Alexander Nemerov, FIERCE POISE

Alexander Nemerov, FIERCE POISE

“There is no other reason to write about art unless you have strong feelings about it. That’s a given.” Stanford University Art History Professor Alexander Nemerov and Zibby discuss how he came to write his latest book, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, the book’s creative structure, and his advice for anyone looking to write about art.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alexander. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alexander Nemerov: It’s my pleasure.

Zibby: I am really excited to you about Fierce Poise — look at this beautiful book about Helen Frankenthaler — Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York. Gorgeous. Congratulations on this.

Alexander: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: I have to tell you that my mother is a massive Helen Frankenthaler fan.

Alexander: Is that right?

Zibby: Obsessed with everything about her. When I got your galley way back when, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, Mom, you have to read this.” She loved it. I’ve been hearing about Helen Frankenthaler my whole life. I’m delighted to talk to you about the book today. Why have you decided to write a whole book about Helen Frankenthaler? Are you also a huge fan? Have you been forever?

Alexander: You know, Zibby, I think I’ve been hearing about Helen Frankenthaler my whole life too, but in a slightly different way. Helen Frankenthaler went to Bennington College. Her senior year was my dad’s first year there as a professor. She, Helen, took a class with him. I guess they stayed in touch over the years periodically. I certainly recall her name when I was growing up. I was born in Bennington, though we moved soon after that. Suffice it to say that she’d long been in the back of my mind. Then I began to just be aware how much I loved her paintings. Sometimes when I write about artists, the reason for the liking — there is no other reason to write about art unless you have strong feelings about it. That’s a given. Sometimes the strong feelings, the reason for them is manifest in a moment. Other times, it takes longer. As I say in the book, I really needed to catch up to Helen and understand why her paintings moved me.

Zibby, what I ended up coming away with was choosing intuitively to write about the art she made in her twenties when she was just starting. The book is about taking her from just after her graduation from Bennington up to the age of thirty-one when she had her first one-person exhibition. I wanted to understand, value, love all the more Helen’s way of portraying what it’s like to be a young person. We all know how intense being in our twenties is. I think Helen was someone who lived that intensity in a very powerful way and moreover, had the power to portray it on the wing, on the quick, life as lived translated into aesthetic form. I didn’t, necessarily. I had all those feelings, but I wasn’t able to translate it into art and genuine feeling in quite the way that she was. Better late than never. I’m glad I caught up to her in my fifties. Although Helen died in 2011, I feel like we could probably have a decent conversation about her art were she alive now.

Zibby: Wow. I love how you portray her. It’s almost like she’s just another girl in her twenties in New York. Yet she becomes this legend. You have this scene when she was feeling depressed. You said, “Starting around New Year’s, 1953, Helen became depressed. She was paying sick calls to her mother who was increasingly ill.” You talk about a bunch of other things here. “A New York Times critic gave faint praise to her heart-and-soul efforts including her favorite, the vast Mountains and Sea. The works were fresh, pale and pleasant, sweet and unambitious.” Then you said, “Sinking into lethargy, Helen found herself thinking that in her whole life, nothing mattered very much. Even her psychoanalytic sessions on which she usually placed great store struck her as boring. She was ‘not taking myself or life or plans too seriously.’ Not caring enough, she found herself taking afternoon naps. ‘The sleep is wonderful, but the habit bothers me.'” You said, “Helen was depressed because she felt like her life was at a standstill. Take me back to that moment in her history and how that became a turning point.

Alexander: If there’s one painting people might know of Helen’s off the top of their head it would be the painting you’re talking about, Mountains and Sea, which she painted in one day one afternoon, October 26th, 1952. Although that painting now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington and has been there for a number of years, at the time, as The Times review indicates, it was met with disdain not just by art reviewers, but by Helen’s fellow artists who thought it wasn’t serious and angsty enough. She was kind of lectured to by the artist Larry Rivers. Also, privately, her friend or sometimes frenemy Grace Hartigan was very critical of that painting too. Helen never really doubted that picture. She said the lightest touch is always the hardest one. That’s something I’ve really learned from her. We can think, you, me, anyone, that gravity, intensity, depth, as we say, is always the sole road, the royal road to seriousness, profundity, but Helen really brought me to appreciate, to value the quality of lightness, of air, of atmosphere which that picture is so much about. Pleasure poised on a balance as ephemeral, full of grace, all of these things is what she portrayed. She knew to spend any more time on it would be to ruin it.

