Abstract Expressionist Women Painters

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As with other past art movements, these individuals are predominantly male; in this case, not only are they male, but their maleness, their heroic machismo spirit, has become a defining characteristic of the expansive, gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism.[i]

So stated is the recent feminist case against Abstract Expressionism, an art style associated with hard-drinking, brawling men who wore workmen’s clothes and used industrial paint. For feminists, the discussion of such art is embodied in the language of criticism.

Discussion of the work of abstract expressionists abounds with highly gender-laden adjectives, it is “strong” “incisive”, “thrusting” and “aggressive”. Its image of barely controlled violence is reinforced by the frequent title of “Action Painting”, all these elements conforming to popular perceptions of masculinity. […] cultural stereotypes of female passivity made the function of the female artist within “Action Painting” difficult to define, hence the often peripheral position allocated to artists such as Lee Krasner or Helen Frankenthaler. […] in art as in so many other areas of activity, women were denied a central role in post-war western culture.[iii]

Critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess would arbitrate on the quality of art using language that would lock in place a masculine set of virtues, the argument goes. “A so-called canon would arise that solidified Abstract Expressionism as male.” [iv] Yet one of the leading critics was Elaine de Kooning – a shrewd, intelligent and informed woman who was also a painter.  Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler enjoyably and thoroughly surveys the lives of five prominent female artists of the New York scene. Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Elaine de Kooning née Fried (1918-1989), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) are all artists well worth biographical and critical attention, which have received to varying degrees over the decades.

The starting point of the book is the Ninth Street Show, a group show held in a building in New York due for demolition. The show displayed the depth and variety of the New York School as it became the vanguard style of world Modernist art. The show, held over May and June of 1951, brought together the leading artists of the first generation of newly prominent New York School (including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Krasner) alongside many members of the second generation (including Hartigan, Frankenthaler and Mitchell). The second generation were not much younger than the first generation (sometimes only a matter of ten years). The main differentiation was participation in the experiences of the 1930s as artists: the Great Depression, the conflict between Modernists and Regionalists, the WPA (which provided indigent artists with paid employment for public benefit) and the political activism of unionism and Socialist events.

Gabriel captures the excitement, poverty and cultural ferment of the arts starting in 1929, when artists divided into camps and argued vehemently (to the point of fistfights) about aesthetics. Social commitment meant being gaoled for affray during protests. The writing is lively, informed and strongly narrative. It is an approachable entrance in the atmosphere, politics and characters of the New York School. Although it is centred on five painters it weaves in the stories of other major (and a few of the minor) figures of the time: Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Hess, Rosenberg, Greenburg, Peggy Guggenheim, Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers and John Graham. Most prominent of the other figures are Pollock and de Kooning. The book closes in 1959, with a coda describing the later lives of the painters.

Krasner trained at the Cooper Union, New York. Discouraged by the limitations of social realism (the Ash Can School) and the politics of Communism in the wake of Stalin’s show trials, she turned to abstraction and Modernism by taking classes under Hans Hofmann. She became a committed Modernist and admired Mondrian; soon she had a chance to meet her hero when he moved to New York as part of the influx of emigre artists. During the war years she met Pollock, they moved in together and shared ideas. In 1945 they married. Together with Clement Greenberg, Krasner made Pollock’s career a joint effort, even to the extent of painting less. It seems that Pollock’s emotional demands and ego inhibited Krasner from working for a time, though they did co-operate for a number of joint exhibitions.

Elaine Fried studied at Leonardo da Vinci School. In 1938 she met de Kooning at about the same time as Gorky and John Graham, the painter and theoretician who wrote System and Dialectics of Art (1937). This eccentric book on the subject of Modern art was one of key references for the tiny group of American artists of the era. Well before their marriage in 1943, Elaine made de Kooning’s career her project, networking with critic Harold Rosenberg. Her art was portraiture of herself and fellow artists, executed with painterly bravura. In 1948 Hess, editor of ArtNews, commissioned Elaine de Kooning to write exhibition reviews. This made her an important figure in the New York art world and appreciated by artists, about whose work she could write with the knowledge and sympathy of an insider.

