Three Female Artists Who Helped Create Abstract Expressionism: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning & Helen Frankenthaler.


The three artists that gallerists James Payne and Joanne Shurvell have chosen to represent New York City in their series Great Art Cities Explained are as refreshing as they are surprising.

Andy Warhol?

Nope.

Keith Haring?

No.

Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Uh-uh.

These gents would be the obvious choice, though only one of the three – Basquiat was a native New Yorker.

Instead, Payne and Shurvell aim their spotlight at three NYC-born Abstract Expressionists.

Three female NYC-born Abstract Expressionists – Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, and Helen Frankenthaler.

These women’s contributions to the movement were considerable, but Krasner and deKooning spent much of their careers overshadowed by celebrated husbands – fellow Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

The New York-based Abstract Expressionism deposed Paris as the center of the art world, and was the most macho of movements. Krasner, Frankenthaler, and Elaine de Kooning often heard their work described as “feminine”, “lyrical”, or “delicate”, the implication being that it was somehow less than.

Hans Hofmann, an Abstract Expressionist who ran the 8th Street atelier where Krasner studied after training at Cooper Union, the Art Students League, and the National Academy of Design, and working for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, once praised one of her canvases by saying, “This is so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.”

Payne and Shurvell detail how the sociable Krasner, already established in the NYC art scene, shared important contacts with Pollock, with whom she became romantically entangled shortly after their work was shown alongside Picasso’s, Matisse’s , and Georges Braque’s in the pivotal 1942 French and American Painting exhibition at the McMillen Gallery.

She was an energetic promoter of his work, and a cheerleader when he flagged.

They married and moved to Long Island in an unsuccessful bid to put the kibosh on his drinking and extracurricular affairs. He commandeered a barn on the property for his studio, while she made do with a bedroom.

While Pollock ranged around large canvases laid on the barn floor, famously splattering, Krasner produced a Little Image series on a table, sometimes applying paint straight from the tube.

MoMA’s description of an untitled Little Image in their collection states:

Krasner likened these symbols to Hebrew letters, which she had studied as a child but could no longer read or write. In any case, she said, she was interested in creating a language of private symbols that did not communicate any one specific meaning.”

After Pollock died in a car crash while driving under the influence – his mistress survived – Krasner claimed the barn studio for her own practice.

It was a transformative move. Her work not only grew larger, it was informed by the full-body gestures that went into its creation.

Ten years later, she got her first solo show in New York, and MoMA gave her a retrospective in 1984, six months before her death.

In a wildly entertaining 1978 interview on Inside New York’s Art World, below, Krasner recalls how early on, her gender didn’t factor into how her work was received.

I start in high school, and it’s only women artists, all women. Then I’m at Cooper Union, woman’s art school, all women artists and even when I’m on WPA later on, there’s no – you know, there’s nothing unusual about being a woman and being an artist. It’s considerably later that all this begins to happen, specifically when the seat moves from Paris, which was the center, and shifts into New York, and I think that period is known as Abstract Expressionism, where we now have galleries, price, money, attention. Up ’til then it’s a pretty quiet scene. That’s when I’m first aware of being a woman and “a situation” is there.

Elaine de Kooning was an abstract portraitist, an art critic, a political activist, a teacher, and “the fastest brush in town”, but these accomplishments were all too often viewed as less of an achievement than being Mrs. Willem de Kooning, the female half of an Abstract Expressionist “it couple.”

Great Art Cities Explained suggests that the twenty year period in which she and Willem were estranged – they reconciled when she was in her late 50s – was one of personal and artistic growth. She took inspiration from the bullfights she witnessed on her travels, turned a lusty female gaze on male subjects, and was commissioned to paint President Kennedy’s official portrait:

All my sketches from life as he talked on the phone, jotted down notes, read papers, held conferences, had to be made very quickly, catching features and gestures, half for memory, even as I looked, because he never sat still. It was not so much that he seemed restless, rather, he sat like an athlete or college boy, constantly shifting in his chair. At first this impression of youthfulness was a hurdle, as was the fact that he never sat still.

Like Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler was also part of an Abstract Expressionist golden couple, but fortune decreed she would not play a distant second fiddle to husband Robert Motherwell .

This surely owes something to her pioneering development of the “soak-stain” technique, wherein she poured turpentine-thinned oil paint directly onto unprimed canvas, laid flat.

Soak-stain pre-dated her marriage.

After a visit to Frankenthaler’s studio, where they viewed her landmark Mountains and Sea, above, abstract painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis also adopted the technique, as well as her penchant for broad, flat expanses of color – what became known as Color Field Painting.

Like Pollock, Frankenthaler scored a LIFE Magazine spread, though as Art She Says observes, not all LIFE artist profiles were created equal:

The dialogue between these two spreads appears to be a tale of socially-determined masculine energy and feminine composure. Though Pollock’s dominant stance is a key part of his artistic praxis, the issue is not that he is standing while she is sitting. Rather, it is that, with Pollock, we are allowed to glimpse into the intimate sides of his tortured and groundbreaking practice. In stark opposition, Parks’ images of Frankenthaler reinforce our need to see women artists as highly curated, polished figures who are as complete as the masterpieces that they produce. Even if those works appear highly abstracted and visceral, each stroke is perceived, at some level, to represent a calculated, perfected moment of visual enlightenment.

We’re intrigued by Frankenthaler’s 1989 remark to the New York Times:

There are three subjects I don’t like discussing: my former marriage, women artists, and what I think of my contemporaries.

For those who’d like to learn more about these three abstract painters, Payne and Shurvell offer the following book recommendations:

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  

Women of Abstract Expressionism by Irving Sandler 

Abstract Expressionism by David Anfam 

Three Women Artists: Expanding Abstract Expressionism in the American West by Amy Von Lintel, Bonnie Roos, et al.

Lee Krasner: A Biography by Gail Levin 

Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov

A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning by Cathy Curtis

Elaine de Kooning: Portraits by Brandon Brame Fortune

Watch a playlist of other Great Art Cities Explained here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.





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