Her lethargy, Zibby, had to do with precisely what she says. She wasn’t sure even if she should be an artist anymore even though she was really born to be an artist. She even interviewed kind of halfheartedly for a job at Time Life though she was really put off by the starchy intellectualism of the whole Time Life building. She also was invited to help campaign for Adlai Stevenson because that painting was made just ten days or so before the presidential election that Eisenhower won in a landslide over Stevenson. She was thinking about different options. Then at the moment you describe, her show had gone up. She was still very proud of her paintings. No one was buying them. The reviews were diffident. Her fellow artists were suspicious. She was depressed for reasons beyond that. Part of what I say about the twenties being an intense time is people, including Helen, are working out a lot of stuff or not working it out or both. The depression was something that happened to her, as it happens to many people, unbidden.

In that part of the book, I talk about her going to see this late Charlie Chaplin film called Limelight in which there’s a very beautiful ballerina who looks remarkably like Helen. She’s pictured in the book. Helen, not surprisingly, identified with this ballerina who had this kind of psychosomatic illness that convinced her she couldn’t get out of bed just like Helen, basically taking long naps. This feeling of illness and inadequacy was precisely related to her talent, precisely related, if you watch the movie, which is wonderful, to her incredibly rare ability as a dancer. The same goes for Helen. You know what, Zibby? When we talk about an artist, we use that word artist, I think even me whose job it is to talk about artists can sometimes use that term very glibly when in fact, it’s a very mysterious term. In Helen’s case, it means there’s a tremendous amount of energy, volatile emotion that is in there that is driven sometimes almost too fast for one’s own liking by a relentless pursuit of aesthetic form. I must make a picture. I cannot not make a picture. That’s a volatile thing to handle. Not everyone can handle it well. Helen made it through without dumbing down or numbing down all of the different emotions, from laughter to despair, that her work portrays.

Zibby: It’s so interesting because I feel like writers are a type of artist. I think so many writers feel the same way. They just have to write it down. They have to create. They have to dedicate their whole lives to sitting in front of the computer or on their sketchpad and trying to create at the expense of everything else sort of similar to what you’re saying about Helen. There’s so many people who are driven that way. I’m wondering if you as a writer — obviously, there’s so much research. You’re such a renown scholar of all of this material. As a writer, do you feel pulled to be doing this type of writing yourself?

Alexander: Yes, I do. I think I’m much happier when I have written something in a day. It balances or structures my life. It is, I imagine, not just a matter of mental equilibrium, but also, one is trying to make contact with life, to use words like Helen used paintings to portray what it is to be alive, not in some universal sense, but precisely from the contingent, partial, limited vantage that one calls one’s own. Yet the hope is that that perspective, that subjectivity, we call it, is not merely subjective, but is precisely, by being so specific, accessible to other people. With Helen, I’ve never tried to write a doorstopper, omniscient biography. I’ve used my own feeling for her work as my pathway into it and hopefully not deviated from that at all. As you know, each chapter of the book is about one single day in her life from the year 1950 to the year 1960. It’s unabashedly partial in that way too, but it’s also true to Helen’s art in the sense that she, like me, would suggest that any time you are writing a sentence or putting paint on a canvas you are presumably trying to do something that is not the same as ordinary life, not walking down the street or mailing a letter or whatever the case may be. It’s a religious conception of art in her case which I’m attracted to, which is to say, you make a painting in order to reveal something about the world. That revelation is not didactic. It is not moralistic. It is, instead, sensory and specific to feelings that are almost impossible to describe, feelings like lightness, lift, sorrow, feelings that we have, of course, handy words for, but words that are just finally placeholders. Helen is someone who’s pushing paint to be able to portray states of mind, states of being, even just the feeling of walking down the street with the light dappling through the shadows of the trees in a way that doesn’t kill those experiences but makes them live, makes them visible to the rest of us.

Zibby: Beautiful. It’s really the power of art to evoke feeling. From your words to her work, that’s really what all artists are trying at their core to do, communicate what’s inside their heads in some way to somebody else’s head. It’s really cool when you think about. I know that’s ridiculous.

Alexander: It’s sort of a message in a bottle. It goes out there. The artist can’t be sure where it will land, but the person who picks up the bottle will be the person for whom the picture was intended.

Zibby: I love that you mentioned the structure. I’m just holding up the book again. I love how everything is in a day. That’s so great. When you talk about getting a slice of life of somebody’s career, to do it in such a creative way is amazing. There are so many ways you could’ve approached her life, a bazillion ways. I’m sure you debated how to do it. This is so great. It just shows her growth as an artist and over time. That’s just a great tactic. I love it.

Alexander: Thank you, Zibby. You know what? I didn’t debate it.

