In his latest book, “Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York,” alumnus Alexander Nemerov '85 examines the life and work of the twentieth-century painter across the decade when her art was emergent and at its most vibrant. But long before he put pen to paper for this book, the author and his subject crossed paths in Vermont. Nemerov was born in the state in 1963, when his father, poet Howard Nemerov, taught on the faculty at Bennington College. Artist Helen Frankenthaler was among the elder Nemerov’s students during that era.
Beyond that distant connection, Nemerov, chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University, did not dive deeply into Frankenthaler’s work until 2016, when he stood before her 1958 painting “Hotel Cro-Magnon” at the Milwaukee Art Museum. He recalls gazing at it longer than all of the other works in the museum combined. Soon after, he wrote a piece that attempted to capture what had transfixed him.
Noting that Frankenthaler’s work is often celebrated for its freshness, Nemerov says, “What I understand that freshness to represent is the experience of life unfolding, what we call lived experience—seeing Lake Champlain change color, feeling our feet on the grass as we look at it, anything really, holding a warm cup of coffee in one’s hands. She was portraying life as lived and turning it into representation before it could become fossilized, petrified as a kind of semblance of itself.”
“Fierce Poise” has a personal feel to it, with Nemerov referring to the painter as “Helen” throughout. The author suggests that in addition to being about the artist, her work and the heady swirl of life in New York City during the abstract expressionist era of the 1950s, the book is more broadly striving to capture the feeling of living through one’s twenties—Helen’s, his own, his students'.
Writing a book based on story rather than argument is a departure for Nemerov, who, by his own estimate is “miscast as an arguer,” a challenging scholar to pigeonhole. “I’m more interested in creating a space for contemplation, which is a quasi-religious space,” he says. “And that’s my definition of what I do as an academic.” He adds, with a laugh, that is why his books tend to have “truly bizarre call numbers.”
The opportunity for the new direction arose when a literary agent, who happened to be a fellow UVM alumnus, Elias Altman ’07, contacted Nemerov out of the blue suggesting he would be well-suited to writing a story-based book for a popular audience. In his cold call, Altman noted that they shared a UVM writing teacher in Professor David Huddle.
Nemerov had been contemplating a book about Frankenthaler, and, with Altman’s help, the course was set. The result is a book that will leave readers with a similar sense of inspiration and personal connection—born of the author’s keen eye, insightful mind and verbal grace—felt by those fortunate to have seen Nemerov deliver the 2018 commencement speech on the UVM Green. There, on a rainy Sunday morning on campus, Nemerov spoke to the essential nature of “private illuminations” that “allow us—carefully, tentatively, but sometimes with great power and purpose—to move through the world.”
In the introduction to “Fierce Poise,” considering not just Helen Frankenthaler’s life but all of our lives, the author proposes: “The moments of a day’s existence are often a homely combination: a pigeon waddling on the sidewalk, an overflowing trash can, the bright white shirt and black glossy hair of a passerby. Focused on bigger things, larger goals, we learn to ignore such ephemeral experiences. But who is to say that fragile sensations do not carry their own weight, that they do not amount to a rich record of who we are, who, indeed, we will have been?”
Join Alexander Nemerov and the UVM Alumni Association for a virtual discussion of the life and art of Helen Frankenthaler on Tuesday, April 6, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Register for the Zoom event.