Book report: Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women

Grace Hartigan, The Creeks, 1957, oil on canvas, 90 x 96 inches

Contributed by Brece Honeycutt and Anne Lindberg / Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler – Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2018) is a tour de force. The book explores many important phenomena from the period of 1929-1959, including the formation of the commercial art world, feminism’s blossoming, and the maturation of capitalist America. Her central purpose, however, is to reveal how five women painters lived, breathed, and made history via the new movement of Abstract Expressionism, which until now had been seem primarily through the lives of male artists.  

“For spiritual values and a creative tradition to continue unbroken we need concrete artifacts, the work of hands, written words to read, images to look at, a dialogue with brave and imaginative women who come before us.”  

Adrienne Rich 

Gabriel grounds her book in primary sources, using both published and unpublished interviews with artists, researched from documents found in libraries, foundations and archives. The excellent index reflects the depth and intricacy of her research, and there are an additional 130+ pages of notes referencing oral histories, letters, interviews, and working papers as wells as secondary sources. But most importantly, Gabriel is a fine, lyrical writer who weaves together the lives of the five artists in both close detail and grand sweep. Fascinating facts punctuate nearly every paragraph. Here, we pull out just a few. There are plenty more.

Elaine de Kooning, Self Portrait, 1946, oil on masonite, 29 3/4 x 22 5/8 inches

• The infamous “Ninth Street Show,” held May 21 through June 10, 1951, organized in DIY fashion by the artists themselves, put their art and the compelling new abstraction on the map. While the women included may have been thus recognized as equals of the men, of the 77 artists shown, only eleven were women, including the five—de Kooning, Krasner, Frankenthaler, Mitchell and Hartigan.

• Gabriel vividly illuminates their daily lives, describing the hardship they experienced in derelict lofts as they developed their own powerful aesthetics. “When we had no food, and when the heat had been turned off in our building, we sometimes got into bed, “Elaine recalled. “We had dinner in bed, but I didn’t cook the dinner, I read aloud to Bill from the cookbook. And we imagined what it would be like to eat fancy things, and that was our dinner.”

• Elaine was a magnet who, in addition to her vital painting life, became an important art writer. In 1948, she met Tom Hess at ArtNews and from that point on was a rousing voice in the world of criticism in which “artists understood her role at ArtNews as fundamental to the expanding understanding of American avant-garde art.” In 1949, she began to write feature-length articles in ArtNews that brought the writer and the reader intimately into the artist’s studio. Her writing was personal, and at the same time revealed the intersection of painting, writing and social life within the New York School.

• Lee understood the market price of a work of art versus the “value” of the work. After Jackson Pollock’s death, “Lee calmly instructed [his dealer] to quadruple Jackson’s prices and impose strict controls on how many of his works could be sold and to whom. Her directive stunned the art world. One could argue that it has not been the same since.” Lee’s actions meant that art could now command higher prices. She continued to run the Pollack estate for 16 years, and after giving it up, she declared, “Now, I can once again concentrate on being Lee Krasner.” She painted and exhibited in both the United States and Europe and was the first woman to receive a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1984. Lee left $20 million in cash and art as a result of her business acumen, establishing the Pollack-Krasner Foundation, which has benefited countless artists with grants.

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, oil and charcoal on canvas, 86 3/8 x 117 1/4 inches

• Helen’s painting, Mountains and Sea, made in 1952, and 12 others were featured in her January 1953 solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.  Originally priced at $100, it didn’t sell and Helen brought it to her studio, where Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Clement Greenberg viewed it on April 4.  Gabriel rightly documents that even though Noland and Louis have been credited with founding the Color Field School, it was in fact Frankenthaler who was first to use of thinned oil paint on unprimed canvas.  Irving Sandler notes, “She was the fount of it. There’s no bones about it.”

• As Tibor de Nagy became the center of the Second Generation artists, Helen was offered a show there in 1951. At the time, Life magazine was featuring photograph-dense stories on many of the New York School artists. Subscribers to Life quickly increased to five million readers. On January 15, 1951, the now famous photograph of The Irascibles was published. Hedda Sterne was the only woman pictured.

