Ninth Street women

The female artists who changed the art world forever

Created date

May 17th, 2019
Helen Frankenthaler in her New York City studio, circa 1961.

Helen Frankenthaler in her New York City studio, circa 1961.

Can you name five artists? Okay, now, can you name five women artists?

Even those who answer the first question with ease find themselves stumped by the second question.

To remedy this general lack of awareness, the National Museum of Women in the Arts initiated a social media campaign called #5WomenArtists. As Susan Fisher King, the museum’s director, puts it, “It’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer. Women artists have not received their due from our institutional and educational systems. Our goal is to reinforce the numerous conversations we have sparked around the globe about gender parity in the arts.”

Before people can name female artists, they must be introduced to them, and Mary Gabriel does just that with her phenomenal account of the rise of Abstract Expressionism in her book Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art (Little, Brown and Company, 2018).

Abstract Expressionism sprang to life in Greenwich Village during the 1940s and 1950s. The work was bold, expressing action and emotion. Without a recognizable subject, many found it hard to understand, while others dismissed the movement as nonsense.

Early on, all Abstract Expressionists struggled, but for the women it was particularly difficult because many New York galleries simply didn’t show female artists.

As Gabriel tells it, critics, gallery owners, and others in the art world offered female artists veiled praise like “you paint very well for a woman” or “that work is so good, I thought a man painted it.”

However, the five women profiled in Gabriel’s book had the talent, the drive, and especially, the fortitude to challenge that point of view.

First wave

Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock, and Elaine de Kooning, wife of Willem de Kooning, represent the first wave of women determined to take on the art world.

Krasner set aside her own artistic ambitions to become her husband’s manager and caretaker. (Known for his volatile behavior, Pollock was an alcoholic, and historians believe he suffered from what would be diagnosed today as bipolar disorder.)

Krasner’s decision grew out of her practical nature, not from any desire to fulfill her wifely duties. She simply saw brilliance in Pollock’s work and believed that of the two of them, he had a more realistic shot at becoming an international success.

The August 1949 edition of Life magazine made Pollock a sensation. It featured a photo of him with a cigarette dangling from his lips, his arms crossed defiantly, standing before one of his enormous paint-splattered canvases with the headline, “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

It was America’s (and the world’s) first exposure to Abstract Expressionism. The work was so radical and seemingly random, many refused to consider it art. Pollock was ridiculed but at least he wasn’t ignored. It got people talking, and even if middle America dismissed Pollock and the movement overall, the art world took notice.

For his part, Pollock accepted his wife’s help and never asked her to sublimate her work to serve him. In fact, Krasner later said that if he had asked her to sublimate her work, she probably would not have done it.

After her death in 1984, Krasner was recognized for being a major influence on twentieth-century art, and she is among the few women to have had retrospective shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Elaine de Kooning was both a painter and a writer. Once her husband was on the cusp of a career breakthrough, de Kooning focused her efforts on writing articles in Art News that supported him and the movement.

She looked beyond a canvas to understand the artist’s process and intention, and by doing so, she introduced critics, gallery owners, museum directors, and the world at large to the next big thing in art.

Though de Kooning never entirely gave up painting, she consciously moved away from total abstraction. Instead, she painted portraits so her work would not influence or outshine that of her husband.

Later, when the couple had divorced, de Kooning became a well-known portraitist. Among her most famous works is a portrait of President Kennedy she was working on when he was assassinated.

Second wave

The second wave of female Abstract Expressionists includes Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Grace Hartigan. For them, painting was everything, and they refused to allow any interpersonal entanglements to keep them from pursuing their art.

This was especially true for Hartigan, whose early life reads like a 1940s melodrama. She married an accountant as a teenager and had a child when she was 20.

After enrolling in an art class for fun, her life took a radical turn. So overwhelmed by her passion to create, Hartigan walked away from her marriage, left her young son in the care of his grandparents, and moved to Manhattan where she could devote herself to painting.

She once told an interviewer, “I didn’t choose painting. It chose me. I didn’t have any talent. I just had genius.”

Knowing what she was up against as a female artist, Hartigan signed her early works as “George Hartigan.”

Irving Sandler, an influential art critic who chronicled the rise of Abstract Expressionism once asked Hartigan if a male artist ever told her she painted as well as a man. “Not twice,” she replied.

These women and the movement they were associated with changed the art world forever. For the first time, New York became the international center of art and women painters were taken seriously.