East Hampton, New York
Summary of Perle Fine
Successful and well-regarded in the late-1940s and early-1950s, Perle Fine embodied the tenets of Abstract Expressionism. Steeped in the discoveries of modern European masters, Fine found her own visual language to explore the depths of human emotion and vitality. Insistent on the dynamism of color and line, Fine's abstract paintings and collages evoke a sense of music, dance, and landscape, all comingling to remind the viewer of the interconnectedness of humans with nature and with each other.
Despite her contributions to the visual idiom of Abstract Expressionism and being integral to the downtown social scene in New York City, Fine largely disappeared from the annals of Abstract Expressionism. Unlike many of her male counterparts who settled on a singular, signature style, Fine explored various styles of painting, from gestural Action Painting to more structured, cooler Minimalist works, and perhaps because of this ceaseless exploration Fine, like her adventurous colleague Hedda Sterne, failed to fit into the narrative of Abstract Expressionism constructed by later critics and historians. Recent scholarship, though, has again attempted to shine a light on the contributions made to Abstract Expressionism by female artists.
- Though trained in illustration and traditional drawing, Fine worked her way through Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, and others. One of the abiding influences for Fine was the modernist master Piet Mondrian. The structure and dynamism of his Neo-Plastic paintings often informed Fine's explorations, even when the results were visually distinct.
- Fine's experiments with collage, at various times using paper, foil, and even wood, were as rigorous as her investigations in painting. Playing with line, texture, shadow, and light, Fine's collages were a fresh take on the largely moribund tradition in the middle of the 20th century.
- Over the years, Fine pursued various styles, never settling on one. Her tireless explorations were always an attempt to push color and line to their most expressive. After departing the frenetic art scene of downtown New York, Fine felt more liberated to experiment and try new styles on her own terms, without the pressures and demands of the art world.
- Like other female artists, such as Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, and Hedda Sterne, Perle Fine was sidelined in discussions of Abstract Expressionism. While respected by her male colleagues and many critics at the time, many gallerists in the later half of the 1950s insisted that women artists were not marketable, and in many ways they were subsequently erased from the histories.
Progression of Art
In the early work Cubist Abstraction, Fine used the gestures and techniques of Cubist painting to create an interior scene. A large, sweeping curve in blue and beige fills the center of the ovoid composition, and various blocks of brown and black fill the rest of the space, while mall patches of green and red suggest foliage. As with many Cubist scenes, it is as if the viewer is seeing multiple perspectives of the space at the same time. The juxtaposition of suggested objects, flat areas of color, and collaged newspaper create a disorienting effect.
Fine would spend hours in New York's museums, copying works by modern masters, including Picasso, and then return to her studio to create her own versions of the paintings. Eventually, through her study of Cubism and abstraction, Fine learned that "for a thing to be abstract meant to me that you had to feel strongly enough about it to turn your back on realism and do everything necessary in an abstract way to put across a feeling which meant being totally abstract or non-objective." In this work, Fine was not only expanding her academic painting skills but was also developing her own attitude toward abstraction and geometry that would lead her into more radical directions.
Oil and collage on canvas - Private Collection
In 1943, writing about a group show at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, art critic Edward Alden Jewell described Fine's work "as more original than other artists influenced by Wassily Kandinsky." While Polyphonic was not included in the exhibition, it is clearly indebted to the lyrical works of Kandinsky and the abstract Surrealist Joan Miró, although Fine was unhappy with such comparisons, especially to the Surrealists. Here, shapes in primary colors and white float on a black background and are tenuously connected by thin lines, creating playful juxtapositions and relationships. The title refers to the simultaneity of sounds, and in fact, many of her paintings from the mid-1940s were influenced by music and dance, as well as forms found in outer space and nature.
While not so blatantly grid-like, one can also sense her friend Mondrian's influence as well; Fine uses line and color to represent the tempo and movement of music. One critic reviewed her first solo exhibition by describing Polyphonic as an "immobilized" Alexander Calder, and in fact the bulbous, organic forms connected by thin, wiry lines do recall Calder's famous mobiles. With all of these invocations of modern masters, here we see Fine developing her own geometric style that evoked feelings and moods rather Surrealistic fantasies.
Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York
Wide to the Wind
During the early 1950s, when she was socializing with and exhibiting along side other prominent Abstract Expressionists, Fine created a series of abstract collages that would serve as inspiration for a later series of prints. In Wide to the Wind, a dark mass moves left to right across the center of the composition and recalls her previous works' play with movement, space, and nature. The earth colors combined with reds, roses, yellows, and white are evocative of a landscape but do not coalesce into recognizable forms, perhaps suggesting the invisible forces of the wind alluded to in the title. Many of these collages took on darker tones, and over time grew larger in scale, incorporating a more gestural application of paint and other materials including scraps of paper, gold leaf, and foils,.
