Ninth Street Women

The scripture tells us that he lay his head down on a stone, fell into a dream in which he stood at the bottom of a staircase that gyred through a scrim of clouds. The stairs gleamed with angels, ascending and descending marble steps. From the celestial heights a voice boomed down to him, a covenant: “All peoples of the earth will be blessed because of you and your offspring.” When he startled awake, he realized that he’d slept at a holy place. He named it Beit El, or “House of God.”

The abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler explored the twinned notions of earthly restraint and spiritual ecstasy in Jacob’s Ladder, which alludes to her own German-Jewish heritage and cousins lost in the Holocaust. The canvas displays the hallmarks of abstract expressionism – amorphous forms, spattered paint – but also gestures toward myth and representation. In the lower half parallel lines suggest a ladder amid a garden-like riot of green, ochre and mauve. Circles lurk, intimating a harmony between humanity and the divine. Her composition draws the eye toward the painting’s top half, much as Jacob peered upward, splashes of color broken by bare canvas, conjuring an ephemeral heaven, a delicate transcendence.

Frankenthaler painted Jacob’s Ladder in 1957, spurred by a burst of creativity that cemented her position in American art. She may not have invented the staining technique, but she made it her own, transforming the relationship of paint to canvas much in the way her idol, Jackson Pollack, did in his revolutionary “drip” paintings.

Frankenthaler is one of a cast of women profiled in Mary Gabriel’s authoritative and enthralling Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler, Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art. In the spring of 1951, as the frenzy among the abstract expressionists was reaching a crescendo (even as they still fought for attention from museums such as the Modern), fifty-six men and eleven women rented a storefront on East Ninth Street and mounted an exhibition. Each contributed a single canvas. Quite unexpectedly, the uptown establishment arrived in droves, with Alfred Barr, Jr., the Modern’s original director and tastemaker par excellence, “stunned” and jotting down names in a notebook. Here was something big. The event catalyzed abstract expressionism as a leading movement and the city as its capital, wresting the international spotlight away from Paris.

Thus was the New York School born. Other women toiled during the 1940s and ‘50s, Jane Freilicher and Nell Blaine among them, but Gabriel chooses to trace, in lush, meticulous detail, the lives and careers of five women featured in that show, shifting back and forth between them, revealing their gifts and idiosyncrasies. Although they maintained friendships (and intermittent feuds), each was her own artist and person.

Aged forty-two in 1951, Krasner was the senior member, a born leader and by turns nurturing and prickly. Raised by working-class Jewish parents in Brooklyn, she wrangled her way into Depression-era Manhattan through WPA commissions and superb organizational skills. Along with other aspiring painters she worked at her easel as time allowed, taking classes with the German émigré Hans Hoffman.

Krasner’s early canvases were Cubist exercises as she splintered forms, searching for her own direction. Her life was upended when she met Wyoming-born Jackson Pollock, the intense and alcoholic experimental painter whose cowboy swagger seemed so un-New York. She dedicated herself, body and soul, to the Pollock project, pushing her own ideas into the back seat of his convertible of self-destruction. The couple moved to Springs, New York, on the far end of Long Island, making the occasional trip into Manhattan, where Pollock would head straight to the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, drinking and brawling with other men, even tearing down a restroom door.

Krasner continued to paint, moving toward a decorative abstraction, with tight flicks of the brush and a nervous energy pulsing through her line-crowded canvases, as in White Squares; she then narrowed her palette and played with collage, as seen in Black and White (1953) and Milkweed (1955). After her husband’s death in a car wreck in 1956 she stepped gingerly back into the New York School as Lee Krasner instead of Mrs. Jackson Pollock. . Gabriel cites one of Krasner’s friends: “Lee was her own woman before and after Pollock, but not during.”

