From The Studio: Breathtaking Show

Rose C.S. Slivka | May 22, 1997

Guild Hall's "Women and Abstract Expressionism: Painting and Sculpture 1945-1959" is more than just a beautiful show of painting of the '50s; it is a breathtakingly beautiful show that demonstrates the final independence of the consummate art object from its maker.

What makes it a transforming event of high irony is to see how its righteous moral feminist demand for equal recognition of presence and energy during the male-dominated period of the Abstract Expressionist '50s becomes its own opposite - a declaration of independence from gender.

The work of art takes on its own life. In the end, simply looking at the paintings in this thoroughly enjoyable show will tell you nothing about whether they were made by a man or a woman. It will tell you only that they were made by authentic artists.

Seven Women

Curated by Dr. Joan Marter, professor of art history at Rutgers University, this exhibit originally opened at the Mishkin Gallery of Baruch College in New York City. At Guild Hall, it has been enlarged and amplified by the interim curator, Donna Stein.

Dr. Marter has chosen seven women painters (five of whom lived and worked on the East End) to answer the questions she asks in the catalogue: "What are the reasons, socially and culturally, for marginalizing women who were active as Abstract Expressionists? Why has the roll call of the movement included only white, urban males?"

One cannot avoid wondering how Dr. Marter arrived at her choices. Of the seven - Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Betty Parsons, Perle Fine, Dorothy Dehner, Ethel Schwabacher - the first three are biggies who have received recognition that many a male of that era or, for that matter, any other, might well envy.

The Mysterious '50s

In the light of their increasing fame, they cannot be considered neglected. On the other hand, bringing the others out of the muddle of recent history is exciting, especially so since the '50s were a time when to be a painter was considered a mysterious calling for both men and women, and not a career, as it is today.

It was a time when everyone was in the same boat, both men and women struggling for survival, when all artists needed each other and clung to one another for warmth against the winds of cold neglect equally directed against both sexes.

Recognition, such as that accorded Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, was accorded only a very small group. The distinctions of gender were introduced, once the marketplace was in place, by the galleries and the museums.

Hans Hoffman, in the legendary workshops that he gave in New York and Provincetown, talked frequently about the gifts and the seriousness of his female students.

He complained, however, that once his women students met the man of their dreams, he never heard from them again. They married, had their children, and supported their men as artists.

Being an "artist's wife" was, in those days, a noble profession and it has been frequently acknowledged that the success of the male artists was in no small measure due to the brilliant diplomatic and Machiavellian power-directed activities of the artist's wife.

Krasner's Closet

Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock and painter in her own right, is the perfect example on every level of the women's dilemma of the time.

She was not only an artist's wife but a great artist's wife, using every means at her command to promote Jackson. She did so knowingly, and it was not until he was dead that she decided to come out of the marriage closet and demand recognition for her own gifts - and they truly were her own.

It is difficult, however, to separate Lee Krasner the painter from her role as the wife of Jackson Pollock, so crucial was the experience of having been married to him as part of her development as an artist.

And the same may well be said of him in his relationship to her.

A Powerful Widow

How was the artist's wife, performing in the role of cook, manager, promoter, and pusher in charge of her husband's career, able to become an independent artist?

Jackson began his career surrounded by Lee's wifehood. Lee began her career as one of the most powerful widows in the history of modern American art, surrounded by Jackson's fame and legend, protected by the estate of money and art, with connections to collectors and institutions worldwide.

To imply, as some historians and the media have done, that poor Lee was victimized by a sexist society that required her to sacrifice and subordinate her own talents to those of her husband is to ignore the fact that Lee Krasner used herself as well in her most favorite role, that of kingmaker, maneuvering power so that it would ultimately serve her own purposes.

Kingmaker With A King

By the time she joined Jackson in 1942 and moved to Springs in 1945, she was not simply a shy artist in retreat before her husband's major talent. Although she worked in the mornings in the upper bedroom of the house, she sprang into her other role as artist's wife when her husband arose.

She cooked his breakfast, encouraged him to go to work, planned the next dinner party of guests who would be useful to Jackson's career, arranged that they be invited to the right parties, the important gallery and museum openings, and made sure the writers and critics of that day knew of Jackson Pollock.

Although it was a world much smaller, easier to manipulate than today, it was hard work. But as a trained painter herself, she knew she had the genuine article - a real artist obsessed by the need to make art. The material gain-and-fame side of it was Lee's forte and she was both brilliant at it and ruthless in its pursuit.

Above all, she loved doing it.

"Little Image"

Had Lee been content for her and Jackson to live simply as two artists painting, that would have been fine with Jackson. He encouraged her, had great admiration for what she did and for her intelligence. The fact that she was a creature of strategy and tactics was not one he necessarily understood.

Even had Jackson not died when he did, there is no doubt that Lee was getting ready to start her own career as a painter. It would have been more difficult and awkward, but, being Lee, she would have found the ways. It was time. She was 48 years of age when he died.

Her 1946-1949 series of "Little Image" all-over paintings, of which "Shattered Color" is included in this exhibit, is, in this reviewer's opinion, among her most original early works, in which she was closest to Jackson in his unending calligraphic trail and buildup.

Who influenced whom barely matters. What is significant is the mutuality of their devotion to the adventure of creating their lives through painting.