While Abstract Expressionism is dominated by painting, artists including Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, Anne Ryan, and Esteban Vicente along with Perle Fine explored the aesthetic possibilities of collage, a medium that had largely languished in the United States in the middle of the 20th century. Eschewing the more overt appropriations of mass culture imagery as practiced by earlier Dadaists and more contemporary artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Fine recycled bits of paper to emphasize the materiality and tactility of her surfaces. Her early studies of Cubist collage and Mondrian's working process of using bits of colored tape surely allowed her the freedom to pursue collage in its own right and not just as a peripheral undertaking, secondary to her painting.
Gouache and collage on paper - Collection of Thomas and Darlene Furst
Cool Series, No. 7, Square Shooter
After several years of living in Springs, East Hampton, Fine embarked on a new series of paintings she called the Cool Series; here, she pared down her gestural, abstract practice of her early career and reduced her palette to just a couple of colors. In No. 7 Square Shooter vivid blue and red hard-edged rectangles make the canvas surface vibrate. Fine did not necessarily see these works as a departure from her earlier work but rather a development. She said, "Out of revelation, which came about through endless probing came revolution....The economy of means somehow seemed necessary to secure the sensation of the expression of the existentialist in art." In reducing the forms and means of her painting, Fine aimed to find an "infinite variety of expressions."
Coming in the midst of a rhetorical shift against the heady, existentialist rhetoric of the Abstract Expressionists, many Post Painterly and Color Field painters like Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, championed by the critic Clement Greenberg, moved away from psychological symbolism but still explored, according to art historian Karen Wilkin, how "a painting, no matter how apparently restrained, could address the viewer's whole being - emotions, intellect, and all - through the eye, just as music did through the ear." Fine's forays into Color Field painting explore how color tensions and lines interact in expressive ways. As art critic and photographer John Gruen explained, "There is a vibrant light that emanates from these works, not blinding or jarring or dizzying. It is an arresting light that remains constant, lending purity - even dignity, to essentially emotional statements." In many ways, Fine's minimalist compositions were ahead of the times, as it wasn't until the mid- and late-1960s that cool, hard-edged abstract painting became more acceptable.
Oil on canvas - Berry Campbell Gallery
In Unequivocably Blue, one of a series of collages employing wood and paint, Fine continues to explore geometry, space, and form. Fine arranges wooden shapes, painted in blue and black stripes or white and black stripes, on top of each other to form intricate patterns that traffic both in actual and illusionistic depth. These works could be said to harken back to her lessons in three-dimensional painting during her studies with Kimon Nicolaides at the Art Students League. New York Times art critic Benjamin Genocchio suggests that the works in this series stand out from her Abstract Expressionist peers because they "seem to capture a fragmentary meshing of shadows and light."
After a bout of illness, Fine was unable to paint and instead started arranging curvilinear bits of wood into compositions. Fine said that the "color had a kind of shocking feel," especially as the light caught the edges of the wood. Like most of the Abstract Expressionists, Fine never regarded herself a landscape painter; however, when Willem de Kooning visited Fine's new studio in 1955, he suggested that she was painting what she saw out of her windows. At the time, Fine disagreed with her friend, but it is interesting to think of the ways in which her work does intersect with nature. In this case, the play of shadow and light and illusion and depth are at the forefront, but by the same token, nature itself - the light streaming in from her studio windows - effected how Fine thought of these works and how they worked best.
Wood collage with acrylic and poster paint on plywood, mounted on hardboard - Johnson Musuem of Art, Cornell University
A Timelessness #2
A Timelessness #2, painted in 1974, was a part of Fine's Accordments series, which she began in the early 1970s. Using vertical and horizontal lines, Fine creates a mesmerizing grid in subtle shades of yellow and white. Certainly evoking Mondrian's influence, the paintings in the Accordments series are light-filled and emanate a certain quietness. Fine's abiding interest in nature, movement, and repetition, creates a presence of sublime awe in these works. Fine described the paintings, "Compelling, mysterious, they are yet very tranquil; they are evocations of being in tune with nature and the Universe."
Further describing the Accordments series as "a whisper in reply to a shout," one senses that Fine has finely come to terms with the macho bravado that had become associated with Abstract Expressionism by the late 1960s; the work speaks for itself without the myth and lifestyle of the artist interfering in the vision. In many ways, A Timelessness #2 recalls the Zen-inspired grids of Agnes Martin. While Martin is often associated with Minimalist art trends, she felt more akin to the Abstract Expressionists in their desire to communicate something deeply human, and while Fine may have given up the rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, like Martin, she never lost site of her profound subject matter.
Oil on canvas
Biography of Perle Fine
One of six children, Perle Fine was born near Boston in 1905, shortly after her parents emigrated from Russia. Her father was a dairy farmer, and while not in school, she helped out doing chores around the farm and house. She remembered, "We had a marvellous childhood. We always had lots to eat, lots of fresh good milk, cream, cheese, butter, everything. I never knew how poor we were." Fine's interest in art started at an early age, making posters and winning small prizes through her time in grammar school. When she graduated from high school, she was set on having a career as an artist. None of her other siblings were artists, but her sister was a pianist and encouraged her creativity.
