Mary Abbott, Abstract Expressionist (by Clairan Ferrono)

Mary Abbott, a descendant of Pres. John Adams and Gen. Robert E. Lee, was born in Boston in 1921, bur grew up in NY and Wash., DC high society. As a young woman, she worked for a while as a photographer’s model, but from a young age she had decided she wanted to be an artist. At age 12 she began to take classes at the Art Students League. In 1942 she married the painter Louis Teague who was in the Air Force. While he served in the military during the war, she studied and painted. As she revealed to Thomas McCormick in a private interview in 2004, “I was reading Proust, Painting ling Utrillo, and absorbing the abstracting of Picasso.” When she rreturned to NY, her friend, sculptor David Hare, introduced her to The Subjects of the Artist– an “anti-school” anyone could join if they left their artistic past behind and just FELT — started by Hare, Rothko, Motherwell and others. Rothko, Motherwell and Barnett Newman became her mentors. She said of them. “They taught us to draw imagination.” Hare also introduced her to peyote, the hallucinogenic experiences of which greatly influenced her use and understanding of color. In the late 1940’s, Abbott began an important affair with William de Kooning, “the love of my life.”


Antioch 1950 oil and oil crayon on canvas 49 x 85″

(I’m sorry about that blue line, but the painting was too large for my scanner)

By 1950 Abbott had begun to exhibit at important NY galleries. Many of her early successful abstract pieces resulted from trips she took to Haiti. According to McCormick “These canvases are densely packed with undulating rhythmic forms that spoke to the artist of the people and topography of that exotic island.”

(click on collection and then Mary Abbott)

In the 50’s Abbott met and began a collaboration with Barbara Guest, a poet and critic who was interested in poems that were essentially words given to an artist who “placed” them in a painting; this was based on the work of surrealist poet Mallerme. The works by Abbott/Guest were first shown at Kornlee Gallery in 1958 along with collaborations by Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara. Below is one such placement painting:

Le Chante de Rossignol — For Joseph Cornell

Le Chante de Rossignol — For Joseph Cornell

1959 oil on linen 73 x57″

Earlier, Abbott had experimented with mixed media and collage:

Untitled — 1957

Untitled 1957

Mixed media and paper collage 23 3/4 x 18″

From 1974-77 Abbott taught at the Univ.of Minnesosta, her courses emphasized the use of color. When she returned to NY in the late 70’s she embarked on a series of flower paintings to increase her own understanding of color.

Abbott continues to live in Manhatten and Southhampton, and continues to paint in the lively, energized manner of her earlier work .

Those of you who have been following this blog know that I am very interested in the Abstract Expressionists and have been ‘researching” them. So I was very excited when I saw a notice for an opening at a gallery in downtown Chicago of an A.E. I’d never heard of — Mary Abbott! I went to the exhibit yesterday and was blown away. Incredible work — large, medium and small, on canvas, on linen and on paper, oil and oil stick, thick and thin, remarkable brushwork, so very textured, and fantastic color, vibrant and subtle. There’s more of her work online:

(click on artists and type in her name)

I invite you to enjoy the work of this remarkable artist who has remained largely unknown for the past 40 years. I am indebted for the images and much of the biographical information to the catalogues of the McCormick Gallery, written by Thomas McCormick.


17 Responses to “Mary Abbott, Abstract Expressionist (by Clairan Ferrono)”

  1. 1 Jenn McMenemy October 11, 2010 at 10:29 am

    Great post. There is a radio broadcast that WNYC just did where Mary Abbott is one of the AE artists interviewed. She sounds like such a character! I suppose you had to be as a woman artist during that time. It was an edition of Fishko’s Files title “Post-War Painters”:

  2. 2 John January 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Read the De Kooning biography (Stevens and Swan)of which Mary Abbott was a major contributor. It really shows the whole art scene of the abstract expressionists in New York city (and Long Island, Woodstock, Provincetown, Black Mountain,etc.)

  3. 3 Russell July 27, 2009 at 7:06 am

    I’ve got news for you women who think that only women got overlooked by art history. A ton of men never got the ink either. There are a bunch of really deserving men who never got the notoriety of Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning and others. Stop seeing sexism where it didn’t exist. The 50s art scene in New York was very egalitarian.

  4. 4 DAVID April 10, 2009 at 3:20 am

    Hi there, and greetings from Scotland!

