Women Artists of the Vanguard

By Janet Goleas
Mary Gabriel Mike Habermann

“Ninth Street Women”
Mary Gabriel
Little, Brown, $35

During their first visit to the East End in 1945, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock vacationed with friends in a two-room cottage at Louse Point. By the end of that summer, they were hooked. Springs offered not only the iridescent light that bounced off its shoreline, it was a refuge from the postwar anxieties that gripped New York and the world.

The couple found a 19th-century farmhouse and, with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, the bohemian heiress and art collector, brokered a deal and moved to Springs that fall. The house had no indoor plumbing, and on the rare occasion there was money for coal, it was heated by a single stove. Pollock and Krasner, both esteemed painters, would help usher in the Abstract Expressionist movement that transformed American art, culture, and intellectualism, and much of this important work was created on Springs-Fireplace Road.

Since then, New York artists have repaired to the South Fork to reboot while they escape urban life. And the rest, as they say, is history. In 1994, 38 years after Jackson Pollock’s catastrophic boozing would result in his death not more than a mile from their home, the property was declared a National Historic Landmark. 

But the story, as told by Mary Gabriel in her expansive new book, “Ninth Street Women,” is infinitely more complex than the well-worn narratives we were taught. Here, Ms. Gabriel joins a chorus of revisionist writers and curators re-examining the historical female experience. Shining light on the brilliance, tenacity, and various torments that befell five august American painters — Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler — she lays the groundwork for a tale that is enthralling in scope, detail, and insight. 

It wasn’t until 1982, after all, that the ubiquitous college textbook, H.W. Janson’s “History of Art,” was revised to include a single woman, save an anonymous vase painter from antiquity. Less encumbered by the gender imperialism that has dominated much of our cultural history, “Ninth Street Women” offers a broad and inclusive exploration of the advancement of the New York School.

Focused on America’s cultural vanguard between the years 1929 and 1959, Ms. Gabriel tells the story of the rise of Abstract Expressionism as the U.S. climbed out of the Great Depression only to be thrust into world war in 1941. Fleeing Hitler’s atrocities, vast numbers of European artists and intellectuals sought safe harbor in New York City. The great exodus would dethrone Paris, making New York City the cultural epicenter of the Western world. As Ms. Gabriel’s narrative unfolds in overlapping, sometimes repetitive circles, she charts a course through the lives of the artists, poets, and scholars who came to define American exceptionalism through World War II and its fraught aftermath. 

The title of the book derives from a groundbreaking 1951 exhibit, the “Ninth Street Show,” mounted by artists in an abandoned storefront in Lower Manhattan. Of the 61 participants, 10 were women, including each of Ms. Gabriel’s five. Not unlike the 1884 Salon des Indépendants in Paris, it was a call to arms; the New York School was born. Yet the women who counted themselves among the avant-garde would continue through much of their lives to struggle for recognition. 

Overshadowed by Jackson’s self-destructive behavior and his elevated status as the future of modern art, Lee’s studio practice was sidelined as she ministered to him, endeavoring to keep him sober and central to the big conversation. Tough and indefatigable, she powered on as her paintings bloomed before, and again after, her marriage. At age 75, Krasner would become the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, dying just months before it opened. 

Similarly, the Brooklyn-born Elaine de Kooning slogged through a difficult partnership with the artist Willem de Kooning, with whom she fell instantly in love. They married in 1943 and, despite numerous affairs, a shared abuse of alcohol, and the birth of Willem and Joan Ward’s daughter in 1956, they remained married until Elaine’s death in 1989. She was smart and confident, translating her ambition both to the studio and art criticism. In an art world made up of 50 or so working artists, Elaine’s incisive critiques for Art News placed her in a position of power. Her painting evolved through abstraction to expressionistic portraits that were unique among her peers. 

When her marriage had all but dissolved, she accepted a teaching position in Albuquerque, and there, one of East Hampton’s enduring treasures, the artist Connie Fox, befriended her. Together they frequented the Mexican bullfights that would provide an elixir to Elaine’s struggle between figuration and abstraction.

Ms. Gabriel deftly recounts the New York art world, which was punctuated as much by highbrow dogma as it was by heavy drinking and abject poverty. Debate, often contentious, fomented among artists and thinkers as they hashed out the polemics of a new world order in incubators like the Cedar Tavern. Ms. Gabriel’s accounts of this churning aesthetic revolution are breathtaking. Imagine Pollock beseeching Krasner for an opinion on a new work, still wet, asking, “Is it a painting?” Not “Is it a good painting,” but is it even a painting. That work, titled “Lavender Mist,” now hangs in the National Gallery of Art. Lee, whose orthodox parents expected her to marry a stepbrother upon the death of her sister, had come a long, long way.

