Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Books I'm Reading: Ninth St. Women and Women of Abstract Expressionism

A show I saw in September 2022 at Modern Art West, in the town of Sonoma, that focused on female Abstract Expressionist painters working on the West Coast in the 1950s and 1960s was my introduction to quite a few artists I'd never heard of at the time. Among women associated with Abstract Expressionism, I was aware of a few names like Jay DeFeo, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell, but didn't know a great deal about the work of the first three of these and it was only by seeing an extensive Joan Mitchell retrospective at SF MOMA in October of 2021 that I gained any familiarity with her work. The show in Sonoma piqued my curiosity about other women abstract painters and prompted me to do some reading. A small show of work by Bernice Bing at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco shortly after the Sonoma show further stimulated my interest in these artists. 

Recently, I've read New Art City (Jed Perl, Vintage 2007) and Fierce Poise (By Alexander Nemerov, Penguin, 2021), the latter about Helen Frankenthaler, and have just finished Ninth St. Women (Mary Gabriel, Back Bay Books, 2018) with the very long subtitle Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art. I've also just finished Women of Abstract Expressionism (Edited by Joan Marter, Denver Art Museum and Yale University, 2016,  the catalog for a show of the same name at the Denver Art Museum from June to September, 2016, traveling then to the Mint Museum, in Charlotte, North Carolina (October 2016–January 2017) and the Palm Springs Art Museum (February–May 2017)).

This latter, being an exhibition catalog, is mostly reproductions of work by the artists included in the show –  three to five pieces each by 12 artists (Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher) supplemented by a handful of essays, a brief interview with Irving Sandler, a chronology, and short biographies of the women in the show and of other women that were active at the time and working in the Abstract Expressionist style. Among these other women are Bernice Bing,  Zoe Longfield, whose work I was particularly impressed by at the Modern West show, Betty Parsons (who I knew from Ninth St. Women more as a gallerist, but I see that she was a painter as well), and Gertrude Greene. 

I was surprised when I read the short Gertrude Greene biography. I had never heard of her, but then it dawned on me as I read that she was the wife of John Wesley Greene (known as Balcomb Greene). Balcolmb Greene is a name I did know because my parents were acquaintances of the Greenes, having visited them at their home in Montauk on Long Island on at least one occasion in the company of Joseph W. and Marjorie Groell and Philip Pearlstein. Marjorie was my mother's best friend from college. They both attended Carnegie Tech (today Carnegie Mellon University) at the same time as Andy Warhol and Pearlstein (although they were a few years younger). Both Joseph W. Groell and Pearlstein later taught art at Brooklyn College. Jospeh W. Groell is the brother of the painter Theophil Groell (who also went by the name Theophil Repke early in his career and who my mother and the Groells I knew always referred to as "Teddy"). My mother told me that I occasionally played with one of Pearlstein's daughters (although I was too young to remember) and that she (the daughter) once gave me the flu. Among things my father, Stuart Talcroft, left behind after his death is a set of photographs he took of Balcomb Greene and others at Greene's home during that visit, with the Groells, Pearlstein, and my mother present. In the photo here, Balcomb Greene is at right and Pearlstein (center left) sits sideways to the table. The woman at left may be Philip Pearlstein's wife, Dorothy (Cantor) Pearlstein. The younger man (center right) I have not been able to identify (photo © Stuart Talcroft). This was September 1957.

The essays include an "Introduction to the Exhibition," by Gwen F. Chanzit, "Missing in Action," by Joan Marter, that addresses the question of why the women painters have been neglected in histories of Abstract Expressionism, "Biographies and Bodies: Self and Other in Portraits by Elaine and Bill de Kooning," by Ellen G. Landau, "The Advantages of Obscurity: Women Abstract Expressionists in San Francisco," by Susan Landauer, which points out that attention focused on the New York painters and the comparative neglect of the West Coast painters (and women in particular) allowed the latter a great deal of freedom to explore, and "Krasner, Mitchell, and Frankenthaler: Nature as Metonym," which suggested that the male painters tended to use metaphor, while the women used metonym, but the writing was rather hard to follow in this last essay. Despite that, Women of Abstract Expressionism is a useful and attractive reference work. 

Ninth St. Women focuses on the five artists in its subtitle (Krasner, de Kooning, Hartigan, Mitchell, and Frankenthaler), but, perhaps inevitably, the book takes in the whole scene; it runs to over 700 pages, nearly 900 with notes and bibliography. There is much about the men who were painting at the same time, about the critics, the teachers, the poets, and the gallerists associated with what came to be known as the New York School. The conditions advanced painters in New York worked under at the time, often in barely furnished, unheated spaces with no hot water, were as rough as the lives they lived which, until some of them began to find commercial success, were characterized by artistic struggle, dealing with misogyny in the case of the women (who felt compelled to adopt an approach to life perceived as masculine in order to be taken seriously), poverty, hard drinking, raucous partying, and unconventional romantic relationships (although it should be noted that both Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler came from well-to-do families and had resources most painters didn't). 

The book traces the early influence of Hans Hoffman as a teacher and the appearance on the scene of European surrealists and others as they fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s (mostly older, conservative men that appear to have been particularly misogynistic), the sudden fame of Jackson Pollock and the destructive alcoholism that eventually led to his artistic impotence and  death (and how that affected Krasner and others), the shift in the mood of conversation at places like the Cedar Bar and the Five Spot as recognition and wealth accrued to painters like Pollock and De Kooning, with the talk in the bars going from "art over beers to galleries over bourbon". The book makes it clear that it was a spectacular but surprisingly short-lived rise to fame for Abstract Expressionism (at least for the men), lasting from about 1950 to about 1965; by the mid-sixties, attention had shifted toward painters like Rauschenberg and Johns and later Warhol as Pop Art emerged. 

I had never understood that Frankenthaler is arguably the mother of color field painting. While that's entirely logical once it's pointed it out, I had never made the connection between her work and the work of painters like Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, who apparently were emboldened to pour thinned paint onto unprimed canvas after seeing the work of Frankenthaler, just as Frankenthaler felt freed to experiment by seeing the work of Pollock, which vastly altered her conception of what painting could be (Frankenthaler was not alone). I hadn't understood how small and tight the core group of painters was. Everyone seems to have known everyone, they visited each other's studios, they met nightly in the bars, they talked, they painted, they wrote and read about each others work, they drank, they arranged shows, they went to openings, they had parties, they had sex, and they painted. The cross-fertilization appears to have been broad and intense. I hadn't known that Elaine de Kooning became an influential writer about art, mostly in the pages of Art News or that she did a great deal of portraiture and had a period during which she focused on canvases inspired by watching sporting events. I wasn't aware of Krasner's central role in trying to keep Pollock from his violent, alcohol-fueled excesses and to keep him productive (to the detriment of her own work) – or really anything about their relationship, or her career. I hadn't known that she later turned very successfully to collage. The book was an introduction to dozens of lesser-known peripheral characters and even a small lesson in the geography of Long Island. The detail is vivid. The pages are overflowing with insights not only about how the woman made their way as painters in a style that has long been seen as quintessentially masculine, but about what it is to be an artist at all. There's an entire course in advanced abstract American painting at mid-century in these pages. Ninth St. Women, is a remarkable bit of scholarship, deeply researched, meticulously notated, rich in detail, and engagingly written. Highly recommended. 


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