Few art movements are as synonymous with the image of a paint-splattered male painter than abstract expressionism. Some of art history’s most radical masculine personalities emerged from the period, in which the physicality of the works echoed the ever-present “cult of manhood.” Female abstract expressionists adopted pseudonyms, positioning their work as genderless — often leading to deeply personal conflicts with their roles as women, artists, and occasionally, the wives of the movement’s most celebrated figures. Few were accepted into the circle of men, and most weren’t recognized until their deaths. Continuing our series about female artists, we revisit the work and careers of ten abstract expressionists whose contributions are essential to the movement and whose struggle for legitimacy paved the way for women in the arts.
She danced with John Travolta at the White House in the ’80s, became known as one half of the “golden couple” with former husband Robert Motherwell in the ‘60s, and had her first solo exhibition in the ‘50s — praised by New York art world figures like Clement Greenberg. Helen Frankenthaler’s lyrical abstractions are large-scale and stunning to behold — and her influence is unmistakable. She elaborated on a technique adopted by Jackson Pollock, painting directly onto unprepared canvas (on the floor) with turpentine-diluted paint. She made oils look like watercolors. This new “stain” method helped to shape the Color Field movement and was influenced by a trip to Nova Scotia, after which she created 1952’s Mountains and Sea. “The landscapes were in my arms as I did it,” she stated. “I didn’t realize all that I was doing. I was trying to get at something — I didn’t know what until it was manifest.” When asked about her thoughts on being a woman in a male-dominated scene, she stated: “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue. I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”
Elaine de Kooning
“Women painted women: Vigée-Lebrun, Mary Cassatt, and so forth. And I thought, men always painted the opposite sex, and I wanted to paint men as sex objects,” Elaine de Kooning stated in 1987. Her faceless portraits of male figures, such as fellow painter and friend Fairfield Porter, reversed the male/female gaze, but the artworks are assertive and even confrontational. The former editorial associate for ARTnews magazine and wife of leading abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning — whose career largely overshadowed her own prolific contributions to the movement — painted the portrait of President John F. Kennedy in 1962. “One of the reasons I was asked to do the portrait is that, with luck, I can start and finish a life-size portrait in one sitting. . . . However, working at top speed this way, I require absolute immobility of the sitter,” she recalled in ARTnews. “This was impossible with President Kennedy because of his extreme restlessness: he read papers, talked on the phone, jotted down notes, crossed and uncrossed his legs, shifted from one arm of the chair to the other, always in action at rest. So I had to find a completely new approach.” She brought her energetic brushwork and intense color to the image, capturing the restlessness of her sitter.
Lee Kraser, leading New York School abstract expressionist (with husband Jackson Pollock, whose career she helped bring to public attention), often signed her works with the gender-ambiguous initials “L.K.” Her paintings didn’t receive the recognition they deserved until after Pollock’s death — and her own. Following her passing, she was one of the only women to receive a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Many female painters spent the majority of interviews being asked for comment about their male colleagues or artist husbands, but this excerpt in Krasner’s 1972 interview with the Archives of American Art, “Art World in Turmoil” oral history project reveals Krasner’s feelings about women in the art world — particularly in the abstract expressionist movement (and the artworks depicting women).
DOLORIS HOLMES How about your relationships, artistic and personal, to the men who were involved in this general abstract expressionist movement? Generally in some of the women’s groups that I belong to it has been said that men really do exclude women from getting information about where you can show, about, getting names of curators to whom you can send your slides, about getting material concerning supplies, and so forth. Have you had any experiences similar to this?
LEE KRASNER I’m trying to pinpoint your question; it’s a little difficult for me to grasp it. I haven’t experienced it in the sense that the secrets are kept within the confines of the male domain. Since I lived here with Jackson for many years, and since that was more or less one of the centers of this movement, all that sort of information was available to me. I didn’t have to pry into corners to get at what was happening.
DOLORIS HOLMES All right. Well, let’s be more specific then. Do you feel that male artists were helpful to you in getting you into shows?
LEE KRASNER Well now, that’s more reasonable. Yes, there were male artists that were helpful in getting me into shows, and there were male artists that I don’t feel were helpful. For instance, John Graham was very helpful in getting me into an exhibition of French and American Painting, this is in 1941. As a matter of fact, that’s how I meet Pollock; he’s invited to the same show. There was Pollock himself who asked Betty Parsons to come and look at my work with regard to showing me. And indeed she did come and did schedule a show for me in 1951. On the other hand, someone like Hans Hofmann, who was one of the only instructors I had ever had in all as against former teachers at the Academy and Cooper Union. I can remember very clearly his criticism one day when he came in and said about the painting up in front of him, “This is so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.” Well, that’s pretty difficult to understand.