That opinion may have reflected class and generational attitudes. Gabriel astutely draws a bright line between Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, the “first generation,” and the three younger women who benefitted from their pioneering efforts. De Kooning was a social butterfly: self-reliant, adventurous, optimistic, generous with others. Deeply committed to her husband, Willem “Bill” de Kooning, she reveled in their “open” marriage (as did he), with separate quarters and studios. She pursued other men and other interests, such as writing, publishing some of the most incisive criticism on the New York School. But when her gears shifted back to painting, she churned out striking abstractions as well as warm-spirited portraits, flipping the stereotype of the Great Man’s retiring spouse. Gabriel wryly observes, “At the end of term at Black Mountain [in North Carolina], Bill boarded the train north carrying the one painting he had completed and Elaine’s eighteen works.”

The New Jersyean Grace Hartigan was perhaps the most iconoclastic of the Ninth Street Women. She married young and abandoned her husband and son to follow the caprices of her own creativity. As with Krasner, Hartigan initially emulated Cubism, but with figures and space flattened rather than fractured. Her embrace of full-on abstraction felt technically supple yet tentative, with assured brushwork that draped her surfaces like nets of color, yet not keenly felt, as though she were missing something, or someone. Hartigan’s canvases impressed all who viewed them, though, and she moved up rapidly during the ‘50s, with solo shows and museum acquisitions. Among the Ninth Street Women she was the star, envied and sometimes resented.

At the peak of her fame she drifted back toward the human figure, often barely recognizable beneath veils of paint. Unlike “pure” abstractionists – acolytes of the Dutch master Piet Mondrian, longing to break with representation in ways that Picasso never dreamt of — Hartigan’s work dialogued with that of contemporaries, such as Bill de Kooning, and with the canon of art history. (Her stunning Grand Street Brides recalls Goya’s Las Majas en la balcón and jarring Black Paintings as well as Georges Rouault’s Jeu de massacre.)

If Hartigan was the golden girl, then Joan Mitchell was the misfit. Born to a wealthy WASP family in Chicago, Mitchell came of age as a recurring character in the local society pages, but she was always a rebel, marrying against her parents’ wishes to a neighbor, Barney Rosset, whose father was Jewish. (Years later, as the legendary publisher of Grove Press, Rosset would introduce American readers to the books of Nobel laureates Samuel Beckett, Kenzaburo Oe, and Pablo Neruda.) After an amicable divorce – she and Rosset remained friends, and he helped to support her financially — Mitchell devoted herself to painting, arguably becoming the most dedicated abstractionist among the Ninth Street Women, her canvases like detonations of paint.

City Landscape (1955), a major work, is a riptide of color and horizontal brushstrokes through the canvas’s middle, dripping randomly into spare patches of white, gray and black along the bottom, echoed by cracked expanses of white, gray and black along the top. Without the title, one wouldn’t guess this mishmash represents New York, but with the title it can only be a magnificent city on a winter evening, throbbing with lights and movement, block lines suggesting the contours of buildings. Restless, Mitchell soured on the increasing commercialization of the New York School and eventually decamped to France, where she created dazzling canvases with heavy strokes and unleashed energy, windows into her disquieting psyche.

Like Mitchell, Frankenthaler, the youngest among the Ninth Street Women, was raised in affluence, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As a child she drew a single chalk-line from the Metropolitan Museum to her Park Avenue apartment building, her vigilant nanny trailing her. “Helen’s assuredness was partly the result of class and wealth, but more particularly in her case the fact that she knew who she was,” Gabriel writes. “She had enormous confidence . . . competitive to the marrow, and audacious.”

Just out of Bennington, Frankenthaler caught critic Clement Greenberg’s eye (he was twenty years her senior), and through Greenberg entrée into the white-hot core of the New York School. In November 1950 she accompanied Greenberg to Pollock’s acclaimed solo show at the Betty Parsons gallery, a fulcrum in twentieth-century American art. “Part revelation, part provocation, Helen called her initial encounter with Jackson’s work ‘a beautiful trauma’ that set her on a path of technical innovation and bold creation that would inspire others as he had inspired her,” Gabriel writes. “Within a few years, her work would be seen as a bridge between Pollock and what was possible in his aftermath.” Clem and Helen socialized frequently with Jackson and Lee (one slightly annoying tick of Gabriel’s is to refer to her cast by first names), just as Pollock was beginning his descent into chronic drunkenness and veering away from his most creative years. Something in his epic paintings clicked within Frankenthaler, though, inspiring her first major work, Mountains and Sea.