    I’ve just stumbled upon this article by chance while researching AB-EX for the final year of an art course I am engaged in.

    I arrived here after initially looking at some work by Franz Kline and, in turn, to the “Suitcase Paintings: Smale Scale Abstract Expressionism” travelling exhibition organised by Georgia Museum of Art, which has a painting by Mary Abbott on the catalogue cover.
    Seeing both their work (Kline and Abbott) was a revelation to me, firstly, that not all AB-EX paintings were wall-sized, and secondly, there were actually many painted by women artists I had never heard of.
    So it was with great pleasure that I found this article by Clairan and to find out more about Mary Abbott. I can honestly say that her work speaks more to me than just about anything else I have seen from other abstract expressionists (and that’s saying something!)

    I’ve also enjoyed your cyber discussion and would like to thank June for her comment: “There’s a huge difference between that [abstraction] and starting with only the canvas, the paint brush, and your own imagination.”

    I have a particular interest at this moment in getting to the essence of painting non-objective/non-figurative from the sub-conscious and it’s good to get some confirmation from others that this is indeed possible.


  5. 5 brian August 6, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    Yes, Mary Abbott is a special artist. Another unknown AE artist is Rene Joseph (Minneapolis) who was a student of Mary’s at the University of MN. The website shows some of her work, including a set of Southampton beach paintings created during a visit to Mary’s NY residences.

  6. 6 lois dicosola January 6, 2008 at 9:29 am

    –Mary Abbot,Perle Fine and I showed together at Guild Hall Museum in Easthampton years ago–
    good to see there is a renewed interest in Abstract Expressionism–

    best, Lois DiCosola

  7. 7 clairan October 17, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    I posted on Perle Fine in June (see archives). I am not familiar with the work of Yvonne Thomas. Thanks for pointing me in that direction.

  8. 8 Jennifer October 17, 2007 at 9:59 am

    Thomas McCormick is a wealth of information relating to the Abstract Expressionist artists. His gallery has an exhibit called the Suitcase Exhibit traveling about the US right now that displays many of these wonderful artists. A couple of other women artists of this period that I would recommend looking into are: Yvonne Thomas and Perle Fine.

    I have had the opportunity these past couple of years to visit with Yvonne at her home in New York. Thomas was nearly forty years old and an accomplished painter when the 9th Street Show opened in 1951. Thomas had already abandoned a promising career as a commercial artist and fashion illustrator in the thirties to pursue painting. She has grown up in the south of France and had always known that she would be an artist. Her earliest training in New York was under Alphaeus P. Cole at Cooper Union. In 1948 Thomas began to feel frustration with the direction of her work and began to search for a new way of working. Then Patricia Matta, wife of the famous Surrealist, introduced her to a group of abstract painters forming a school called Subjects of the Artist. She enrolled, and found a new home meeting like-minded students such as Mary Abbott. When the Artist’s Club formed she also joined and then later worked with Hans Hoffman in Provincetown where she found the “courage of color.” She currently lives in New York City.

    Perle Fine was born in 1908 in Boston, MA and was one of the first women to be admitted to the Artist’s Club, which was no small feat considering the time. By 1949 she already had an enviable exhibition record which included solo outings at both Willard and Betty Parsons in New York and at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. In relation to her work, Fine considered herself as an interpreter of the psyche and her visions were reflected on canvas with a distinctive style and painterly technique. She studied first in her native Boston before enrolling in 1935 at the Art Students League. In 1939 she began working with Hans Hoffman, both in New York and at his summer school in Provincetown. In 1954 she moved with her husband, photographer and painter Maurice Berezov, to the Springs district of East Hampton. Fine remained active her entire life, teaching privately and at Cornell University and Hofstra University. She had more than thirty solo exhibitions and countless group showings and she is represented in numerous private and museum collections. She passed away in 1988 in East Hampton.

  9. 9 wen May 15, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    Wonderfully!! I am backing into A E all over the place and have funneled this into some of my fiber work w/o even realizing this had a name- then my statement reflects the attitude. So I’m wondering – am I being influenced because A E is having a resurgence or am i finding it because it fits!
    Wonderful and informative – So glad to have read it- Thank you!

  10. 10 june April 25, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Thanks, Olga,

    I didn’t see your comment above until I finished today’s (Wednesday’s) post. I will definitely try to find the book.

