abstract expressionism female artists
Ethel Schwabacher, Antigone I, 1958. Oil paint on canvas, 51 x 85 in. (129.54 x 215.9 cm). Collection and courtesy of Christopher C. Schwabacher and Brenda S. Webster. © Estate of Ethel Schwabacher
Judith Godwin, Epic, 1959. Oil paint on canvas (diptych), 82 x 100 in. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC. Gift of Caroline Rose Hunt. Photograph by Lee Stalsworth. © Judith Godwin.
Other female artists, while not adopting male pseudonyms, would otherwise try to draw attention away from the female-ness of their names: Elaine de Kooning, for example, signed her artworks with her initials to avoid her work being labelled as feminine (the J.K. Rowling strategy). Lenore/Lena (Lee) Krasner similarly signed her works with her initials and shortened her name to Lee.
Reader question: “I wonder if there have been women engaging in abstract expressionist art and if we maybe only don’t know them because Clement Greenberg forgot to tell us about them?” – asked by Natascha
Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) had the good fortune to discover the avant-garde art scene with the top critic of the 1940s, Clement Greenberg, as her escort and eventual lover. Although their long relationship became troublesome, Frankenthaler thrived among Greenberg’s circle of artist friends and acquaintances. Over the course of her career, she became a strikingly innovative artist, moving smoothly from abstraction to Color Field to woodcuts with assurance and poise. Her assertion that “every picture tells you what to do, that’s the glory of it” bespeaks intuition and humility. Frankenthaler’s marriage in 1957 to Robert Motherwell added another power couple to the New York scene; one wishes that Gabriel had offered more analysis of how, if at all, these two influenced each other.
Greenberg may be one of the America’s most influential art theorists, but he could also be cruel and condescending. When Frankenthaler’s mother passed away, Greenberg said he never liked her anyway. In his writings on the Color Field school, he never acknowledged Frankenthaler’s pioneering place in it. He sabotaged the self-confidence of both Krasner and Hartigan at sensitive points in their careers. In 1962, he convinced a Paris gallery to close its Mitchell show early, telling the owner to “get rid of that gestural horror.” Gabriel sums him up as a “malign umbra.”
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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.
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.
The artists Jay DeFeo, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and many other women played major roles in the development of Abstract Expressionism, which flourished in New York and San Francisco in the 1940s and 1950s and has been recognized as the first fully American modern art movement. Though the contributions of these women were central to American art of the twentieth century, their work has not received the same critical attention as that of their male counterparts.
Palm Springs Art Museum
Grace Hartigan, New York City Rhapsody (1960). Courtesy of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Bixby Fund, 1960. © Estate of Grace Hartigan.
Ethel Schwabacher, Antigone I (1958). Collection of Christopher C. Schwabacher and Brenda S. Webster. © Estate of Ethel Schwabacher.