 

By any metric Gabriel’s accomplishment is formidable. She brings a perspicacity to Ninth Street Women, packing exhaustive research and original reporting into a dense but richly hued narrative. Her execution is essentially perfect, with an elegant structure, following a chronological through-line but cutting between her five leads. We get to know these people — their virtues and vices – intimately, as Gabriel dishes up romantic intrigue amid booze-fueled nights at the Cedar. After a few dramatic scenes you can feel the hangover coming on.

Even with these merits, Ninth Street Women stands out in two areas.

Art criticism: Gabriel is always incisive but she never trips over exegesis. She keeps her language sophisticated but smooth, connecting that time to our own. She delves into Pollock’s epochal period, for example, as he brooded in his barn studio in Springs, showing his canvases only to Krasner: “The unending space that Pollock created ‘was to our time what perspectival space to the renaissance,’ said painter Charles Cajori. Through the door that Pollock opened they [the abstract expressionists] saw endless possibilities . . . in Pollock’s paintings there was hope because there was life. Decades later, long after his works had been trivialized through repetition, their original impact could best be experienced not in another artist’s paintings but in the awe-inspiring image of space and time sent back to earth by the Hubble Space Telescope.”

And in just a few pithy sentences Gabriel fleshes out what Frankenthaler learned from Pollock and how she filtered it through her own instincts. She adopted the westerner’s physical style and scale while pivoting to a different treatment of the canvas’s surface: “Helen had thinned her oil paint to such an extent that it was liquid and when she poured it onto the raw canvas it didn’t form a skin, but soaked into the weave of cotton duck . . . Kneeling on the floor and reaching across her canvas, sometimes climbing onto it, she pushed the paint pools and watched the pastel colors change as they bled into one another or spread out more thinly into and across the fabric . . . she created oceans, her paint forming seas of color that ebbed and flowed. Very few lines appeared on the surface . . . The painting was massive, but the overall effect was weightless.” Gabriel eschews jargon for storytelling, luring the reader in.

And Ninth Street Women wouldn’t be the landmark work it is without an unflinching appraisal of gender politics. Gabriel plays it fair and square, emphasizing that in the early days there was an open, welcoming community of (more or less) equals. Bill de Kooning may have longed for a conventional marriage but quickly figured out that Elaine would be Elaine; she couldn’t have cared less for six-o’-clock dinners or tidying up the apartment. The artists took care of each other through the lean years; more than a few were literally starving, skimping on meals and “selling blood to get money to buy kerosene.” Gabriel quotes Hartigan: “’Everyone was poverty-stricken – there was no fame, no money, no galleries, no collectors. Men have no objection to women as creators. It’s only when they’re all scrambling for recognition that the trouble begins.’”

Recognition sparked professional jealousies, petty squabbles, puppet strings twirled by curators and dealers and buyers – call it “the establishment” – that invested heavily in mediocre men while marginalizing (or ignoring) talented women. A few gallery directors, such as Betty Parsons and John Myers, “defied ingrained sexism,” elevating female artists “to become part of the national art dialogue, to be included in museum exhibitions and collections . . . Unfortunately, there were not enough daring dealers to make that possible, and so women remained largely off the museum and commercial radar.”

Each Ninth Street woman responded in her own fashion. Krasner sublimated her own imaginative drives to her husband’s, and also withdrew after Clem Greenberg once shamefully belittled her canvases, re-emerging only after Pollock’s death. Elaine de Kooning bounced from painting to writing, from clique to clique, sprightly, shrugging off the notion that she mattered only because of her unconventional marriage to a Great Man. Mitchell had little patience for the art world’s self-regard, preferring the solitude of her studio.