The second-generation abstractionists were a heartbeat younger, and the art world was, by a hair, more accepting. Grace Hartigan fell somewhere in the middle. She came to New York as a neophyte, leaving a 7-year-old son behind with her New Jersey parents. She was easily the most successful of the five, and her painting “The Persian Jacket,” included in her first solo show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1952, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art that same year. Just a short time before, Grace had been reduced to scrounging through garbage cans for scraps of canvas and house paint. 

She and the artist Larry Rivers admired the traditions of painting, and together they haunted the Metropolitan Museum to view works of the old masters. As she wrestled with abstraction, Grace’s painting shifted to the figure and back again, coming to straddle expressionism and Pop Art, the fast approaching movement that needled both generations of abstractionists. When the imperious art critic Clement Greenberg said her painting wasn’t “modern,” she hurled coffee cups at him.

Like many of Ms. Gabriel’s depictions, of Hartigan she rhapsodizes about her perfect beauty and sexual magnetism. But the love of her life, the poet and curator Frank O’Hara, remained unattainable. She married, divorced, married again. After moving to Baltimore, in 1964 she began a teaching career at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she remained for four decades. 

Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell wouldn’t suffer the poverty of so many of their peers. Growing up in a prominent Chicago family, when Joan moved to New York she worked hard to camouflage the socialite status she had inherited. She wore men’s clothes and cursed like a sailor. Full of contradiction, she was deeply masochistic and dogged by alcoholism, bouncing between isolation and flat-out aggression. In East Hampton, her wild rages with her on-again, off-again partner, the artist Michael Goldberg, cast a pall over everyone who encountered them. 

But as her paintings matured, the expressive and complex canvases betrayed little of her self-destructive nature. As Mitchell worked to rid her paintings of narrative content, she would create a bridge between abstraction and the landscape. The paintings were muscular, lyrical, and bristling with energy. In the late 1950s, she settled in France after years of migrating back and forth from New York City to Paris. Relative to New York, the French were indifferent to fame, and in Paris she consorted with Alberto Giacometti, shot pool with Samuel Beckett, and painted in a studio on the Rue Fremicourt. 

When her mother died in 1967, Joan was left a small fortune. She purchased a massive compound outside Paris in Vétheuil, where Claude Monet had lived in the 1870s. At age 47, Mitchell’s first one-person museum show opened at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. 

Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Helen Frankenthaler was a born New Yorker. After Bennington College she returned to the city and embarked on a five-year romance with Clement Greenberg. The relationship both helped and hurt her career (he wasn’t supportive of her art), but through Greenberg she met a bevy of influential artists and intellectuals both in New York and the Hamptons. The first time she saw Jackson Pollock’s paintings, she said she was blinded by the “beautiful trauma.” In 1951, Frankenthaler began pouring loose paint on raw, unstretched canvas. Her practice had found its voice. The effect was new and startling, and, like Pollock, she used her entire body in the process, deploying whatever means she could find to address the massive canvases on her studio floor.

She was credited later with igniting the Color Field school. While Greenberg championed the movement, calling it “the next big thing,” he never so much as gave Helen a wink. She would go on to marry the first-generation painter Robert Motherwell. When she was 31, the Jewish Museum awarded her with a retrospective. The exhibition garnered attention as well as diverse criticism, a hot and cold response that would follow Frankenthaler throughout her long career. Nine years later, a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art would help solidify her place in American art. 

At more than 700 pages, “Ninth Street Women” is more a tome than a mere book, and it carries us a long way toward resetting our cultural barometer, long overdue.

Janet Goleas is an artist, writer, and curator living in Springs.

Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Grace Hartigan at Frankenthaler’s solo exhibition opening at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York in 1957.Burt Glinn, courtesy of Magnum Photos
Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner in conversation at MoMA.Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Frankenthaler circa 1954 in front of her painting “Mountains and Sea,” from 1952, in her West End Avenue apartment. Walter Silver, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives
Grace Hartigan circa 1951 on the roof of her studio. Grace Hartigan Papers, Syracuse University Libraries
Grace Hartigan, interior, “The Creeks,” 1957 Photo by Mitro Hood, courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art