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One of Vogue's Best Books to Read of 2021
A dazzling biography of one of the twentieth century's most respected painters, Helen Frankenthaler, as she came of age as an artist in postwar New York
“The magic of Alexander Nemerov's portrait of Helen Frankenthaler in Fierce Poise is that it reads like one of Helen's paintings. His poetic descriptions of her work and his rich insights into the years when Helen made her first artistic breakthroughs are both light and lush, seemingly easy and yet profound. His book is an ode to a truly great artist who, some seventy years after this story begins, we are only now beginning to understand.” ―Mary Gabriel, author of Ninth Street Women
At the dawn of the 1950s, a promising and dedicated young painter named Helen Frankenthaler, fresh out of college, moved back home to New York City to make her name. By the decade's end, she had succeeded in establishing herself as an important American artist of the postwar period. In the years in between, she made some of the most daring, head-turning paintings of her day and also came into her own as a woman: traveling the world, falling in and out of love, and engaging in an ongoing artistic education. She also experienced anew―and left her mark on―the city in which she had been raised in privilege as the daughter of a judge, even as she left the security of that world to pursue her artistic ambitions.
Brought to vivid life by acclaimed art historian Alexander Nemerov, these defining moments--from her first awed encounter with Jackson Pollock's drip paintings to her first solo gallery show to her tumultuous breakup with eminent art critic Clement Greenberg―comprise a portrait as bold and distinctive as the painter herself. Inspired by Pollock and the other male titans of abstract expressionism but committed to charting her own course, Frankenthaler was an artist whose talent was matched only by her unapologetic determination to distinguish herself in a man's world.
Fierce Poise is an exhilarating ride through New York's 1950s art scene and a brilliant portrait of a young artist through the moments that shaped her.
About the Author
Alexander Nemerov is the Carl and Marilyn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities and the Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University. In 2019, he received the Lawrence A. Fleischman Award for Scholarly Excellence in the Field of American Art History from the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. He is the author of several books, including Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine and Summoning Pearl Harbor.
“Neither conventional biography nor arm’s-length critical appraisal, Alexander Nemerov’s Fierce Poise shines a light on Helen Frankenthaler’s early artistic breakthrough by blending both forms. . . . A thrillingly alive account of a woman unapologetically pursuing her own vision in an era and a milieu largely defined by men.” —Vogue
“Nemerov is emphatic about not neglecting the political side of art. He has written extensively about art that is embedded in social life, and the power of art to prod the conscience and change the world. But in this book he wrestles with another kind of art—art that is deeply self-conscious, inward, sensitive and committed to extending a tradition of art as a sacred calling. The ability to convey the particularity of a sensation, at a precise moment, isn’t political in the usual sense, but it can be deeply ethical, reminding another person of a simple fact that is profoundly hard to process: that other conscious beings exist. . . . For a long time, art critics and historians have worked to recover the darker truths obfuscated by the glamour and mystique of America at the mid-century, including the world in which Frankenthaler built her career. Next up is redeeming the lightness from that darkness, without indulging the old myths or perpetuating the old inequities. Nemerov believes that is possible. He has written a book that shows us how it can be done.” —Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post
“Nemerov, a professor of art history at Stanford, explores the abstract expressionist’s career between 1950 and 1960, starting each of the book’s 11 chapters on an important day in her life. . . . The result is the illumination of not only how central Frankenthaler was to the artistic movement that’s often defined by the likes of Pollock and Rothko, but how she’s also one of the most compelling personalities in contemporary art history.” —WSJ Magazine
“Brisk, aptly elegant. . . . Nemerov does full justice to the artistic result. Concentrating on the early years allows him to show Frankenthaler’s work unfolding, and he attends closely to spunky early paintings, with their bumptious forms and gauche reds and browns. . . . Nemerov is especially good on the undeniably graceful and gorgeous—and paradigm-shifting—Mountains and Sea. . . . In celebrating Mountains and Sea, Nemerov argues convincingly that everything matters: the experiences of the artist’s entire life and those of the moment; gestural habit; specific intentions; chance outcomes. Finally, he writes, this exhilarating painting creates its own world, ‘complete unto itself as an autonomous kingdom.’ It is a good description of this book’s achievement as well.” —Art in America “Lyrical, powerful.” —Susan Stamberg, NPR.org
“Alexander Nemerov’s sharp and vibrant biography, Fierce Poise offers a distinctive portrait of the sustained challenges of a woman with considerable advantages. . . . Keeping the biography tightly drawn to the 1950s gives Nemerov the space to speak at length about [Frankenthaler’s] work as well as the theory and motivation behind it. . . . This slim biography touches upon considerable facts of history, art, and society in such a way that leaves you eager to read further and return to museum halls.” —The New York Observer
