Books

How the Mythic Heroines of the New York School Changed Modern Art

Mary Gabriel charts the Abstract Expressionist movement through the lives of its five most prominent female painters in her newest work of biography, Ninth Street Women.

<em>Ninth Street Women</em> by Mary Gabriel (image courtesy Little, Brown)
Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel (image courtesy Little, Brown)

“If there is art, there is hope. Man is not a monster, because he yearns for truth and is capable of producing great beauty,” Mary Gabriel writes in the introduction to Ninth Street Women (2018). It is this kind of observation, delivered with a grounded moral depth and an undercurrent of humility, that make Gabriel’s biographies so remarkable.

Ninth Street Women, published by Little, Brown, is the fourth biography written by Gabriel, coming after Love and Capital (2011), a Pulitzer-nominated tome on the love story of Karl and Jenny Marx. Once again, Gabriel has found captivating subjects worthy of her prismatic attention. She uses the stories of artists Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler as a kaleidoscope that both segments and weaves together a comprehensive history of the New York School’s most mythic heroines.

These women’s ambitious, decade-spanning history is told in five parts, each made up of breathy, episodic chapters. Artist biographies often rely heavily on visual description, plodding through major gallery openings and milestone artworks that define a career. However, the sheer amount of ground to cover with this project would have made that kind of writing approach a miserable slog. Instead, Gabriel takes the scenic route. While the art descriptions in Ninth Street Women are visceral and rich, the narrative is more strongly defined by moments of decision, commitment, desperation, and change.

We see Elaine and Bill de Kooning’s wedding at City Hall, a celebration marked by its complete lack of sanctimony; we witness the powerhouse moment of Helen Frankenthaler encountering Jackson Pollock’s painting for the first time (an experience Frankenthaler recalled as “a beautiful trauma”); we learn of the heartbreaking but very on-brand memorial ritual Joan Mitchell requested at her own funeral (she asked everyone in attendance to conjure up a deep way she’d wronged them and forgive her). We hear the antiques breaking in Bertha Schaefer’s apartment as Jackson Pollock raged — drunk on liquor and wounded machismo — the night of what was supposed to be Lee Krasner’s return to the artistic spotlight. There’s a fish-eye lens description of Grace Hartigan’s last big bust-up with Frank O’Hara when she tells him, at the advice of her therapist, that she needs to withdraw from their friendship.

After sketching out an extensive cast of supporting characters in the opening biographical chapters of Krasner and de Kooning, the book prances through a story of a bohemia, found. Every notable art dealer, patron, and critic connected to the New York School movement seems to find their way into the narrative, and they slide in as cozily as if they were making a quick stop into the infamous Greenwich Village watering hole, the Cedar Street Tavern. (The site of the Cedar Street Tavern is a CVS now, if you’re looking to benchmark how highly art landmarks are valued in this capitalist hellscape.) A truly remarkable chapter simply exploring the relationships of the poets and painters who found each other deep in drink and post-war angst stands out in its spectacular details. While a deep background knowledge of art history — the Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist periods in particular — certainly makes these cameos more satisfying, these characters are simply the backdrop against which we see our five main artists ascend and land.

Mary Gabriel (image courtesy Little, Brown)
Mary Gabriel (image courtesy Little, Brown)

Gabriel unspools the triumphant gallery openings and after-parties, weekends of refuge-seeking in the Hamptons (the Hamptons used to be for artists, guys), and ecstatic and esoteric poetry salons that thread the five artists’ lives together like so many strings in an elaborate cat’s cradle. The spirit of intimacy and commonality in these relationships displays both a warmth and longing for connection amongst the tremendous canvas jungle of the East Village. “It was simply too difficult to become an artist alone,” she writes. The truth of this observation, and the way that this truth played out, is the real story of this book about five female artists.

As for the more problematic aspects of many of the artists’ romantic partnerships, Gabriel chooses observation over analysis. The emphasis is more on telling us candidly what happened, rather than implying what we should make of it. For those asking the very valid questions of how we should evaluate artists like Jackson Pollock, who leave a legacy of physical and emotional abuse, there are other biographies that dive into exactly that. This work aims to explore its female characters through the lens of the agency they claimed so boldly, rather than the looming darkness that so often tried to steal it away.

The women who carried forth the momentum of the New York School included Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler, whose biographies begin the book’s second act. While the writing here maintains the integrity of careful scholarship, it’s shared with the breathless delight of the most delicious piece of gossip. Each gets her own chapter detailing her early life and what exactly brought them to New York. Grace Hartigan showed up at the de Kooning’s door with the words, “Jackson Pollock sent me.” She had next to no art training (in her words, “no talent, only genius”) and had left behind a life as a suburban wife and young mother. The art world that Hartigan arrived to find was one where the role of a supportive “artist’s wife” had been defined by Lee and Elaine (or at least, what men thought Lee and Elaine were like).

Helen Frankenthaler, the rare painter whose abilities coincided perfectly within her own cultural zeitgeist, is portrayed with a charming, voracious energy that somewhat carries the book’s second half. Gabriel writes of Joan Mitchell using many of her own letters, replete with so many m-dashes that characterize the way she spoke, painted, and lived — intimate, candid, and yet, somehow, removed. Both artists arrive in the group right around the time that the world began to take notice of what was going on in the Greenwich Village art scene.

But with this attention came commercialization, which felt to all the artists like a creeping doom. The struggle to sell paintings collides with the struggle to remain avant-garde. Big art openings are contrasted with feelings of deep aversion and personal conflict as success comes to each woman in a different guise.

48 pages of black and white photographs and art reproductions printed in the center of the book ground the narrative, and a wholly enjoyable mountain of detail fills in the rest. Looking at Abstract Expressionist art in a shrunken and grayscale reproduction is surely not my favorite way to experience it. But the artist photos selected for inclusion do enhance the reader experience, especially if you’re like me and love seeing your favorite artists totally drunk and having a great time instead of dead and/or starving, the way they are usually described.

Ninth Street Women is the rare art biography that doesn’t make me feel like I should just give up on being a woman with thoughts about art. While it is diagnostic, it is never prescriptive in its telling of the travails and ultimate courage of these remarkable artists. It’s a valuable contribution to the conversation about the Abstract Expressionists because it succeeds in documenting the way these artists rose together, with no person completely disconnected from the rest of the movement.

Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel is published by Little, Brown and will be available September 25 on Amazon and other online retailers.

comments (0)