  11. 11 Olga April 24, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    With reference to being a pupil of, or influenced by Hoffman, a book I read a little while ago was very interesting on Lee Krasner, and placed her in an American female context: Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe (Ahmanson-Murphy Fine Arts Book) by Anne Middleton Wagner. As is the way of these things, it is so jam-packed with interesting content I really need to read it again.

  12. 12 June April 24, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    I’m also and definitively not an expert — just fascinated. I think Hoffman was a mentor to the entire crew of ab. exs, which is what made me think perhaps he and Abbott had some connection. But I know nothing specific.

    And definitely these pieces are totally out of imagination, not based on parsing pieces of a realistic vision. The teaching of abstraction is often based on abstracting from something — enlarging and cutting up until unrecognizable or having a shape of a real thing in mind when you start developing your canvas. There’s a huge difference between that and starting with only the canvas, the paint brush, and your own imagination. Here I speak from personal knowledge because I have only done one or two pieces that I would say were totally from my imagination and not begun with something from which I was abstracting.

  13. 13 clairan April 24, 2007 at 11:46 am

    I see what you mean about Hoffman and Abbott, June, although nothing I have read suggets that she was ever a student of his. I don’t think he was even part of the Subjects of the Artist School (but I’m not an expert on this subject, just digesting my recent readings). But their paintings share a “landscape sensibility” (well, that’s what I’m calling it anyway). They seem truly abstract, rather than non-representational. What do you think?

  14. 14 June April 24, 2007 at 9:08 am

    I’m beyond anger at the ignored talent of the female — I see it as a set of cultural stupidities whose slime we still have to deal with but which we’ve had some luck at scrubbing away. But at my advanced age, I find myself turning my back on the willed ignorance, having confronted it directly far too long.

    Of course, there were some elements that were definitively, unavoidably, male from that period. It would have been hard for Krasner to piss into the fireplace at the infamous dinner party — some flamboyant gestures are gender defined [insert snort!]

    But to go back to our re-discovery — there is also something good about delayed gratification, not perhaps for the artist, but for the rest of us, who suddenly happen upon a whole world we didn’t know existed. We have been prepared for it by the male ab exs and so we recognize and enjoy even more when these women spring up for us.

    It looks to me (and I’m talking off the top of my head) that Abbott and Mitchell both are off-spring of Hans Hoffman. But someone like Bridget Riley (op artist) has a kinship with, it seems to me and without more than scant knowledge) Jackson Pollock. Maybe it’s just the dots.

    Like you, Clairan, I’m fascinated by the abstract expressionists. I want more, more, more. The movement gained notoriety because of a combination of the male chauvinism of the time, the American hegemony after WWII, and the flamboyance of the artists. And oh, yes, the art. Only the art continues to engage me in a positive manner.

  15. 15 clairan April 23, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    Abbott, I think, was definitely earlier than 2nd wave of the 50’s; she met up with the big guys in 1946 and started painting with them immediately. Some of her best paintings are from the late 40’s and early 50’s. I will try to research Frankenthaler and Mitchell and Krasner. Or someone else can. . . .

    It is exciting, isn’t it, to find someone fabulous and new to you? But it makes me angry too to see ignored talent because it’s female. Not that the abstract work looks particularly female to me. Does it to anyone else?

  16. 16 June April 23, 2007 at 9:18 am


    Like Olga, I don’t remember ever running into Mary Abbott, but her work is fascinating. How many other ab ex’s, particularly female, must be out there, hidden in the shadows by those enormous egos (mostly male)!

    Abbott must have been of the “second” generation ab exs, later in the 50’s, people like Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Also Lee Krasner (I think that’s the name) who nursed Pollock for so many years.

    Can you do some comparisons between Abbott and Mitchell? These two seem closely related, although maybe early Frankenthaler too — it’s been a while since I looked at that. And I don’t know Krasner’s work — is it in a similar vein?

    I’m very excited to hear of Abbott; I wonder who else is out there. And I’m starting to think that we need some studies in and among these women (and any male who happens to have gotten lost, too). Maybe that could be your Ragged Cloth endeavor for the year:-)

  17. 17 Olga April 23, 2007 at 1:18 am

    Thank you so much for the introduction to this fascinating artist about whom I had no idea.

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