I have been at the New Yorker again; or rather the New Yorker has been at me! Grabbed me the minute I lifted the most recent issue from the mail box. What a gloriously celebratory cover! The perfectly titled illustration, “Coney Island Swings Back” painted by Lorenzo Mattotti, pictures a colorfully clad, happy couple suspended high and sharing a kiss midair against a cerulean sky above a tented, roller-coastered, ferris-wheeled midway. Just makes me smile really, really wide!
When I scanned the table of contents and saw articles by a couple of my best loved writers I knew I was in for a pleasing read.
Having enjoyed selected reviews from the menu on offer—art, podcasts, dance, music, movies and restaurants (no theater, yet)—I passed over Hilton Als’s critique on Ken Burns and Kim Novick’s televised “Hemingway” and went directly to Adam Gopnik’s “Reassessing Helen Frankenthaler.” Gopnik has been one of my always favorite go-tos, ever since I first became acquainted with his book about taking an assignment in Paris and moving his family there. Malcolm Gladwell raved: “Adam Gopnik is a dazzling talent—hilarious, winning, and deft—but the surprise of “Paris to the Moon” is its quiet, moral intelligence. This book begins as journalism and ends up as literature.” I have been reading Gopnik ever since I picked up his “Paris!”
In this New Yorker, Gopnik gives a major shout out to the new biographical work by Alexander Nemerov titled “Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York.” Gopnik’s writing is as excellent as I always expect—astute, stylish, informative, inspiring. As he looks through Nemerov’s eyes he affords us new insights into this “woman before her time” whose beautiful color field, soak-stain process paintings, like her landmark piece “Mountains and Sea” (1952), evoked sniping criticisms from her female contemporaries in the art world.
Frankenthaler grew up as quite privileged, attending prestigious private schools in NYC, first Brearley and then Dalton, where atmospheres of “earnest progressivism” prevailed. Afterwards she studied art and graduated from Bennington, a woman’s college where “the study and practice of modern painting was a part of the college’s intensity, not an escape from it.” Bennington “gave a “slightly unreal, or premature, sense of women’s possibilities in the world.”
Frankenthaler made the most of her possibilities. After graduating she returned to the city, rented a downtown studio and “set out to become a painter.” She launched into living the life of a real artist including unapologetic romantic liaisons with men such as the legendary critic Clement Greenberg followed by her eventual power-couple-marriage to and divorce from Robert Motherwell, “an older Abstract Expressionist of unimpeachable integrity” known for his “Arthur Miller-like aura of dignity and authority” until he fell into the grasp of alcoholism.
Frankenthaler went on to paint late into her life (1928-2011). With admiration Gopnik, reviewing Nemerov’s biography concludes, “From today’s perspective, the most striking thing about Frankenthaler’s career is how much all the things that were said to belittle her, sometimes by other women, now seem to point toward her art’s larger soul.” Yes! Like the couple on the New Yorker’s cover, Helen Frankenthaler, learned to swing high as sure as the pendulum of art history has swung back to admiration for her color field paintings.
The green door of artCentral’s hospitality will continue to swing open for the Philip Ledbetter: PAINT in MOTION Exhibition at Hyde House through May 15!