Abstract Expressionism may be more popular than any other topic in the history of American art. In a few short years following World War II, a small group of talented, swashbuckling, impoverished, and isolated artists overcame the indifference of the art world, as well as their often self-destructive behavior, and decisively moved the center of Western art from Paris to New York City.
For the most part – as is the case with much of art history – the story of Abstract Expressionism is a story about men. In “Abstract Expressionism: The Triumph of American Painting,” for example, Irving Sandler’s 1970 celebratory book about what is sometimes called the “New York School,” women artists barely rate a footnote.
The tendency to overlook female artists is historically inaccurate and misleading. As Mary Gabriel convincingly demonstrates in her new book Ninth Street Women, women artists were a key part of the movement, especially as a second generation of artists refined and advanced the discoveries of artistic pioneers like Pollock and Willem deKooning.
Gabriel investigates the role of several women who were central to this artistic milieu by weaving biography and social history into an engaging and seamless narrative. The result is a book that will expand and enrich understanding of Abstract Expressionism and shine a well-deserved spotlight on a handful of artists who deserve more visibility and recognition for their accomplishments.
Five female artists – Lee Krasner, Elaine deKooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler – are the focus of Gabriel’s narrative. Two of them – Krasner and deKooning – were part of the New York School from the start and both were enormously gifted artists.
Unfortunately for their reputations as painters, their husbands were the brightest stars in this artistic firmament. Elaine deKooning was married, of course, to Willem deKooning and Krasner was the wife of Pollock. Emotionally battered by their husbands, the artistic endeavors of both women were largely overlooked by the few critics, galleries, and collectors who were interested in advanced art at the time. Indeed, during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Elaine was better known for her essays about art and culture than she was as a painter. It was even tougher for Krasner, who spent much of her time trying to keep Pollock sober and focused on art. Much later, she would ruefully tell an interviewer that “it is almost impossible to deal with me without relating it to Pollock.”
Artistic recognition came eventually. Krasner was the first woman to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City but, sadly, the exhibition opened several months after her death. Meanwhile, Elaine deKooning made her reputation largely through portraits, which employed the gestural artistic techniques of Abstract Expressionism to make recognizable images of her subjects – most notably a series of works of President John F Kennedy. Her portraits would be the focus of a 2015 retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
Art movements are constantly evolving and changing and before long, a group of younger artists moved to New York and sought to make a name for themselves. Enter Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler.
All three had an easier time than Krasner and deKooing and were regarded as important painters from the start. But they were still marginalized. In 1958, for example, the Museum of Modern Art organized a landmark exhibition of “New American Painting” that traveled to eight countries. But of the 17 artists whose works were included in the show, Grace Hartigan was the only woman.
Like most of the male artists associated with the New York art world at this time, Hartigan lived a largely hand-to-mouth existence. By contrast, Mitchell and Frankenthaler came from well-to-do families, which eased their financial worries. After starting her career in New York, Mitchell bought an estate near Vethuil which kept her at some distance from the American art scene. Frankenthaler’s work, meanwhile, evolved continuously over the course of her long career but the constant was her exploration of the expressive possibilities of color.
All five had exceptionally challenging personal lives. Lee Krasner’s relationship with Pollock was unbelievably difficult. Elaine deKooning’s husband had a child with another woman while still married to Elaine. Hartigan virtually abandoned her son lest motherhood interfere with her artistic endeavors and, over the course of her long life, married four times. Alcoholism and serious depression plagued several of them. Mitchell and Hartigan attempted suicide. Several suffered physical violence at the hands of their husbands or lovers. Especially in the “Me Too” era, the personal challenges these women faced in the hyper-macho world of Abstract Expressionism makes for grim reading. As Gabriel notes repeatedly, all these artists were fanatically devoted to their craft but this devotion came at a steep price.
This is a marvelously enjoyable book. Exhaustively researched, it combines a deep knowledge of current scholarship with an in-depth review of the archival evidence and extensive interviews. Thankfully, it is free of the jargon that is so commonplace in art criticism today. Written in a fluid, conversational manner, readers will find it difficult to put down despite its considerable length.
The detailed study of these artists is welcome and overdue. There are, of course, other gifted women artists associated with the New York School who have been overlooked for too long. While not as well known as the subjects in Gabriel’s book, Charlotte Parks, Mercedes Matter, Pat Passlof, and Hedda Sterne, and Jane Freilicher all merit greater attention.
We a lucky to live in a time when individuals overlooked by history are recognized and celebrated. One hopes that other writers will continue to explore and expand our appreciation of this still too obscure aspect of American art history.