• MoMA acquired Grace’s painting The Persian Jacket in 1953. She thus became the first Second Generation artist – male or female – to have a piece in MoMA’s permanent collection. Grace went on to become a much-beloved teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she founded the graduate painting program. A breakthrough artist, her true power was color.

• Of Grace, Joan, and Helen, Irving Sandler said, “They opened it up for women, in part because they were stronger than any of the Second Generation men… In order to be a woman on the scene, you either had to remove yourself as Helen did, she went uptown… or you had to be tough, you really had to be tough, and they didn’t come tougher than Joan or Grace. I once asked Grace, ‘Has any male artist ever told you you paint as well as a man?’ And she said, ‘Not twice’… Also you know Lee and Elaine were intellectually brilliant. They all were really smart, and you don’t mess with that.”

Lee Krasner, Milkweed, 1955, oil and collage on canvas, 82 1/2 x 57 3/4 inches

• Sandler aptly described Joan as tough, and her intensity revealed itself in her tumultuous life of intense painting and journeys. Her travels took her to Cuba, Mexico City, Prague, Haiti, and Paris, and like a rolling stone, she gathered many friends and colleagues: Samuel Beckett, John Ashbery, Leonard Bernstein, Alberto Giacometti and David Hare. Describing her way of being an artist she said, “My relationship with the art world is distant, and occurs mainly through individuals. As I love painting, I go to galleries, museums, to artists’ homes, but the art world has never really interested me.”

After seeing Willem de Kooning’s painting Attic at the Whitney in 1950, she knew that she had to meet this artist, inquired where to find him, and was given an address that turned out to be the studio of Franz Kline. “I went to his loft on Ninth Street to see his work. I walked in and there were brick walls with paintings, not on stretchers, tacked all over them and all over the floor. And those drawings he made on telephone pages. I was overwhelmed… I thought they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen in my life.” She met de Kooning shortly thereafter, and learned that “showing and selling were beside the point. It was all about creating.”

• Neither Joan nor the other women artists could hide from the press and work in obscurity after exhibitions spawned by the successful Ninth Street exhibition. They were featured, as Pollock had been, in Life magazine, as well Mademoiselle, The Saturday Review, and ArtNews. Barbara Rose recalled: “It was a real shock to see them with their huge paintings, standing there confidently in paint-spattered jeans when their [non-artist] contemporaries were all wearing tweedy classics in the suburbs, terrorized by the ‘feminine mystique.’”

Joan Mitchell, Cercando un Ago, 1957, oil on canvas, 94 1/4 x 87 5/8 inches

• The art world became a “full-fledged” part of the consumer economy characterized by sophisticated art dealers, “black-tie night time auctions,” and glossy magazine articles. Gabriel notes that a 1950 tax laws introduced in the 1950s allowed art collectors to take a deduction on art purchased with an eye to eventually donating the work to a museum, even if posthumously. Peggy Guggenheim commented that “the entire art movement had become an enormous business venture.  Only a few persons really cared for the paintings. The rest bought them from snobbishness or to avoid taxation… Prices were unheard of.  People only bought what was the most expensive, having no faith in anything else.” Sadly, Elizabeth Baker observed, “Women were slowly squeezed out first from galleries, and then from museums, since museums rely heavily on dealers.” Not only were they marginalized in the art market; they were also written out of the art history books.

It is precisely their absence in the historical record that spurred Gabriel to write Ninth Street Women decades later. She recounts an interview with Grace:

As Grace spoke, she didn’t dwell on the fact that that she was a woman artist or that other women formed an important part of the Abstract Expressionist group. But each time she mentioned a woman painter or sculptor, I found myself wondering why, in the official history, those names so rarely surfaced. Their contributions were significant. In fact, in the cases of Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, the movement would not have existed or unfolded without them. And yet, the story of that moment has been taught and accepted as the tale of a few heroic men.

Gabriel has wisely selected a group of five brilliant artists to start the story, but there were of course many others. She includes a link on her website where visitors can add women artists to a growing list. Is there perhaps another book in the making?

