A new book on their legacy
THE NAMES OF THE WOMEN PIONEERS
of Abstract Expressionism were often eclipsed by those of the men. Only in recent years has the work of artists like Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning, and Lee Krasner been reassessed, not as a footnote to a mostly male narrative, but in its own right, for its radicalism and impact on art history. These women, along with Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler, made up the movement as much as men like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell did. To a greater extent than their male counterparts, they also made larger sacrifices. Their struggles were personal but also public. They were often uncompromising in their resistance to the status quo. That’s what’s clear in author Mary Gabriel’s new book Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, an epic narrative of these five artists who challenged art world expectations.
Gabriel’s prose is powerful, compelling storytelling at its finest, in which the New York art scene, starting in the 1930s and continuing into the decades following World War II, comes alive. Ninth Street Women is that rare tome among books of art history that treats artistic engagement with painting as a vibrant living
thing, not a theoretical subject to be dissected with clinical precision. For Gabriel’s subjects, painting was as inseparable from an artist’s existence as her own lifeblood. Ninth Street Women is a story of urgency, as well as agency. It is perhaps the most worthwhile accounting of these painters to date.
From Gabriel’s introduction, she makes plain the need for such a book, which she conceived of writing after a fortuitous and lengthy conversation with Hartigan in 1990. Whenever a woman’s name was mentioned in Hartigan’s recounting of the movement, Gabriel wondered why it so rarely came up in historical treatments. “Their contributions were significant,” she writes. “In fact, in the cases of Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, the movement would not have existed or unfolded as it did without them.”
Gabriel takes her title from the name of a 1951 exhibition mounted by Ab-Ex artists who frequented New York’s Cedar Bar. The show boasted a formidable roster that included the likes of Pollock, Kline, Milton Resnick, and Willem de Kooning. After a night of carousing at the bar, some of the artists noticed an empty storefront on Ninth Street in Greenwich Village and agreed it would make an ideal exhibition space. They wanted to call attention to a generation of younger artists who were being excluded from the uptown galleries. Some older members of an informal group called the Club, who met regularly at an Eighth Street loft and were involved in planning the show, were dismissive of the idea of including women artists. “The younger women were especially resented by those who believed the women’s works would diminish the strength and seriousness of the exhibition,” Gabriel writes. “Real art was a masculine domain, they argued.” But younger, more enlightened members of the Club prevailed. The idea of a show of works by artists who saw themselves as equals was born.
The Ninth Street exhibition wasn’t actually that equal, not in terms of numbers. Of the 72 artists included, most were men. But all five of Gabriel’s main subjects were included, and they were as formidable in their artistic bearings as the men. Krasner, Gabriel states, was regarded as a dominant figure among the Cedar Bar crowd. Elaine de Kooning, the wife of Willem and a brilliant artist and writer, had been on the scene for years, so her inclusion wasn’t questioned so much as expected. “Indeed, all five of these artists formed a part of a new breed existing unapologetically outside the mainstream of American life at mid-century,” Gabriel writes. It was the beginning of an era in which the destinies of artists were forged by their own volitions and less subject to the tastes of uptown dealers. Gabriel writes of the Ninth Street show as a pivotal moment that put a lot of artists on the map.
The early chapters deal primarily with Krasner and Elaine de Kooning. It’s significant that both were married to prominent Ab-Ex artists. Those relationships provided necessary exposure to dealers and galleries, but were also grounds for competition. The women felt the undue pressure to promote their husbands’ careers ahead of their own. Krasner was married to Jackson Pollock. Although she was regarded as a primary figure in her circle, she still suffered at the hands of Pollock, a notoriously belligerent drunk. At times, the abuse affected her career. “Normally, when threatened by Lee’s accomplishments, he punished her with a drunken outrage,” Gabriel writes in a later chapter.
But Pollock took a hands-off approach to Krasner’s success when she had her 1951 solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery. There was a reason for that. The work in the solo show was far from Krasner’s best. Parsons, who had visited Krasner’s Springs home in
NINTH STREET WOMEN IS A STORY OF URGENCY, AS WELL AS AGENCY. IT IS PERHAPS THE MOST WORTHWHILE ACCOUNTING OF THESE PAINTERS TO DATE.
East Hampton the year before, was shocked that the artist brought new paintings to the gallery that were not the equals of what she saw in Springs. Throughout the 1940s, Krasner painted wild, bold, and confident abstractions on a par with her husband’s canvases. But in the early 1950s, the work briefly changed in tone. Pollock, after a dry spell, had started drinking again, and as the only one of the pair who knew how to drive, he often left Krasner housebound and stranded. The dynamic of being trapped in a labyrinth with a drunken monster took its toll; Krasner had produced a body of work that was timid. Because the paintings she brought to Betty Parsons Gallery were nothing special, appearing, according to Gabriel, almost like student work, Pollock seemed less rattled than usual. Krasner later destroyed most of those paintings.
