My Q&A is below:
- Helen and your life crossed paths but you never actually met, a regret, you write in your book about Helen and 1950’s New York. What would you most have liked to say to her, if you had met?
I’d like to tell her how much I enjoy her art. A feeling of life on the wing, momentary sensations. The direct fearless, ecstatic portrayal of our feelings and the world in combination.
- Helen’s father died when she was very young- age 11. You suggest in your fascinating book that his premature death may have been what led Helen to become a serious painter. Please elaborate.
I think art saved her, art was a lifeline. Perhaps her absolutely steadfast devotion to art, and her very unusual seriousness about pursuing a career as an artist which started when she began to emerge from a crisis in adolescence owes something to that, the tenacity with which she overcame the darkness, found that which was beautiful, that which was light, that which offered a feeling of the quiver and excitement of being alive owed something to her father’s death.
- Can you explain Jackson Pollock’s influence on Frankenthaler?
Walking into the exhibition at Betty Parson’s gallery of his big drip paintings, as Helen said, it was a real moment of revelation for Helen because it said, anything is possible. Your imagination can be let loose. You don’t need to inhibit your creativity by making imitations of Picasso. There is another outlet for what you have inside you. You could put it under the word genuineness or fearlessness-some kind of art that would explode upon the eye, a ferocious, gorgeous immediacy that felt right and true to her.
As Helen said, it was like she suddenly landed in Lisbon and didn’t speak Portuguese but she wanted desperately to learn the language.
- And why, do you think, Pollock’s death was a release for her?
Although people were horrified and saddened by Pollock’s death, his death opened up the field for a lot of these artists, where this very imposing figure was no longer around. Many artists, not just Helen, tended to make some pretty extraordinary work in the time that followed. My favorite paintings of Helen’s are almost all of them from after Pollock’s death.
- What are some of your favourites?
In the book I talk about Eden from 1956, Jacob’s Ladder from ’57, Before the Caves ‘58, Mother Goose Melody ‘59. There’s something even more direct and memorable, grand and intimate in these paintings as compared with the paintings she made in the first half of the decade.
No painting (no creative effort of any kind) is good intellectually”- What did Helen mean by this?
If you or I go to a museum, we’re looking at some big 17th c. painting of a hunt or a religious scene, we might want to read the label next to it, and nod our head, but that’s small change. The real thing is the blast of the thing on the eye where it knocks you back without you even knowing who painted it or what the subject is or theme.
You can’t take your eyes off the horse in the foreground with the white mane. Or the fox snarling while the man with the spear tries to stab it. You can’t believe the bristling fur on the fox’s back. Helen would say, ‘That painting is terrific.’ And her much more bookish friend Sonya Rudikoff would say, ‘No, I want to learn about the politics of the time, the story of the artist.’ That was their dispute. All that stuff that Sonya was interested in was secondary (to Helen).
Her charge was meant to stay and stay, to unfold itself after repeated viewings and gradual contemplation.” What did Helen’s nephew Clifford Ross mean by that?
The stay and stay – a good work of art is one that you don’t get tired of looking at. A bad work of art is one that you feel like you get it already, you don’t need to see it ever again.
The trick in making something in that Pollock-like spontaneous way is that you’re constantly judging what you’re making, and one of the things you’re assessing is how fresh it is and how enduringly fresh it can remain.
A great poem or a great passage in a novel, these are the things that only increase in mystery the more we know them. Whereas the vast bulk of representations whether in the so-called fine art world or popular culture they’re meant to be consumed in a moment and there’s nothing left of them because we “get it”.
Can you tell us something surprising about yourself?
(The American photographer) Diane Arbus was my aunt.
Thank you so much Alex, and for the rest of you, the remainder of my Q&A with Alex can be found here on 26. Enjoy!