Retrospective

‘He Told Me About My Success’: A Brief History of the Women of Abstract Expressionism

Lee Krasner, The Seasons, 1957, oil and house paint on canvas. SHELDAN C. COLLINS/©2015 POLLOCK-KRASNER FOUNDATION/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK, PURCHASE, WITH FUNDS FROM FRANCES AND SYDNEY LEWIS BY EXCHANGE, THE MRS. PERCY URIS PURCHASE FUND AND THE PAINTING AND SCULPTURE COMMITTEE 87.7

Lee Krasner, The Seasons, 1957, oil and house paint on canvas.

SHELDAN C. COLLINS/©2015 POLLOCK-KRASNER FOUNDATION/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK, PURCHASE, WITH FUNDS FROM FRANCES AND SYDNEY LEWIS BY EXCHANGE, THE MRS. PERCY URIS PURCHASE FUND AND THE PAINTING AND SCULPTURE COMMITTEE 87.7

When people think about Abstract Expressionism, they usually think of a group of men—Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell, among others. But, as a show at the Denver Art Museum this summer makes clear, women were vital to the movement, and history has yet to completely reflect this. Below are excerpts from the ARTnews archives that showcase female Abstract Expressionists and their changing place in art history. Lee Krasner reflects on the New York School’s misogyny, while Fairfield Porter, Irving Sandler, and Lawrence Campbell praise Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Elaine de Kooning (the latter a frequent ARTnews contributor).

“Scenes from a Marriage”
By Grace Glueck
December 1981

If [Lee] Krasner responded to [Jackson] Pollock’s work, he was an all-important source of support for her own. In 1951 she asked him to speak to Betty Parsons, who became his dealer that year; his intercession resulted in Krasner’s first show. In 1953, he began a new cycle, painting in a style related to Matisse, and Pollock wrote to Alfonso Ossorio, a close friend, praising the “freshness and bigness” of her work. “That was the only way he told me about my success,” she says. “He wasn’t resentful, and when in 1955 I showed a new cycle of collage paintings at the Stable Gallery, he was at the opening, proud as a peacock.” She did not, she adds, “hold him responsible for the fact that I hadn’t made it before. I felt that was due to many, many things outside of him, including the misogyny of the New York School.” And she recalls, “In each case, you knew you were threatened they were; one could physically feel the hostility. The whole culture is that way. Pollock wasn’t like that; he wasn’t threatened as the others were, especially by strong women.”

Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Everest), from the “Mountain” series, 1955, oil on canvas. ©2015 THE JAY DEFEO TRUST, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/COLLECTION OF THE OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA, GIFT OF JAY DEFEO

Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Everest), from the “Mountain” series, 1955, oil on canvas.

©2015 THE JAY DEFEO TRUST, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/COLLECTION OF THE OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA, GIFT OF JAY DEFEO

“San Francisco: A 2,300-Pound Rose”
By Thomas Albright
May 1980

Occasionally, [Jay] DeFeo filled in more of her surfaces with “color,” but her pieces were most powerful when most concentrated, reduced almost to a breath. In them, the visible mannerisms of Abstract Expressionism retreated to a few crusts, erasures and smudges. Its spirit, however, seemed to be absorbed and distilled into the very essence of the images, where the potency and charisma of archetype mingled with the organic flux, the indeterminacy and refusal quite to crystallize, that were the hallmarks of Abstract Expressionist mystique.

“Helen Frankenthaler at Tibor de Nagy”
By Fairfield Porter
February 1953

Helen Frankenthaler [De Nagy; to Feb. 14] is exhibiting for the second time. Whether abstract, done from nature or remembered, her subject is usually horizontal landscape. There is a thinness of substance and a freshness of the open air in all of these paintings. The self-portrait, the flowers and landscape sketches have a light touch and the accidental and charming virtues of beginnings. In the large pictures fresh air and good luck are not enough; she does not seem to be deeply involved, and though she uses colors at high intensity, she does not make other distinctions, so that often one color would seem to do as well to another. $75-$800.

“Perle Fine at Graham”
By Lawrence Campbell
April 1963

Perle Fine [Graham; April 2-20], well-known abstract painter, shows recent paintings which appear radically different in form to any she has shown hitherto, yet retaining her own quality of lyricism. For her the wave of New Realism and Pop Art has cleared the air and brought the doubters off the fence. The hardening of the painters who have found the avant-garde an asylum for the untalented. To her it seems more important than ever to clear up the aura of garbage which is clinging to art, and to paint work which will express life-affirming, idealistic feelings through the construction of ordered color-spaces.

