Grace Hartigan, Interior, "The Creeks," 1957.

Three Cheers for the Radical Women of Abstract Expressionism!

An interview with the author of a new book on the women of ab-ex makes clear that these females were the future.

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Sep 24 2018, 7:49pm

Grace Hartigan, Interior, "The Creeks," 1957.

When Mary Gabriel attended art school in the mid-1980s, every man on campus wanted to be Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock. The possibility of becoming an artist while female could not have seemed more remote—until Gabriel met the painter Grace Hartigan.

Grace Hartigan on the roof of the studio she shared with Al Leslie, circa 1951.

Though she went on to become a Reuters editor for nearly two decades, Gabriel’s latest 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, circles back to Hartigan and the lives of other women who were crucial figures in the then-emerging postwar genre of abstract expressionism. The new volume follows Gabriel’s previous run of biographies on powerful women with a fondness for taking risks—including the women’s suffrage leader Victoria Woodhull and the art collectors Etta and Claribel Cone—or, as in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book from 2011, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, the story of a romantic relationship with politics at its center.

The idea for this book began almost twenty years ago, when she met Hartigan, whose own account of the rise of abstract expressionist art is filled with the names and anecdotes of women artists who have been relegated to the periphery of the story by canonical art history. In many ways, the canvases by the abstract painters featured in Ninth Street Women, along with works by male contemporaries like Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, were their own revolution. “Guys are great, but that’s a tiny portion of the story. When you look at historical moments, if you only tell it from the point of view of men, you’ve only told half the story,” Gabriel says.

Helen Frankenthaler, "Trojan Gates," 1955.

From the first page, the author takes us back to postwar America while following her five main subjects around the streets of New York and into the first gallery that exhibited the work of these women, on Ninth Street in the East Village. During a time when art might have seemed beside the point, the aesthetic achievements of the era nevertheless reflected a social and political context. “I like to know what an artist is struggling with, because to me, that makes the work much richer...It just gives the whole movement a much more profound message,” says Gabriel. Though these women came from privileged backgrounds and had the option to lead a comfortable life, they chose not to. Hartigan even went so far as to give up her son from her first marriage to his grandparents, because she felt that being an artist was incompatible with being a mother.

Helen Frankenthaler in front of "Mountains and Sea" (1952) at her West End Avenue apartment, circa 1954.

The women in Gabriel’s book didn’t take kindly to the limitations put upon them, which included being turned down by galleries or having their work undervalued in comparison with their male peers, but they were also aware of the larger social machinations behind such treatment. As she notes, “There were all of those conversations that they had—what do we do? What’s the role of the artist when the world is going through hell? Those are really important questions to ask ourselves. Are you an activist or an artist or are you both? It’s everybody’s decision to make.” The stories of these women remind us of the duty of the artist in the face of crisis. At a time when hatred and bigotry ran rampant, women committing themselves to their art was, itself, an act of defiance. As Gabriel says, “These women would still be radical today.”

Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art is published by Little, Brown and Company and on sale September 25, 2018.