Education and Early Training
She began her artistic studies at the Boston Practical School of Art, where she learned illustration and graphic design. During her time there, she lamented the lack of a vibrant artistic community, and in 1928, when she was in her twenties, she decided to move to New York City. She continued her illustration and design studies when she enrolled in the Grand Central School of Art, where her work won first prize for illustration in 1930. It was during this time when she met fellow student Maurice Berezov, who became a photographer and who she married in 1930. In an effort to hone her skills, Fine spent hours visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, copying works by artist she admired like Renoir, Cézanne and Gauguin. Feeling a need to move beyond illustration, she transferred to the Arts Students League and studied under Kimon Nicolaides, who himself had studied with John Sloan. Absorbing his academic approach and insistence on spontaneity, Fine commented that during this time the most important thing she learnt was "what three-dimensional painting really was...actually trying to do it in his method, which was using brown wrapping paper and painting with black and white oil on that to the point where the figure almost looked like sculpture coming out of the wall."
When Hans Hofmann moved his art school in 1938 just down the street from Fine's apartment, Fine took the opportunity to enroll and spent her time exploring non-objective painting. Reflecting on her wide-ranging education, Fine recalled "I felt that one should have a grounding in academic painting; at least one had to know what it was in order to overcome it. For a thing to be abstract meant to me that you had to feel strongly enough about it to turn your back on realism and do everything necessary in an abstract way to put across a feeling which meant being totally abstract or non-objective." Fine often sought Hofmann's advice if she was having trouble with a composition. Using Hofmann's dissected Cubism, Fine's paintings became more abstract and geometric.
It was at this time when Fine and Berezov joined the American Abstract Artists (AAA), a group founded to promote abstract art in the United States through exhibitions, publications, and discussions. Here she met artists like Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Irene Rice Pereia, and Ad Reinhardt. Through her studies Fine had become familiar with Mondrian's theories of Neo-Placticism, but through their friendship and Fine's studio visits, she came to know more about Neo-Plasticism first hand. The collector Emily Tremaine recognized that Fine had absorbed Mondrian's teaching and asked her to make two interpretations of Mondrian's final, unfinished painting, Victory Boogie Woogie (Mondrian died in 1944). Fine obliged, making a copy of the original and one that interpreted what Mondrian's final intentions for the painting might have been.
In the early 1940's, Fine's work began to gain recognition and was promoted by Hilla Rebay at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) as a young upcoming talent; she received a Guggenheim Foundation Grant and exhibited her work at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery. In 1945, she had her first solo show at the Willard Gallery, and subsequently, art dealer Karl Nierendorf offered to show her work and provide her a subsidy to allow her to paint full time.
Fine joined the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1948, which represented many of the burgeoning Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. Befriending these painters and gaining their respect led Willem de Kooning to sponsor her membership at The Club, a loft where the Abstract Expressionists hung out, listened to various invited guests, and vigorously debated each other on panel discussions. Fine was one of the first women to be admitted to The Club, leading the way for other women artists working in abstraction. Her work was also included in the infamous Ninth Street Exhibition in 1951 that brought more public attention to the group of downtown artists.
Despite her successes, as a female painter in New York, Fine faced many obstacles and felt alienated. In 1954, having become disillusioned with the art world, she moved to Springs, a small hamlet near East Hampton on the south fork of Long Island and home to artists such as Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. In the new, more rural environment she continued to develop her practice, experimenting more liberally with color and form. In 1960, Fine was a visiting lecturer at Cornell University, and in 1961 she became a professor at nearby Hofstra University, where she taught until 1973. Like many of her colleagues who also taught, Fine said, "I never thought of myself as a student or teacher, but as a painter." In the 1970s, Fine embarked on her final body of work, the Accordment Series, which she would continue until the mid-1980s. This later work returned to the grid, evoking the works of Agnes Martin, an artist Fine greatly admired, and re-embraced her earlier lessons gleaned from Mondrian. Fine suffered from Alzheimer's disease during the last few years of her life and died in 1988 in East Hampton, New York.
The Legacy of Perle Fine
Fine's career as a practicing artist spanned over 50 years, and she exhibited her work regularly from 1943 onwards. One of the first women to join The Club, she was a vital part of the New York art scene in the early 1950's, but over the decades she fell into obscurity. Never settling on a single style, unlike many of her male peers, may have hampered Fine's notoriety, but also chauvinistic gallery owners often refused to show female painters at this time. Also, while her work can be found in several museum collections, much of it found its way to private collectors, and the majority of it has never been seen by a broader public.
Since the start of the 21st century, however, Fine's work has become more accessible. In 2009, Hofstra University held a retrospective, and in 2016, she was a crucial part of the Denver Art Museum's Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition that explored the contributions female artists made to Abstract Expressionism and included works by her peers, Judith Godwin, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Jay DeFeo, Deborah Remington, and Sonia Gechtoff. Fine's enthusiasm for teaching and her influence on her students can be seen through artists such as Pat Lipsky, a geometric abstract painter who attended Cornell University and sites Abstract Expressionism as a significant inspiration.