Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York

Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York was recently published by Penguin Press. The book was written by Alexander Nemerov, an arts and humanities professor at Stanford University and an esteemed scholar of American art. His father, Howard Nemerov, had a link to the Frankenthaler. Howard Nemerov, served twice as America’s poet laureate. He taught Frankenthaler when she was a student at Bennington College in the late 1940s and was an acquaintance of art critic, Clement Greenberg, with whom Frankenthaler had a tumultuous relationship from 1950 to 1955.

Each chapter of the book focuses on a significant day in the artists life during the 1950s, the years that her painting technique created a transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting.

Helen Frankenthaler grew up on Park Avenue, the youngest of three daughters. Her father was a prominent New York State Supreme Court judge, who adored his youngest daughter, her mother a homemaker whose family emigrated from Germany.

Frankenthaler’s privilege allowed her a fine education and a Manhattan studio, but her life was not without sorrow. Her father died when she was eleven. Her mother, who had depression related to Parkinson’s disease, killed herself by jumping out of her apartment window when Frankenthaler was twenty-five.

Nemerov writes about Frankenthaler’s early aspirations of becoming an artist. She would walk with her Nanny from her Park Avenue apartment to the Metropolitan Museum several blocks away, drawing a chalk to mark the route.

When her Mountain and Sea was exhibited in 1953, a New York Times critic called the show, “sweet and unambitious.” Mountain and Sea now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In 1958, Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell, a Harvard-educated artist who also came from a wealthy family. The marriage ended in 1971, a time when both artists were still creating significant work. In Motherwell’s case, it was his Basque Series. Black and Blue, a silkscreen from that series is available at VFA.

Frankenthaler began working with master printmaker, Kenneth Tyler, in 1976. She experimented with silkscreens and woodcuts with excellent results, like Snow Pines available at VFA.

Frankenthaler’s career spanned six decades. She was the recipient of 26 honorary doctorates and numerous honors and awards, including the National Medal of the Arts in 2001. Her works are part of the permanent collections of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum o Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other venues around the world.

Please contact us if you would like more information about the works of Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, or any of the fine artists whose works are available at VFA.

Adam Gopnik. Helen Frankenthaler and the Messy Art of Life. The New Yorker. April 5, 2021.
Susan Stamberg. With ‘Fierce Poise,’ Helen Frankenthaler Poured Beauty Onto Canvas. NPR. March 23, 2021.
Lily Meyer. New Helen Frankenthaler Biography Favors Nostalgia Over Artist’s Interiority. Hyperallergic. March 23, 2021.
Philip Kennicott. Helen Frankenthaler came from wealth and privilege. Her art transcends that. The Washington Post. March 19, 2021.