Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 80 inches by 80 inches, 1956.
After Clairan’s excellent post on Mary Abbott, I want to go back and review and add to what I know about Abstract Expressionism. And just to be perverse, I thought I would show only the art of women associated with that movement.
The abstract expressionist movement was paramount between 1945 and 1960. Abstract Expressionism has also been called the New York School (although that can include non-Ab Ex’s) because it was by and large the first art movement to arise solely in the US, and it was particularly centered in New York (although San Francisco was also an important center.)
Probably the most famous names among the Ab Ex’s are Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. These painters, like the other abstract expressionists, are vastly different in their styles and conceptual ideas about their art. Pollock felt he was imbuing his work with personal and psychological action while Rothko desired to encompass a metaphysical vision of the universe. Others concerned themselves entirely with the pure materials of their art, the paint, the canvas, and the picture plane.
ArtLex on Abstract Expressionism has a great set of thumbnails for an overview of the variety of kinds of work done within the movement.
The Spaightwood Galleries had a 2006 show of Contemporary Women Artists that included many of the abstract expressionists.
Elaine de Kooning, Bacchus #3, 1978 Acrylic and charcoal on canvas
In general, the abstract expressionists showed a powerful use of the painting “material” and color. They usually worked big, with canvas that needed large walls (or in the case of Pollock, big floor space) to be worked. Ab Ex paintings are generally non-representational (although both de Koonings are exceptions) and address the whole canvas without working for a focal point — “overall painting” as some have called it.
Wikipedia’s article on Abstract Expressionism lists 68 ab ex’s, with 9 of them being female.
Besides Mitchell and de Kooning, these nine include Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Mary Callery, Jane Frank, Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine Hamilton, and Grace Hartigan. Clairan presented us with a 10th — Mary Abbott. And my research has found Sonja Sekula, Hedda Stern, Ida Kohlmeyer, Sari Dienes, and Ann Ryan.
Jane Frank, Ploughed Fields, Maryland, 1974, 52 x 48
(For an article on aerial landscape art, which features Jane Frank, see Wikipedia )
Louise Bourgeois, Femme Volage, 1951, 73 x 18 x13 inches
Mary Callery, Untitled (Reclining Figure) 1955, 10 by 27 by 5 inches
Helen Frankenthaler, Robinson’s Wrap, 1974, 5″ 10 ” x 7′ 10 “
An interesting article on an exhibit at Pfalzgaleri e Kaiserslauter (in Art Forum, 09/01/2001 by Isabelle Graw) about some core ab ex women — Frankenthaler, de Kooning, Mitchell, Krasner, and Hedda Sterne — has some excellent insights:
“This exhibition was interesting with respect to how Sterne, Krasner, et al. approached the dominant art discourse of the time, a “law” they themselves helped shape. Subsections of that code included a commitment to abstraction, gesturalism, and the notion that the artist must give in to the rhythm of the painting. Frankenthaler–represented here primarily by watery canvases from the ’70s whose nearly oxidizing surfaces, on which the occasional crusty splash or drop “crawls” like a crustacean, are surprisingly anticipatory of Sigmar Polke’s splashed “resin paintings”–developed the greatest loyalty to this law, particularly its criterion of originality, through her invention of the “soak/stain” technique. But more decisive for her reputation as the doyenne of Abstract Expressionism was the fact that male artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland-directed by Clement Greenberg-embraced her technique. By contrast, Elaine de Kooning’s comparatively meager institutional recognition as an artist can be attributed to her conscious flouting of the AbEx framework. External factors like her marriage to Willem de Kooning and her role as an Art News critic exacerbated the lack of recognition as an artist, and her adherence to portraiture certainly entailed artistic isolation at that time. From today’s point of view, her series of sitting, faceless men seems particularly successful in that it shows the tension between recognition and misrecognition of those portrayed: The more she attempted to represent her male sitters, the more “empty” their faces became. For Willem de Kooning, though, portraits were nothing more than “pictures that girls made.” Bad conduct and equally harsh words were considered good form. No wonder Joan Mitchell fled to France at the end of the ’50s, where, no longer subject to the constraints of the New York School milieu, she could develop her own self-confident, striding touch.
Hedda Stern, Ink Drawing (no other information available)
“If Mitchell’s early paintings indicate a greater inner tension than her “more independent” later work, the opposite holds for Krasner. That her pictures enter a dialogue with Pollock has been pointed out often enough, but one would do well to discuss her work according to its own conditions. Her paintings from the late ’40s demonstrate how she developed painterly signs for spontaneity, translating gestures into an artistic order. Well into the ’70s she was honing a collage technique in which the elements served a purely painterly purpose. The most successful of these is a 1974 collage in which silhouette-style cutouts, sprinkled with rose paint, are applied so that their forms dynamically mimic the curve of a painted black arc. These paintings look like a happy signature. The euphoria of the work is matched by the liberating blow she delivered in 1957, a year after Pollock’s death, with Sun Woman II-a picture that inserts the lightness of Matisse’s cutouts into the AbEx code.”
Lee Krasner, The Sun Woman II, 1958, 70 x 114 inches
I’m out of time, but I will leave you with this thought:
“This is so good, you would not know it was painted by a woman.” Hans Hoffmann about his student Lee Krasner, 1937.
And these references:
Abstract Expressionist Women Painters : An Annotated Bibliography : Elaine De Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, by Francoise S. Puniello and Halina R. Rusak
Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics, by Ann Eden Gibson
And the obligatory question: When you think of abstract artists who are working in fiber, do you see any who seem to be influenced by or share an affinity with the women mentioned above? And of course, do you know any other names of women important in the abstract expressionist movement?