Frankenthaler studied at Bennington College and with Hans Hofmann and entered an art world where the nascent Abstract Expressionists were already being exhibited and sold. Unlike the first generation, she never experienced the pre-war scene. She was joining an art world where Modernism was in ascendant with the cognoscenti even if it was not widely accepted by the general public. While freshly graduated, she met Greenberg and began an affair with him. Although he did not write about her art, his status helped to open doors for Frankenthaler. On 26 October 1952 she painted Mountains and the Sea, which is made with diluted paint which she splashed and soaked into the canvas while it was horizontal on the floor of her studio. It is credited with starting the Colour Field School.

Hartigan, without art qualifications, she worked as a technical draughtsman during the war. Her future husband Harry Jackson was a painter and fan of Pollock. She met Pollock and Krasner in 1948 and the couples became friends. Hartigan’s rise was faster than that of most artists and she was soon exhibiting and selling paintings alongside veteran painters. The 1953 purchase of one of her paintings by MoMA marked a remarkable level of recognition for one of the second-generation of Abstract Expressionists.

Mitchell studied painting at the School of Art Institute, Chicago. She married fellow Chicagoan Barney Rosset, filmmaker and future publisher of Grove Press, in 1949. In New York she became an abstract painter, influenced by a tour of Europe. Critics consider her part of Abstract Impressionism, fusing Abstract Expressionism and the inheritance of Monet. Substance abuse and infidelity caused a split from Rosset. Later, Mitchell had a long-term relationship with French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.

All of these artists knew each other and had periods of close friendships, sometimes working side by side, at other times estranged through personal differences. All achieved public and commercial recognition, sometimes slow, sometimes ebbing, subject to the changing critical tastes of their times. All achieved financial independence.

Reading Ninth Street Women we come to understand how important painting as painting was for this generation. Painting was a way of discovering the world and unlocking doors to new experiences; it was an expression of individual humanity in an era of Cold War. The earnest atmosphere of The Club and the boozy raucousness of the Cedar Tavern are conveyed in the author’s descriptions, augmented by recollections of artists. The poverty and neglect these artists faced brought (relative) camaraderie; with fame and money came (relative) rivalry. The main narrative ends in the year 1959, which marks the decline of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field Painting and the rise of Pop Art. By 1959 American Modernist art had become mainstream, big business and a haven for speculators. Mitchell had moved to France to be closer to Riopelle and escape the drinking culture of the Five Spot (the replacement for the Cedar Tavern). Frankenthaler had married Robert Motherwell. Krasner was managing Pollock’s estate and making her own art on Long Island. Elaine was estranged from de Kooning, painting and teaching art; she would go on to paint portraits of many notable people, including President Kennedy. Hartigan was changing her art, leaving behind the sturm und drang of Ab Ex impasto and diluting her paint to washes, influenced by Colour Field Painting.

The hard-drinking uninhibited lifestyles of the New York School were punctuated by arguments that escalated to fistfights. Affairs were common and marriages and relationships imploding regularly. In 1956 Pollock died when he crashed his car whilst drunk. These women painters strove for equality and some of them – in their hard drinking, heavy smoking, drug taking, casual sex and flouting of conventions – sometimes partook of the freedoms and temptations of bohemian life as much as their male counterparts. Like the men, they suffered consequences. Mitchell experienced fits of depression after bouts of drunken wildness and earned a reputation as a hell raiser. In 1953 Mitchell attempted suicide attempt following an extreme party. By the mid-1950s many of the New York School were struggling with excessive alcohol consumption, a problem heightened by their increasing incomes.[v] “Marriages and relationships born in poverty and obscurity could not withstand the onset of fortune and fame.”[vi] Hartigan suffered depression[vii] and later experienced alcoholism and would attempt suicide. Like Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning overcame alcoholism. Elaine de Kooning died of cancer, possibly caused by lifelong smoking – the same cause as Mitchell.

Gabriel discusses the situation of women artists of the time with sensitivity and fairness. Gabriel uses the words of the artists to give us their views on the subject. “Throughout her career, Grace was loath to acknowledge any difference between the sexes when it came to making art – except in the case of children [i.e. childbearing and childcare].”[ix] Only one of these five women had a child; Hartigan spent prolonged periods apart from her only child.