DOLORIS HOLMES It’s a kind of a mixed compliment, in other words?
LEE KRASNER Well, yes. You know, you get a cold shower before you’ve had a chance to receive the warmth of the compliment.
DOLORIS HOLMES I remember before when we talked on another occasion you did tell me something about a long series of discussions that you had with Barnett Newman. This I believe had something to do with a Synagogue that he was making. This was an interesting story.
LEE KRASNER Indeed I think it’s an interesting story. Barnett Newman and I had a long running battle which was never resolved since Barnett died last year. The argument or battle that we had going for some ten or twelve years was on my rejection of the position of the female in Judea. This he would not accept. His point of view was that I misunderstood it; mine was that I understood it too clearly and rejected it. And so from time to time we picked up the argument. It ran through a period of years. One day at a very large party, which was quite a traumatic party for me in many respects, in between one thing I had just gotten through with and before I hit the next thing, Barney appeared from some place and said, “Lee, have you seen my Synagogue?” I said, “Where is your Synagogue?,” He said, “It’s at the Jewish Museum.” I said, “No, I haven’t seen it. Why do you want me to see it?” He said, “It’ll resolve that argument we’ve been having all these years.” And I said, “In what sense?” He said, “You will approve of where I placed the women in the synagogue. It will end the argument.” And I said, “Where did you place the women, Barney?” And he said, “On the altar.” Whereupon I – well – used no uncertain terms about how I felt about it and said, “You sit up on the altar; I just want the next empty seat in the next pew that’s vacant.”
DOLORIS HOLMES Beautiful: That’s a beautiful story. To go on to speak about other members of the abstract expressionist movement, certainly one of the leaders has been Willem de Kooning. My own personal reaction to his work is that there is indeed an undercurrent of anti-feminism in it. I cannot analyze with any authority why he chose to do the series on women but it is my sense, partly as a former psychiatric social worker, that Freudianism and the abstract expressionism movement reinforced a general antifeminism in the culture. Do you have anything in particular to say about de Kooning as an artist and about his series on women in particular?
LEE KRASNER Well, with regard to de Kooning, certainly he is one of the leading forces in this movement. With regard to his series on women, I reject them one hundred percent; I find them offensive in every possible sense; they offend every aspect of me as a woman, as a female.
DOLORIS HOLMES Explain that a little bit more.
LEE KRASNER On the other hand, when you introduce the Freudian aspect in abstract expressionism I must say I haven’t thought of it in those terms. I must give it a little more thought. Now when you speak of a kind of chauvinism, or domination of the male there, certainly I’ve had many such experiences. Whether we’re discussing de Kooning’s series on women, or whether it’s the authoritarian or autocratic image of, let’s say, Rothko or Newman all of which I can see that you might read as the Freudian aspect, so to speak – I would have to sit with this a while longer to come to some conclusion of my own. On the other hand, you must keep in mind that the seat of contemporary painting was the Paris School, and here in New York was a body of people that were – now we can safely say – crashing through that, so that I’m not sure at this point whether it was entirely a male Freudian aspect (unless you want to take all of civilization as we have known it, all of Western thought, and speak of it in those terms), it would be difficult for me to pinpoint quickly this particular, epoch, this period, this movement in history.
DOLORIS HOLMES So what you’re saying is you don’t think that the abstract expressionist movement was any more anti-feminine than any other prior group? – is that what you’re saying? I remember the last time we talked you did bring up the whole question of the Jewish Prayer, for example. Is that the kind of thing that you’re saying?
LEE KRASNER I’m speaking of all of Western civilization. A while back I spoke about my argument on the role of the female in Judea. Now, my own shattering experience in relation to this is that I was raised in an orthodox Jewish home and said a morning prayer every morning, only I said it in Hebrew, it was taught to me in Hebrew and I never knew the meaning; unfortunately only some thirty years later I read a translation of the Prayer, which is indeed a beautiful prayer in every sense except for the closing of it; it said, if you are a male you say, “Thank You, O Lord, for creating me in Your image”; and if you are a woman you say, “Thank You, O Lord, for creating me as You saw fit”. And this is when I had started long running battle with Barney Newman on the rejection of the female role in Judea, not to mention in Christianity which follows.