About the authors:  Brece Honeycutt makes nature-based and history-based drawings, sculptures and installations. Currently, she is the Artist-in-Residence at the School of Art and Design, F.I.T., and will return to the house and gardens at Naumkeag this summer as an Artist-in-Residence.
Anne Lindberg’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States and abroad at venues including the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The Drawing Center in NYC, the Museum of Arts & Design NYC, The Mattress Factory, the Contemporary Art Center Cincinnati, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Tegnerforbundet in Oslo, Norway, and the SESC Bom Retiro Cultural Center Sao Paulo. She currently has work in “Topologies,” an exhibition curated by Mika Yoshitake from the Howard and Cindy Rachofsky Collection, at The Warehouse Dallas.

Related posts:
Retro book review: NYC art scene in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s
Brece Honeycutt’s book report
Report: Women Art Critics in the Age of the Internet / Open Studios with Peter Scherrer
Art and Film: Women with dogs

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5 thoughts on “Book report: Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women”

  1. Such a engaging book. While initially I found the length daunting Gabriel writes so well that I devoured it. One of the strengths of the book for me was setting the artists in the broader context of American and world history. There is so much to digest in this book that I will probably need to re-read it, not that that would be a chore. I will be heading out to the National Gallery of Australia to check out their Krasner paintings and I believe there will be a Joan Mitchell print show soon.

    1. Good point, Leonie. Gabriel tells so much in this book and grounds the book in facts about current events of the related times. Art wasn’t and isn’t made in a vacuum! Enjoy seeing the Krasner and Mitchell works. Cheers, Brece

  2. Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan MItchell, and Helen Frankenthaler; Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art.
    By Mary Gabriel

    Of all the narrative art histories I have read in the last few years I have never been as excited to turn the pages as I was while reading Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel. Ninth Street refers to a time and place in the mythology of the New York art world. All the artists who invented abstract expressionism at one time or another lived on or near ninth street and many participated in the famous exhibition called the Ninth Street Show. This book covers the lives and times of Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler and interweaves the lives of hundreds of their friends, lovers and associates into a thick woven carpet of a thousand colors and voices. Importantly, Gabriel sets the story closely in the political and social history of the times and allows us to understand how the war, the depression and other events influenced the lives of the artists. Gabriel worked for many years gathering first hand interviews, digging into archives, listening carefully and actually hearing what artists had to say. She doesn’t sprinkle the text with theories or opinions, the artists are allowed to tell their own stories.
    Growing up in this world I knew it as a child does, from the inside but limited in scope. What was so fascinating was to learn via the individual voices, some of the deeper layers of the relationships and movements over time. The book became a mystery of opening familiar doors and discovering new vistas.
    I recommend Ninth Street Women to anyone who enjoys narrative history, to anyone who loves art and artists, to those who love fascinating gossip and especially to art historians because Ninth Street Women captures the flavor of a time and place now vanished. When the Pollock movie came out some years ago my mother and I went to see it. My mother knew everyone portrayed in the movie, they were her close friends, but she said, shaking her head, “They didn’t get it, the spirit wasn’t there. They didn’t understand what fun we had.” By fun she meant the thrill of living fully, directly and creatively, of making one’s own road. Ninth Street Women is about five women who made their own roads in every dimension of their lives and left trails of beauty behind them.
    Denise Lassaw, Bellingham

    Note: There are a few related books that I recommend.
    A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning- Cathy Curtis
    Elaine de Kooning: The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism- Selected Writings
    Lee Krasner: A Biography – Gail Levin
    Tranquil Power: The Art and Life of Perle Fine- Kathleen Housley
    Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter- Cathy Curtis

    Books that misrepresent the artists via sensationalism and misinformation.
    Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage – Lee Hall
    Hall interviewed my mother for this book and then changed her stories by replacing the people in them with “sexier” people. There are many mistruths in this book. Lee claims to be a friend of Elaine’s- with friends like this who needs enemies?
    Lee and Elaine – Ann Rower
    This is a fantasy about Lee Pollock and Elaine de Kooning by someone who never knew them or anyone in their circle. The author imagines situations that never happened and interweaves her own life and problems. In my personal opinion if the title of the book didn’t refer to two famous women artists who were married to famous artists, it would never have been published.

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