A new book on their le­gacy

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - Michael Abatemarco


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


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

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