“[Nemerov’s] interpretations and descriptions of her work are passionate and infectious, and Nemerov is perhaps at his best when sharing his own reactions to it. . . . Along with offering rich descriptions and analysis that make you fall in love with her work, we also get an incredible story, one of turmoil and resourcefulness and utter determination.” —Mayday
“A masterful new biography. . . . [Nemerov’s] 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 . . . . 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.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
“Vibrant . . . . Nemerov is a thoughtful and judicious writer . . . . In just over 200 pages, Nemerov takes us on a fast, exhilarating ride through the formative decade of [Frankenthaler’s] career, providing a lucid introduction to an artist we’re likely to hear more about in the near future.” —The Associated Press
“This book . . . is 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.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Gorgeous . . . A shimmering portrait of the artist. . . . A rewarding journey.” —Newsday
“Nemerov is a beautiful writer, and his evocation of Frankenthaler’s groundbreaking artistic process is a delight.” —Hyperallergic
“[Nemerov] captures the first decade of Helen Frankenthaler's career along with her personal life with both a fly-on-the-wall intimacy and a great understanding of her work and what made her tick. Is it a biography? Yes, but it also captures the cultural world in a key decade in New York City and with it a good many of the great artists, poets, curators, and critics of the time moving through the narrative. Mr. Nemerov manages to give those personages a depth in their portrayal similar to Frankenthaler's treatment, all while devoting his fanboy erudition to his main subject.” —East Hampton Star
“[A] lyrical biography . . . Masterful . . . Fierce Poise is the latest of a particular kind of artist biography that is unabashedly personal, reveling in the hushed intimacy of a memoir in a way that seeks to demystify great artists by recreating their formative years in straightforward terms—often through what those breakthroughs say about the writer’s own life.” —The Art Newspaper
“Alexander Nemerov’s biography of the painter Helen Frankenthaler is more than just an exploration of an artist, it’s also a look back into the lost world of the 1950s Manhattan art scene. Frankenthaler is inarguably a great talent, and it’s a pleasure to learn about her life and work, but equally enjoyable is learning how she fit into (or sometimes didn’t) a world of painters, critics, collectors, and hangers-on whose impact on American culture can still be seen today.” —Town & Country
“Nemerov . . . [creates] a collage-like narrative that conjures the glamor and bustle of postwar New York City, when high art met downtown renegades.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Tantalizing . . . . lively.” —Los Angeles Times
“Informative and erudite.” —Harper’s Magazine
“Moody and textured, Fierce Poise celebrates, and mimics, Frankenthaler’s sweetly explosive paintings.” —Vulture
“Pairing vivid anecdotal biography with energetic descriptive analysis, the author recalibrates our perception of Frankenthaler’s undulating and entrancing canvases, on which she channeled in-the-moment feelings and celebrated the ‘beauty and power and glory’ of life. With reverence and irreverent wit, nimble narration, pertinent art history, and a vibrant cast of characters, Nemerov chronicles the first round in Frankenthaler’s extraordinary artistic adventure.” —Booklist
“The magic of Alexander Nemerov’s portrait of Helen Frankenthaler in Fierce Poise is that it reads like one of Helen's paintings. His poetic descriptions of her work and his rich insights into the years when Helen made her first artistic breakthroughs are both light and lush, seemingly easy and yet profound. His book is an ode to a truly great artist who, some seventy years after this story begins, we are only now beginning to understand.” —Mary Gabriel, author of Ninth Street Women
“Throughout his book, Alexander Nemerov refers to Frankenthaler as ‘Helen,’ even though the two never met. By the time I was done reading, I was calling her that, too, and felt she and I had a close connection. It takes courage for a major scholar to assume the personal approach, and voice, that Nemerov does in this biography, but by plunging so deep into Frankenthaler’s mind and life, he makes new sense of the veils and stains in her paintings.” —Blake Gopnik, author of Warhol
“Fierce Poise is an exquisite blend of biography and criticism that excavates Helen Frankenthaler’s creative beginnings—and so much more. Every page sparks with Alexander Nemerov’s deep knowledge and insights into the everyday exaltations and terrors of making art of any kind, at any time. Anyone who burns to forge their own life should read this book.” —Kate Bolick, author of Spinster
“Reading Alexander Nemerov’s Fierce Poise felt like basking in the sun on the first warm day of spring. With great sensitivity, Nemerov demonstrates why Helen Frankenthaler’s colorful, beautiful paintings deserve our attention. And with warmth and empathy, he chronicles Helen’s devotion to her art, which she maintained even in times of turmoil. I finished reading the book feeling newly attuned to the brief moments of grace and joy that can be found in daily life. Fierce Poise, like Helen’s paintings, shows us how art can drive away darkness, leaving us to take in the brilliant day.” —Maggie Doherty, author of The Equivalents