Last year, while I was researching an article about Loren MacIver, I came across work by Perle Fine, a dedicated painter who showed with MacIver in NYC in the 50s. I’m looking forward to seeing the traveling retrospective Susan W. Knowles has organized of Fine’s work, currently at the Hofstra University Museum. Fine is one of many under-recognized female painters from the New York School who are finally getting some attention.
Benjamin Genocchio apologetically reports that Fine, who was among the most prominent female artists associated with Abstract Expressionism during that period, is unknown for a reason. Although her work is technically accomplished, he writes, her work feels derivative and less original than that of her peers. In addition to the originality issue, Genocchio also points out that, unlike artists such as Lee Krasner, Fine wasn’t married to a famous painter. I think it’s hard to know whether Fine’s work really would have seemed derivative when she was making it, or whether it merely looks derivative in retrospect simply because our contemporary eyes are so familiar with the painting of her more famous colleagues.
According to Genocchio, Fine studied with the influential German émigré abstract artist Hans Hofmann, was included in pioneering group exhibitions of abstract art at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago and elsewhere, and showed with the powerful Betty Parsons Gallery. “In 1950 she was nominated by Willem de Kooning and then admitted to the 8th Street Club, a group of prominent New York abstract painters; she was one of the first female members. For a while there she was a celebrated artist. So why has her star dimmed so dramatically in the intervening decades?
“Partly I think it was because, unlike Krasner, she was not married to a famous artist; her husband, Maurice Berezov (1902-1989), was a talented photographer who documented the Abstract Expressionist circle and parlayed his art school background into a Madison Avenue advertising job. Several of his photographs of Fine and the Abstract Expressionists — Pollock, Krasner, de Kooning and many others — are showing in a companion exhibition on the ninth floor of the nearby Axinn Library.
“Another reason for her obscurity lies in the work itself. Fine could paint; there is no doubt of that. She even produced several really beautiful and successful pictures, ranging from an early, harmonious work, ‘Untitled’ (c. 1938), on loan from the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, to ‘Astraea’ (1956), a raw, charged abstract with collage. But when you walk around this exhibition, it quickly becomes apparent that she never settled on her own style. Art history can be cruel, tending to rank and reward artists based on innovation and originality. In the absence of those qualities, an artist, no matter now talented, is overlooked or ignored. Fine falls into this category, for her work tends to look a little too much like that of her more famous peers. Her best paintings from the 1940s remind you of Pollock, Joan Miró and Arshile Gorky, while during the 1950s she often seemed to turn to de Kooning, Pollock and Franz Kline for ideas.”
I’m looking forward to seeing the show. Stumbling upon the life’s work of an unknown artist, even though the work may reference that of his or her better known contemporaries, can be enormously satisfying.
“Tranquil Power: The Art of Perle Fine,” organized by Susan W. Knowles. Emily Lowe Gallery, Hofstra University Museum, Hempstead, NY. Through June 26.