Joan Mitchell

Certainly, Joan Mitchell took Abstract Expressionism to a new high. A five-foot oil on canvas in this show, an untitled painting from 1952, is a joy to see, its swift improvisatory lines daubed in punctuations of color and scrubbed in layering.

She was the most independent of the women, having gone to France after years in New York as part of the Abstract Expressionist group that gathered around de Kooning, Pollock, and Kline. Always her own woman, she lived outside of Paris in the house and gardens previously inhabited by Claude Monet.

She certainly achieved recognition both in her lifetime and posthumously, with regular exhibits at the Robert Miller Gallery and now with a recently published book on her life and work marvelously written and compiled by Klaus Kertess (Abrams 1997).

Elaine de Kooning

Elaine de Kooning is represented in this show with seven canvases of varying scope, from the biomorphic compositions of 1948 to 1956's hard-driving brushstroke of major scale, power, speed, seen in the daring and vividly colorful "California."

There is an extraordinary portrait of her husband, seated, simultaneously painted and drawn in the AbEx style she continued to develop over the years.

As the wife of the greatest living artist of our time, she surely had special problems in maintaining her own persona. However, when asked "How can you work in his shadow?" she replied, "I don't work in his shadow, I work in his light."

Never competitive, she was genuine in recognition of his greatness. She was herself a great enough artist to be selfless in the interests of art itself. On the other hand, she never really behaved as a wife. Her husband once turned to her and said, "We live like a couple of bachelors. What we need is a wife."

Dorothy Dehner

When we come to Dorothy Dehner, this reviewer is hard put to place her within the Abstract Expressionist framework. She did produce the drawings, prints, and cast-bronze sculpture shown in the exhibit during the right timeline.

She was divorced from the great sculptor David Smith (who considered himself an Abstract Expressionist both in his sculptures and in the paintings he loved doing), and Dr. Marter may assume that some of his art rubbed off on her.

Certainly her work has always been interesting. In this case, however, the curator may well be suspected of favoring the wives of famous men or getting two for the price of one.

Perle Fine

On the other hand, she makes up for it with the inclusion of the incomparable Perle Fine, who spent years studying with Hans Hoffman and truly was ignored in her own lifetime.

That fact did not deter her from her devotion to her art, aided and abetted by a husband who took pleasure in encouraging and financially supporting her.

Her abstractions and collages of the '50s were certainly outstanding within the mode, although ultimately she turned toward geometric abstractions and a stylistic austerity reminiscent of Agnes Martin.

Schwabacher And Parsons

Ethel Schwabacher, working under Arshile Gorky, about whom she wrote a book, used the canvas as an arena of personal struggle, in pigment of translucent radiance.

Her work, both the figure and abstract forms, is fresh, hovering between Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism.

Betty Parsons, the dealer turned artist, trusted her drive toward surrealism and automatism to propel her into the artistic psyche she eagerly sought.

It is in the small Spiga Gallery that some real surprises await. In addition to two works by Buffie Johnson (the only living artist in the show), there is a rich trove of work by painters who appear to have been neglected before Ms. Stein looked to see what was on hand.

Spiga Gallery

It includes Gertrude Greene, married to the painter Balcomb Greene, and Linda Lindeberg, the wife of the painter Georgio Cavallon. Both marriages are known to have respected each partner's individual rights as artist. In no case was the woman subject to the career needs of her husband. In both cases, they both came first.

Linda Lindeberg, so neglected and forgotten, was outstanding for her lyrical abstract stroke as well as her fine figurative works, no less Abstract Expressionist for their recognizable elements. The figure appeared repeatedly in Bill de Kooning's paintings, too.

Gertrude Greene, a bold, expansive presence, was one of the early structural abstractionists as well as an AbEx enthusiast. There is in her work a material energy that was natural and necessary to her temperament as an original thinker. A member with her husband of the abstract artists group as early as 1936, she is remembered as being impassioned and outrageous.

Ilse Getz

Last but certainly not least is Ilse Getz, whose 1959 oil "The Persian Note," with its rich collaged elements and impasto, imparts the joy and energy of gesture and the sheer gusto of physically wielding the brush and palette knife in an expansive space.

It shows as well the influence of Hans Hoffman in its tangles, splatters, and bristle. But, as far as I am concerned, the more Hoffman the better.

Still, it's Ilse Getz all the way and it's great to see her.

But where is the Abstract Expressionist Alice Baber, whose struggle - as it was everyone's, including the innovators themselves - was to make her own mark, her distinct and recognizable touch. She transformed the stroke to a layering of transparent, balloon-like shapes which she floated through the canvas in the same restless, probing spirit as the other AbExers.


As this Guild Hall show demonstrates, the women artists of the '50s were as strong, individual, and diverse in their gesturalism as the men, a fact that male artists of the time recognized and respected.

The discriminatory tactics which kept the women at a disadvantage in the marketplace did not come out of the male-driven art world but out of an institutionalized art world driven by the marketplace. It is a marketplace that discriminates against the men as well.

These were not submissive, victimized women. These were tough, self-insistent, brilliantly gifted, and utterly impassioned painters. They persisted against odds at a time that was both inspired and dominated by the emblazoned gifts of giants, who eclipsed everyone around them, both the women and the men.

Altogether, this show challenges a period that was the most complicated in recent American art history. And the show is only the first step. There is more to come.

The current exhibit remains on view through June 15.