DOLORIS HOLMES Fine: I don’t understand, however, what you mean when you say that you were upset by the women series that de Kooning did. Were you upset on a purely aesthetic basis?
LEE KRASNER It’s very difficult for me to separate content and aesthetic bases. To me if they don’t become one, it’s a rejection of the painting. So that I am incapable of, or refuse to allow that aspect of myself to start to break down that I accept it aesthetically and reject content. To me that series is offensive in very possible sense.
DOLORIS HOLMES Then I must respond by saying that the aspect of the “Women” series that offends me is simply how distorted de Kooning made so many of the female images. I don’t think that the images were necessarily representative only of women; I think they may have represented other psychological phenomena. For example, in this culture the male must be overly aggressive in order to be male, and when the man in this culture rejects women he’s also rejecting his own passivity, his own desire to rest, to meditate. It seems to me that unknowingly perhaps, or even knowingly, de Kooning was distorting the female figure because of his own personal problems about these kinds of concerns in his own life. Do you have anything to add to that?
LEE KRASNER No. No more than whether the female as he projects it there is the outside female or whether it’s the female within himself makes no difference to me at all. It’s the hatred and hostility toward the female; whether it be within himself or be really the outside female doesn’t change my attitude toward what I’m confronted with.
. . . .
DOLORIS HOLMES This is certainly the kind of influence that a lot of women have had and have been very instrumental in helping their husbands or their lovers which has not received any recognition, and I’m very glad that you have mentioned these things. Another question that I want to, get into is the question as to what it has been like for you to be a woman artist? For example, you mentioned before that as a student Hans Hofmann gave you a very mixed kind of compliment. Do you feel that it has been a disadvantage for you to be a female artist?
LEE KRASNER Again that’s a rough question. Let me put it this way: it hasn’t been easy going. But I’m still not clear as I’m speaking to you now whether it has been because I’m a woman artist or because I am Mrs. Jackson Pollock so that I feel in that sense it’s more than what’s known as a double load. That is to say, if I were Lee Krasner but had never married Jackson Pollock would I have had the same experience I have being Mrs. Jackson Pollock?
DOLORIS HOLMES I sense that you feel confused, first of all, and secondly that in a sense there were certain advantages to being married to Jackson Pollock. On the other hand, the fact that you weren’t operating as an individual always left you with a question as to whether you were being judged as an individual or as the wife of Jackson Pollock. You did, however, mention about the fact that you were never, given a retrospective in this country. Now this seems very unusual to me since you have been so intensively involved with the movement for so long.
LEE KRASNER That’s true. I haven’t been offered a retrospective here in this country. But I was offered one in England which I accepted and was very happy to be able to see a large span of work. This is terribly important for the painter, I think, because it’s the only occasion on which you can see a real period of work before you. Now why I wasn’t offered one I would say is a combination of the fact – or maybe I’d have to say principally because I am Mrs. Jackson Pollock. You’ve got to remember that Pollock is dead now since 1956 and that I am the executor of his estate. Consequently I behaved with the paintings as I saw fit. I stepped on a lot of toes. And I think even today it’s difficult for people to see me, or to speak to me, or observe my work, and not -connect it with Pollock. They cannot free themselves. So this may be one of the reasons I’ve not been offered a show. I wouldn’t know if there are others.
“A painting is like an organism that turns in space,” Joan Mitchel said in 1985. Her preferred organism was the landscape, writhing with turbulent brushwork, hurried and broken. She admired Vincent van Gogh, even painting an homage to the Dutch artist called No Birds. Her life mirrored his in many ways. She was fond of the bottle. Her body and mind were devastated by disease and depression. “Gee, Joan, if only you were French and male and dead,” a New York art dealer told Mitchell in the 1950s. She was already a leading artist in the New York School at the time (one of the only women accepted into “The Club” of male painters who met at studios and galleries around Manhattan’s Tenth Street), but she spent most of her life in France. “I use the past to make my pic[tures] and I want all of it and even you and me in candlelight on the train and every ‘lover’ I’ve ever had — every friend—nothing closed out,” she once said. “It’s all part of me and I want to confront it and sleep with it — the dreams — and paint it.”