De Kooning, for her part, painted portraits throughout most of the 1940s, moving more emphatically into gestural, although often still figurative, abstraction years later. The reason was that her husband found portraiture a more suitable subject for a woman painter and, according to the narrative, she conceded to him — at first.
Ninth Street Women is a hefty tome, bridging several biographies without much skimping. Krasner was born in New York in 1908; de Kooning, also a New Yorker, in 1918; Hartigan, who was born in 1922, hailed from New Jersey; Mitchell came from Chicago, where she was born in 1925; and Frankenthaler, the youngest of the group, was born in New York in 1928. They came of age at a time when Europe, as the center of Western art and culture, was in decline, decimated by the Great War and, later, World War II. New York, and America as whole, were distanced from these events, although the impact of war was felt in other ways. Men were fighting overseas and resources were spread thin. The artists who lived through the Depression of the 1930s had little to lose, so they took chances.
New York’s star shone brighter as the art world’s primary beacon; its artistic movements became untethered to the norms of European academia. For an artist, New York was the place to be. They could push their mediums forward. Championed by high-profile critics like Clement Greenberg, a prominent figure in this tale, Abstract Expressionism became a defining postwar movement: raw and immediate, born in the wake of economic turmoil. It was primal and intuitive, about as close to a direct experience with a medium as an artist could get. Gabriel paints a heady, swirling picture of the era.
The author is mindful that these women, though often sidelined by critics, were also successful, particularly Hartigan, who fought against traditional roles and expectations to achieve that success. As a girl, she nurtured a rich fantasy life, entertaining the possibility of becoming a detective and then a poet. Living in the Jersey countryside near an encampment of gypsies, she marveled at the free and easy lifestyle they represented. She married young and soon found herself in California, pregnant and on the verge of seeing her zest for nonconformity squelched by the demands of familial responsibility. But her husband encouraged her to take art classes.
She would eventually send her son to live with his grandparents — “the most wrenching decision of her life,” writes Gabriel — so she could live in New York and devote herself to painting. Her husband, deployed overseas during the war, met another woman in Europe and left Hartigan. But before coming into her own, and rising quickly to renown as an artist, Hartigan also saw herself, like Krasner and de Kooning at times, in the role of supporter. She worked a day job while living with her paramour, the painter Ike Muse, so that he could focus on his art. Their relationship was strained. He was grooming her to fulfill what Gabriel calls “the traditional role of ‘artist’s wife.’ ”
Inspired by seeing the works of Pollock, however, she rebelled. Hartigan, in conversation with Gabriel, spoke of incorporating some of what she saw in Pollock’s compositions into her own paintings. Muse had condescended to allow her to hang one of these paintings in their living room, but acquaintances mistook it as one of his own. “All the people congratulated him on the best painting he’d ever done,” she told Gabriel, “You see the handwriting on the wall there, can’t you?” Soon after this debacle, under pressure from Muse to give up painting, she moved out and her career took off, ultimately eclipsing his own.
That defiant spirit colors Ninth Street Women, which benefits from the personal observations and recollections of its many interview subjects. Krasner, too, would eventually tire of the game with Pollock and leave him, not long, it turns out, before his alcoholfueled demise behind the wheel of his Oldsmobile convertible. Gabriel treats all of the material in her narrative fairly, respectfully, cognizant of the impact of all the players — women and men alike — who formed the fabric of one of America’s most celebrated artistic movements. But the New York art scene’s rampant sexism is a constant refrain. Because of five painters in particular, who persevered despite opposition, the generations of women artists that followed had exemplars who showed them that they could be who and what they wanted to be, even if what they wanted was fame and glory. Even if what they wanted was the world.
Clockwise from far left, Lee Krasner in Jackson Pollock’s studio, circa 1949, photo Harry Bowden, Harry Bowden Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. © 2018 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS); Krasner: The Seasons, 1957, oil and house paint on canvas, The Whitney Museum of American Art, photo Sheldon C. Collins, © 2018 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society; Joan Mitchell: City Landscape, 1955, oil on canvas, collection of and courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago, © Estate of Joan Mitchell; all images courtesy Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group
Left, Joan Mitchell, circa 1952, photo Walter Silver, The Walter Silver Collection, © Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
Above, Helen Frankenthaler in front of Mountains and Sea (1952) in her West End Avenue apartment, 1956, photo Walter Silver, Helen Frankenthaler Papers, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York, © 2018 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS); far right, Frankenthaler: Trojan Gates (detail), 1955, oil and enamel on sized, primed canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, Artists Rights Society (ARS), digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, artwork © 2018 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS)
Grace Hartigan on the roof of the studio she shared with Al Leslie, circa 1951, Grace Hartigan Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries, Syracuse, New York; right, Hartigan: Interior, ‘The Creeks,’ 1957, oil on canvas, photo Mitro Hood, courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art, © Estate of Grace Hartigan; below, Elaine de Kooning: Juarez, 1958, oil on masonite, courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, © Elaine de Kooning Trust
Willem and Elaine de Kooning, 1944, photo Ibram Lassaw, © Ibram Lassaw Estate