Perle Fine - Biography and Legacy
East Hampton, New York
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.