New Jersey-born artist Grace Hartigan studied mechanical drafting at an engineering school before making her entry into the art world. While working as a draftsman in a factory, she studied painting and fell in love with Matisse. She made her way to New York City, embracing the movement alongside Pollock and De Kooning. “I was using the abstract expressionist esthetic with working from images on the Lower East Side, things from my window, push carts, fruit stands, passersby, and the bridal things on Grand Street, some nice window that had a lot of cut crystal in it. Then the Metropolitan one is mannequins in a window,” she explained in 1979. “And I continue to be interested in windows. The painting upstairs I’m working on now is from the gypsy window down the street here. So that interest has never left me. I did, at the end of the ’50s, go back again into total abstraction and battled my way through abstraction into imagery again when I moved to Baltimore.” She signed her early paintings with the name “George,” although she claimed it was a tribute to writers George Sand and George Elliot: “Now, young women don’t have to have women writers as role models. They have marvelous older women artists. That’s one of the things — people like Louise Nevelson, and certainly Lee Krasner is a marvelous painter.” When asked about women being trained exclusively by women (feminists), she stated:
Unless a woman wants that, I don’t believe in separatism. I really don’t think that a young woman should be trained only by women because I don’t think it prepares her for the real world. She’s going to have to meet men out there after she graduates and gets out of school, and I really don’t see how four years of working only with women is going to prepare her for the reality of working with men when she gets out of school. That’s my objection to it. I mean, I wouldn’t keep a woman from doing that as a young woman if she wants to do it, but I wouldn’t guide any young woman in that direction because I think it’s unreal.
Author, sculptor, and prominent New York School figure Ethel Schwabacher (who trained in Europe) found a mentor in lyrical abstract artist Arshile Gorky, whose biography she penned. Gorky’s interest in the surrealist automatic drawing technique led Schwabacher to explore the improvisational method in her own nature-inspired abstractions. Her first one-woman show at Betty Parsons in the 1950s featured work born from the turmoil following her husband’s death, after which she attempted suicide. She was unsuccessful and channeled the traumatic experience into a series of mythological paintings.
Corinne Michelle West
Prolific abstract expressionist Corinne Michelle West often went by the name “Mikael” and “Michael West” to gain legitimacy amongst the abstract expressionists. She rejected a marriage proposal by lover Arshile Gorky (at least six proposals, to be exact) in order to concentrate on her career, emerging as a determined, independent artist. Her explosive brushwork and layered painting style rivaled the brutality and intuitiveness of her male peers. “Where others wrestled with the dubious possibility that there could be an ‘inner self’ to which one must be true, West had no doubts,” wrote art critic Dore Ashton.
Sterne was one of the only female “Irascibles,” a group of abstract artists (including Louise Bourgeois) who wrote an open letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950 protesting the establishment’s “contempt” for “advanced art.” The term “abstract expressionism” was born soon after. Josef Helfenstein, contributor to Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne: A Retrospective, wrote of the artist:
From the very beginning of her outstanding but unknown career, Sterne maintained an individual profile in the face of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, all of whom she knew personally. Her independence reflected an immense artistic and personal integrity. The astonishing variety of Sterne’s work, spanning from her initial appropriation of surrealist techniques, to her investigation of conceptual painting, and her unprecedented installations in the 1960s, exemplify her adventurous spirit. Yet, the heterogeneity of her styles, and her complete disinterest in the commercially driven art world, have contributed to her exclusion from the canon. When the heroic male narratives of modernism begin to fade, we may, eventually, be ready to recognize this amazingly idiosyncratic body of work. Sterne’s art is, indeed, a manifesto in favor of the untamable forces of the mind and the continually changing flux of life.
“Alma Woodsey Thomas developed her signature style — large, abstract paintings filled with dense, irregular patterns of bright colors — in her 70s,” writes the National Museum of Women in the Arts. “Thomas became an important role model for women, African-Americans, and older artists. She was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and she exhibited her paintings at the White House three times.” Thomas battled the double stigma of being a woman in a man’s field and a person of color, but she refused to see herself as anything but an artist. “I’m a painter. I’m an American,” she once said.
“I remember being told because of the Depression that I would have to work my way through college, and that seemed perfectly normal. And this other point of view, that one would be an artist, seemed perfectly normal. But I think it was a combination of a number of attitudes, some of them from the nineteenth century,” said Alice Baber. “And I think it was totally without a consciousness that it was difficult for a woman to do it. And there was no suggestion that because I was a woman there would be a problem in getting a job or being an artist or anything else.” An art editor for McCall’s magazine, Baber spent a large part of her career organizing exhibits that welcomed women artists. Her work “is recognized for its luminous, abstract shapes, particularly in stained canvases filled with clear, radiant color. Her compositions often consist of multiple round or ovoid shapes.”