Grace Hartigan, New York City Rhapsody, 1960, oil on canvas. ©ESTATE OF GRACE HARTIGAN/MILDRED LANE KEMPER ART MUSEUM, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS. UNIVERSITY PURCHASE, BIXBY FUND

Grace Hartigan, New York City Rhapsody, 1960, oil on canvas.

©ESTATE OF GRACE HARTIGAN/MILDRED LANE KEMPER ART MUSEUM, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS. UNIVERSITY PURCHASE, BIXBY FUND

“Grace Hartigan at Martha Jackson Gallery”
By Irving H. Sandler
November 1962

Grace Hartigan’s [Jackson; to Nov. 17] Action Paintings of 1962 are in process of change. The somber, raw Abstract-Expressionism that distinguishes her canvases of the late 1950s is giving way to an increasingly exultant lyricism. As in the past, she favors compacted structures varied with black calligraphic contours and a distinctive reddish-purple cast, but her painting is now thinner and looser; the color more high-keyed and luminous. The touch is lighter and the softly brushed and stained films of pigment appear to have been swept onto the surface. [. . .] In these striking and passionate canvases, Grace Hartigan succeeds in being gentle, light in spirt and even sentimental, without sacrificing the boldness, vigor and power.

“Mary Abbott at McCormick, Chicago”
By Lauren Weinberg
Summer 2007

This show featured almost 30 paintings and works on paper made between 1945 and 1985 by Mary Abbott, who was one of the few women to infiltrate the New York School. These work, in a range of styles, offered a welcome fresh perspective on Abstract Expressionism.

Abbott, now 86, completed most of these pieces in the ’50s, not long after having studied with Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Her best work is characterized by vivid color and an exuberant dynamism. The paths of her swooping paintbrush are visible on every square inch of Purple Crossover (1959), a riotous jumble of red, purple, white, orange, dark blue, green, yellow streaks and patches. Bill’s Painting (ca. 1951) is less dynamic, but its layered, dripping shades of pink—punctuated by wide smudges of black, orange, and burgundy—give it vitality.

Elaine de Kooning, Bullfight, 1959, oil on canvas; 77⅝ x 131¼ x 1⅛ inches. ©ELAINE DE KOONING TRUST/DENVER ART MUSEUM, VANCE H. KIRKLAND ACQUISITION FUND

Elaine de Kooning, Bullfight, 1959, oil on canvas.

©ELAINE DE KOONING TRUST/DENVER ART MUSEUM, VANCE H. KIRKLAND ACQUISITION FUND

“Elaine de Kooning Paints a Picture”
By Lawrence Campbell
December 1960

For Elaine de Kooning, the colors in these recent paintings do not have “shapes.” They are large movements, rushing, sliding, pouring, a glissade, an excitement of oranges, and a blue which, in such surroundings, takes on a shrill, loud quality, a kind of high-pitched thud, also yellows, alizarins, purples, chartreuse greens and black. Asked why her strokes of the brush were “form” rather than the strokes combining together to make form, she replied: “For me drawing is always a force which compresses whereas color seems to expand beyond its bounds and becomes decontrolled and therefore risks being trivial. But I feel I am able to control this expanding quality with my brush-strokes. Color then becomes a kind of super-drawing.”

“Joan Mitchell Paints a Picture”
By Irving Sandler
October 1957

Joan Mitchell is a painter who hates esthetic labels. She agrees with Harry Holtzman that “the hardening of the categories causes art disease.” She finds particularly distasteful moral insinuations concerning “good” versus “bad” criteria, and insists that “there is no one way to paint; there is no single answer.” Miss Mitchell is reticent to talk about painting, so in order to approach the underlying process in her work, the Socratic method was needed, rejecting some classifications, modifying or keeping others. The catchphrase to which she objected least was “New York School,” and she readily admitted membership in that non-academy. Unlike some of the younger artists who have reacted away from the elders of Abstract-Expressionism, she sees herself as a “conservative,” although her pictures can hardly be described as hidebound. She not only appreciates the early struggles of the older painters, whose efforts expedited acceptance for those following them, but finds a number of qualities in their work will have a profound meaning for her.

Those elements in New York painting to which she responds are difficult to isolate. They have little to do with technique, for although Miss Mitchell has assimilated some of the methods of Gorky, de Kooning, Kline, et al., she couldn’t pretend to know how they make their pictures. More significant is a feeling of familiarity she experiences when she looks at their work, specifically, a kindred involvement with spaces.

Her concern with space is rooted in the impact of the city. “I am up against a wall looking for a view. If I looked out of my window, what would I paint?” She lives on the fourth floor of a lower East Side walk-up. Miss Mitchell has to remember her landscapes: “I carry my landscapes around with me.” They become the windows in her house; as Baudelaire wrote: “A man who looks out of an open window never sees as much as a man who looks out of a closed one.”

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