Gabriel remembers her first interview with Hartigan. “As Grace [Hartigan] spoke, she didn’t dwell on the fact that she was a woman artist. […] but each time she mentioned a woman painter or sculptor, I found myself wondering why, in the official history, those names so rarely surfaced. Their contributions were significant. […] and yet, the story of that movement has been taught and accepted as the tale of a few heroic men.”[x] The story of these artists is worth telling but we should not think that these women artists have not been overly neglected. The question is where are the books advancing forgotten figures such as Milton Resnick, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Friedel Dzubas, Norman Lewis and Theodoros Stamos? The Abstract Expressionist movement is full of skilled artists who were successful for a brief heyday but subsequently suffered a slump in recognition and today we hear almost nothing about them. The tough truth is that if the curator of a group exhibition can include only 10 artists then the temptation is to exhibit work by the 10 most famous artists to attract visitors and press. There is also the weight of expectations. If the same 10 artists appear in histories then it is hard for any writer of a new history to exclude any of those 10 artists to include an unfamiliar artist because it will look like an omission. Expectation and complacency play a greater role than prejudice in generating histories.

In every art movement or school, vanguards get the majority of attention, influence, press and market appeal. It is only later – as the primary figures get played out biographically and critically (and their art becomes scarcer in the market) – that scholars and dealers move to lesser-known figures. This is a universal phenomenon observable in all cases in fine art. Why women artists might find themselves as secondary or peripheral figures is another matter but it is one that they share with male counterparts. In the case of these five painters, only one of them was part of the first generation of the Abstract Expressionists, so in any short account of the brief heyday of the movement only Lee Krasner seems like a necessary inclusion, though Frankenthaler is essential if one wants to discuss the transition between Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field Painting. Elaine de Kooning was not really an Abstract Expressionist in style. Hartigan and Mitchell are talented painters but not innovators. This book reminds us that the artists (male and female) who make a success of their careers are often abnormal – abnormally confident, selfish, dedicated (or obsessive), ambitious or in some other way outliers in psychological terms. One might also say they are also abnormally lucky. Among the dozens or hundreds or (in our era of widespread global higher education in the fine arts) thousands of aspiring artists, it is only a handful who become successful, respected and remembered. Elaine de Kooning, Krasner, Frankenthaler, Hartigan and Mitchell were such artists.

The advent of feminism in the 1960s was in some ways antithetical to these artists. None of them wanted to be judged as a “woman painter” and social issues did not feature in their art. They distanced themselves from trends towards conceptualism and performance, remaining resolutely painters. Many of the younger generation of women artists resented and despised them as upholders of tradition. In later years Frankenthaler endured insults from political critics and artists for her perceived aloofness and affluence.[xi]

The book includes photographs of the artists and the main movers of the art scene, as well as some colour images of paintings. Over 160 pages of detailed notes and bibliography attest to the formidably thorough work of the author. The book is a sweeping panorama of an excitingly dynamic period in Modernism, when the creation of advanced art was a prize worth sacrificing everything for. Ninth Street Women will stand as a classic and rich recounting of Abstract Expressionism alongside Naifeh and Smith’s biography of Pollock and Stevens and Swan’s biography of de Kooning.

 

Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, Little, Brown, 2018, hardback, 927pp + xvi, col./mono illus., $35, ISBN 978 0 316 22618 9

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

 

 

[i] P. 10, Gwen F Chanzit, “Introduction to the Exhibition”, Marten etc.

[iii] Teresa Grimes, Judith Collins, Oriana Baddeley, Five Women Painters, Lennard, 1989, p. 179-180

[iv] P. 22, Joan Marten, “Missing in Action”, Marten etc.

[v] Elaine de Kooning “I was addicted to alcohol, and so was almost everyone else on the scene at that time.” p. 637

[vi] P. 587

[vii] “I had been seriously mentally ill those last two years in New York.” Quoted p. 678

[viii] P. 31

[ix] P. 288

[x] pp. xii-xiii

[xi] Pp. 713-6

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