Zibby: You didn’t? You just knew right away?

Alexander: I knew right away that that’s the way it would be. I didn’t know which days. That was kind of fun to let the research dictate what might, could, and finally were the days of the book. I knew that it would be these days, yes, it would be structured on days.

Zibby: This is my own — I have to debate everything a million times. I’m just projecting how I imagined you would’ve done it.

Alexander: In fairness to you, I think sometimes that is the way it is for any writer. There are different formats. The right format becomes apparent only in the writing of things. I understand that. It’s just in this case, somehow, I didn’t need to go through that preparatory thinking.

Zibby: I also love that this is an Upper East Side girl book as I sit here on the Upper East Side talking to you. I spent a whole summer at Bennington, by the way.

Alexander: Oh, did you?

Zibby: Yes, I’m very familiar with it. I did a whole writing program, writing and photography. This is way back when.

Alexander: Wonderful. Helen was such the Upper East Side person that when she did move to the Lower West Side — she lived down in the West 20s when the book starts out. Her family, I think her mother it was, was very shocked that she would be living on the Lower West Side. It seemed impossibly bohemian.

Zibby: I sublet an apartment in the Meatpacking District when it was just coming up, a little bit south of that, but on the West Side. My mother on the Upper East Side had the same exact reaction.

Alexander: Is that right?

Zibby: Anyway, so what is coming next for you now? You have this beautiful book out in the world. Are you going to profile a different artist next? What’s your plan?

Alexander: It’s a great question. I’m contemplating what my next book will be. I’m writing a very different book right now which is about America in the age of Andrew Jackson, actually.

Zibby: I just was doing that with my daughter. Her test is on Thursday. I’m deep in Andrew Jackson time.

Alexander: What grade is your daughter?

Zibby: Seventh grade.

Alexander: Fantastic. It’s about America in the 1830s. It’s kind of the opposite of the Frankenthaler book in the sense that it’s told from the vantage of many, many people known and unknown from that time. I mention Andrew Jackson because he’s a good place marker for that era, the 1830s, but it’s actually a different kind of writerly challenge where it’s everyone from farmers, slaves, poets, painters, politicians, and so on. I’m enjoying that a lot.

Zibby: Wow. We’ll have to read that one. Now I feel like I am so clear on exactly what was going on at that time. Whereas perhaps had I not brushed up on it over the weekend, I wouldn’t have been.

Alexander: Me too. I don’t know if this is true for you, but it must be in some way that one writes to learn.

Zibby: Yes.

Alexander: Writing about Helen, there’s this curious way that one writes from a position of feeling that one already has, as I was talking about. At the same time, one discovers more the nature of that feeling by virtue of the writing. I’ve been thinking about the Helen book now in ways I didn’t really appreciate when I was writing it. It was a kind of coming into being of my own feelings about Helen by virtue of writing the book, if that makes sense, not in a way that I could turn into formula and simple descriptive sentences because I don’t really believe in that. I tell my students here, for example, that they should avoid the phrase “my book is about this artist” and so on because that word about, though it’s understandable why people use it, implies the art is over there. I say instead you should say, I write with the artist. Although, the with is complicated because one doesn’t want to be just the publicist, as it were, for the artist. That’s not what it’s about. The with I take to mean has to do with kindred feeling, wanting to inhabit the artist’s fantasy and to write from that perspective as opposed to distancing it and turning that fantasy, that whole imaginative life into kind of an object, which is limiting, I think.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Alexander: Yes, I guess so. Write about what moves you. That’s one thing. Discover what it is that moves you by writing. Often, I think that means instead of going to a museum and feeling honor bound to look at all one thousand paintings, each one for two seconds, instead, pick one thing that moves you maybe by an artist you know you want to look at, maybe by someone you’ve never heard of, whatever it is. It might be a painting of a meadow with a stream running through it, of a kind that even as you stand there for five, ten, fifteen minutes, a whole hour, or even for just thirty seconds before your friend drags you off to get an espresso, it stays in your mind. Then it becomes the basis, the kernel for some idea. Maybe it has to do with a memory you have. Maybe it has to do with some movie you saw once that featured a similar scene. Who knows? I would say write from that moment, from that stream, in that field. That stream is a kind of source for all that one has to give. I’m a believer in the oak growing from the acorn.

Zibby: Beautiful. Great. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” Alexander. Thank you for this intimate look into Helen’s life and her art which I will never look at quite the same way again. Thank you for this conversation.

Alexander: You’re very welcome. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Alexander: Buh-bye.

Fierce Poise by Alexander Nemerov

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