At the start of the 1950s, Helen Frankenthaler was fresh out of college, eager to make a name for herself in the macho New York art world
By ANN LEVIN Associated Press
22 March 2021, 20:28
• 3 min read
This cover image released by Penguin Press shows "Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York" by Alexander Nemerov. (Penguin Press via AP)
The Associated Press
This cover image released by Penguin Press shows "Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s...Read More
“Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York,” by Alexander Nemerov (Penguin Press)
There are doorstop biographies, and then there are appreciations. Alexander Nemerov has taken the latter approach in “Fierce Poise,” his vibrant, sympathetic portrait of Helen Frankenthaler. It focuses on 11 consequential days in the 1950s, the decade when she came of age as one of the leading painters of her generation.
Nemerov, the son of the celebrated poet Howard Nemerov and nephew of photographer Diane Arbus, grew up in the same rarified world as Frankenthaler. He admired her art for years but didn’t feel prepared to write her biography until he got older (he’s 57) and gave himself permission to love her “pretty” art, pictures that portray “fleeting impressions” through “blots and swaths of bright color” poured and stained into canvas, “as surprising and glorious as life itself.”
“The prevailing ways of seeing art over the past 50 years have made it difficult to comprehend the strength and sober delight of her kind of painting,” he writes. “Our culture has become terribly skeptical of romantic art such as hers.”
It’s good he finally undertook the project because Frankenthaler, one of the five women artists profiled in Mary Gabriel’s highly regarded 2018 “Ninth Street Women,” is a fascinating subject. He touches on her privileged life growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; her life-changing encounter with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings; the stormy love affair with the influential, older art critic Clement Greenberg; a later marriage to fellow abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell; and the creation of her breakthrough painting, “Mountains and Sea,” in 1952.
An art historian at Stanford, Nemerov is a thoughtful and judicious writer. He does a good job of sorting through various criticisms leveled at Frankenthaler over the years, including that she was an opportunist, coasted by on family wealth, and was too elitist and apolitical.
Some readers may wish he had delved more deeply into the entire body of work — she died in 2011 at age 83 — and more fully addressed the bizarre criticism, scarcely rebutted here, that her signature stain technique was related to menstruation. Indeed, Joan Mitchell — another of the “Ninth Street Women” — called her “that Kotex painter.”
But brevity can be a virtue. In just over 200 pages, Nemerov takes us on a fast, exhilarating ride through the formative decade of her career, providing a lucid introduction to an artist we’re likely to hear more about in the near future. A year after Gabriel’s book came out, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, creators of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” announced they hoped to develop it for a new series.
Ann Levin worked for The Associated Press for 20 years, including as national news editor at AP headquarters in New York. Since 2009 she’s worked as a freelance writer and editor.
While recovering from the coronavirus, Brian Stokes Mitchell began belting “The Impossible Dream” outside his Manhattan window every evening. That beloved show tune could be an appropriate theme as workers in live theater wait to return.
Mitchell has a double reason to dream. In addition to being an idled Tony Award-winning performer, he serves as chairman of the national human services organization The Actors Fund. He calls the past 138 years of the fund “a dress rehearsal” for these desperate times.
“People have been incredibly generous, and I would almost use the word ‘surprisingly,’" he says. "I use that word because people are always incredibly supportive and fun, but just because everybody’s hurting now.”
Despite losing one of The Actors Funds biggest revenue streams — a special performance from each Broadway show — it has distributed more than $20 million in emergency financial assistance to more than 15,000 people since March 18, 2020.
While movie theaters have recently reopened to smaller audiences, Broadway's 41 theaters remain closed and Mitchell fears the true recovery can take years.
“We’re all going to have a little PTSD that we are going to have to get over and before we all feel safe,” Mitchell said.
Recently, Mitchell spoke with The Associated Press to discuss how the theater community can rebound, his battle with COVID-19, and how The Actors Fund is training actors for other lines of work.
AP: You were very public about your COVID-19 diagnosis. What went through your mind?
Mitchell: I never had the feeling when I had it that this was going to be something to take me out. Now that might have just been denial or I don’t know. But I never had the sense — even when I was at my worst — I didn’t think ‘This is how my life ends.’
AP: What kind of jobs does The Actors Fund find for out of work actors?
Mitchell: We needed poll workers during voting, vaccine workers, things like that. There is always something else. When one door closes, another door opens. And that’s been part of what The Actors Fund has done — help train people for these things. Also, during the census, people were learning how to be census workers as well. We’re able to help people find these alternative ways to support themselves.
AP: Do you think Broadway will reopen in May as producers have said?
Mitchell: Will that happen in May, June, July, August? Who knows? It could be September before we get going. It could be next year before it gets going in full swing. Or it could be exactly when they say it is. We just don’t know. There are more questions than answers.
AP: How long will it take for Broadway to recover?
Mitchell: This pandemic may be two years from beginning to end for most people. Not actors, or anybody in the performing industry. Because I’m an actor, that’s the first thing that comes to my head. It’s probably more going to be like five years because we have to recover from this. A lot of people not only lost their main job, but lost a backup job as well. A lot of people in show business, when they’re not working, they may bartend, they may work in a restaurant. And those jobs largely have been cut back. And for a while they were stopped as well.
AP: What about smaller theaters and local shows?
Mitchell: Possibly we’re going to see regional theaters come back in full swing before we see Broadway come back in full swing just because people need live theater. They are craving that. They want to sit with other people and experience something that is only happening that one time for them. People want that... I think it’s going to happen regionally first because it’s much easier to get in your car and drive a half-hour if you need to and park your car and watch in regional theater and cheaper than it is to plan a trip.
AP: How did you come to sing “The Impossible Dream” out your window?
Mitchell: Like everybody else at seven o’clock every night, my wife and I would hang out the window and clap and bang on drums and pots and pans as thanks for the essential workers. One day when I was doing that after all the applause died down, I thought, ‘Yeah, I think I can sing. I think I feel strong enough. I think I can sing without coughing.’ So, I thought let me just sing — what the heck, I will sing ‘The Impossible Dream,’ and I sang it and I saw everybody in the street stopped and everybody looked up. They listened and then everybody applauded. There’s lots of people because I overlook Broadway. So, there’s still a lot of people on the street. I was thinking it was just going to be a one-off — that was my way of saying thanks… The next night I’m pounding the pots like everyone else, and applause dies down and then someone on the street screams, ‘Sing the song!’ So, I sang it again. Eventually crowds formed and hundreds of people were there, and it hit international news.
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