Perle Fine, Still Cool After All These Years

Perle Fine working in her Springs studio. Her “Cool Series” of paintings, completed between 1961 and 1963, includes, below left to right, “Cool Series (Black Over Green),” “Cool Series (Blue Over Red),” and “Cool Series, No. 29, Cool Blue/Cold Green.” Maurice Berezov

    The photographs in the Spanierman catalogue say it all. There she is with Hans Hofmann in his Provincetown, Mass., studio, then with Willem de Kooning in Springs, in a photo shoot with Ad Reinhardt, arm in arm with Lee Krasner, or standing confidently with her hand on her hip on an East Hampton beach with some of the greatest artists of the period in a 1962 Hans Namuth photograph.
    Perle Fine was an artist who mattered, not just here, where she made a home and studio in Springs from 1954 until her death in 1988, but everywhere. A retrospective that was shown on Long Island in 2009 will still be making its way around the country in small venues through next year. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art, among many others.
    No one ever said she never got her due. She was respected by her colleagues and her work was exhibited often during her life in solo shows at the places that mattered: Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery and the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, Betty Parsons, and Tanager. She was one of the few women — invited by de Kooning no less — to join the club, a group of artists who gathered at Eighth Street in New York to discuss and debate the tendencies in art beginning in 1949.
    By the late 1960s the Archives of American Art was interviewing her and asking to borrow her papers to microfilm for future research. The quotes included in this article are from that interview.
    Her “Cool Series” of Color Field paintings made from 1961 to 1963 in Springs is the subject of an exhibit in New York at Spanierman Modern. Cool is a good name for them. Geometric, linear, boldly colored, the hard lines are anything but timid, yet not over showy either. They are the work of an artist confident in who he is and in her message of balance and purity.
    Fine noted that in all of her work, “Color is always a motivation. Mixing color, you know, is a very joyous occupation for me because there was so much excitement at what would happen when one color was placed next to another . . .  there was so much more than just what came out of the tube.”
    For the artist herself, there was so much more. She could be alternatively minimal and maximal, geometric and gestural, a weaver in and out of styles with amazing fluidity. Seen in her Springs studio or out and about in East Hampton with a bandanna hair kerchief and jeans or in the city in a skirt, sweater set, and pearls, she had an equal balance of bohemian and classic metropolitan style.
    She was born in Boston but moved to New York in 1927 to study art at the Grand Central Art School and the Art Students League. By 1933, she was in one of the first classes at Hans Hofmann’s school, following him to Provincetown for summers as well. Although she considered studying illustration, “what I found out very quickly was you can only be a painter and nothing else if you’re going to be a painter.” From the beginning, she was respected for her work, yet lost out on Works Progress Administration commissions because she had a phone, considered a luxury at the time.
    She was already married to Maurice Berezov by this time, having met him at Grand Central Art School. They had two cold-water flats in the city, living in one and painting in another.
    Although she took classes at the Hofmann school and was friendly with many artists, she said that from her childhood she considered herself an isolationist. “I never like working with a group, in a group at all. I just couldn’t think.”
    Before Hofmann, Fine was an academic naturalist. “I felt that one should have a grounding in academic painting,” which is why she attended the Art Students League, “at least one had to know what it was in order to overcome it.”
    At the same time, once she became an abstract artist the transformation was complete. “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.” Her very first solo show in the 1940s was a group of paintings of amorphic forms floating in space that critics at the time likened to work by Joan Miro, but that she said were more akin to that of Alexander Calder.
    Fine met Krasner through Hofmann’s classes and through her met Jackson Pollock. They all became well acquainted, first in Provincetown and then in East Hampton. As much as she admired Pollock’s work, she continued to explore her forms in space subject matter for some time, “space, movement, form, and with always the big question of keeping, maintaining the first plane of the picture” were her preoccupations at the time, she said.
    Back in the city, Fine and her husband, who had been based in the uptown gallery world, moved down to East 10th Street in the midst of all of the artists with studios there. “Bill de Kooning next door, and Esteban Vicente above him, and [Landes] Lewitan and Milton Resnick. . . . Resnick had the largest studio in the neighborhood. I think it was one inch larger than Elaine de Kooning’s, or it might have been the other way around — I don’t know. There was all that kind of discussion. But it was a lot of fun. People were painting for the fun of it. And there was a certain release there that I didn’t get anywhere else. And I think it had to do with these people dropping in that I found were real people.”
    She was aware that she was painting with a frame of reference that differed from the psychological and Surrealist themes of many of these painters. It made her want to try it. “What I mean by trying it was painting with complete release as if I’d been through a session with a psychiatrist. So I really did that and had great fun doing it.” Still, she found she could not let go of her underlying structure to be fully Abstract Expressionist. “I couldn’t paint a picture that was a scribble.”
    The painterly surface that resulted was something that stayed with her after her experiments, as did using house paint. It was “the only way to get the brush to flow in a certain way and to get enough pigment in there,” she said.
    At her first meeting at the Club, Lewitan, who was known for being strident and difficult, told her that he was the only member who voted against her membership. “It was supposed to be unanimous, whoever was brought in, but they allowed me to come in anyway.” She found those years and the talks exciting, but tired of the city by 1954, when she decamped to a one-room house and studio in Springs for eight years, apart from her husband, who came out on weekends.
    Even with the return of figuration in the 1960s, she was resolute in her devotion to abstraction. “There’s so much that’s still unexplored in the realm of the non-objective and the abstract. And I feel that I sort of owe it to myself because I know quite a bit about it and I think because I do I want to know a little bit more. I want to know what I don’t know.”
    Fine died at the age of 83 in a nursing home in Southampton and was buried at Green River Cemetery in Springs along with several of her artist friends.