Ever the contrarian, Hartigan waved away the ideal of a woman artist altogether. Gabriel admirably lets the painter speak for herself: “’To be truthful I didn’t much think about being a woman . . . You know, you don’t go into the studio and say, “Oh here I am this marvelous heroine, this wonderful woman doing my marvelous women artists can come after me and do their marvelous painting.’ There you are alone in this huge space and you are not conscious of the fact that you have breasts and a vagina. You are inside yourself, looking at a damned piece of rag on the wall that you are supposed to make a world out of . . . once that is done, I don’t know if it’s a woman’s experience I’m looking at.’”

And Frankenthaler was blessed with her preternatural confidence. She would plot her own path. After a painful breakup with Greenberg, she married a newly divorced Robert Motherwell and became a loving stepmother to his two young daughters. Although temperamental opposites, Frankenthaler and Motherwell shared a profound devotion to their craft, each contributing to the other’s pictorial language. In this happy moment in the late ‘50s, then, Frankenthaler’s canvases swelled in size and scope, her use of staining technique grew bolder, with Jacob’s Ladder evoking spiritual release and re-creating an Old Testament story anew.

Frankenthaler reached her apex just as a new artist arrived on the scene. Jasper Johns blazed the trail for Pop painters, who reinterpreted postwar American experience as a series of Day-Glo surfaces, flat and soul-free. Abstract expressionism receded as abruptly as it soared, ceding its fifteen years of fame to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Gabriel winds down Ninth Street Women in 1959 but offers a coda to each painter, following her career and life to the end, charting the artists’ enduring influence.

 

In 1992 the art historian and curator April Kingsley published The Turning Point, a month-by-month account of 1950, the year many of the Ninth Street painters were busy with the canvases they’d show next year. (Gabriel titles one of her sections “The Turning Point” as an homage.) Kingsley’s group biography highlights Willem de Kooning, Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and many others . . . men, men, men. In her Introduction she praises a mythical heroic figure: “The Abstract Expressionist approaches the canvas head-on, in direct, unpremeditated confrontation, and left it strewn with drips and splatters, accidental gestures and studio debris. Chance, gravity, and paint viscosity were, for the first time in the history of art, important factors in making a painting.” Kingsley would like us to imagine Pollock here, smoking a cigarette as he looms and paces, brush in hand, authentically American. Six pages later she features a Life photograph from 1951, with fourteen men and one woman, Hedda Sterne. Which speaks for itself.

The Ninth Street women are present in The Turning Point, as understudies or as bits of scenery. It comes as a shock that an otherwise deeply informed cultural history should insist on portraying women of the New York School as spouses or invisible, certainly not as artists in their own right. Krasner is longsuffering and loyal, “not pretty but with a spectacular figure.” Frankenthaler is defined in relation to Motherwell, a hostess straight out of Town & Country: “rich and attractive . . . Frankenthaler loved to entertain and did so with style.” Hartigan is “beautiful and wild” and disappears after a cursory mention. Mitchell appears merely to vanish instantly, like a magician’s trick. Only Elaine de Kooning is given her due as an “art world power,” but less as a painter and more as a critic for Art News.

A generation later, Gabriel has guided us toward a more capacious appreciation of their challenges and contributions. We marvel at Frankenthaler’s impact on the Color Field School, her technique and themes a testament to spiritual communion and uplift. We admire Elaine de Kooning’s portraits of Fairfield Porter and John F. Kennedy, smudged limbs and blurred faces nudging the human form into a mystical realm one degree removed from our own. Krasner circled back to painting late, offering sinuous organic forms that hint at ripe female sexuality, as in The Seasons. Hartigan bequeaths a lavish use of color and variegated lines, and beneath her dripped, inscrutable surfaces, a need to hold onto real people and places. Mitchell’s later outdoor paintings, such as Hemlock and No Rain, capture, in thick yet deft brush-strokes, nature as the most elusive and gorgeous abstraction of all.

In the oeuvre of Helen Frankenthaler – in the paintings of all five Ninth Street Women — one senses both movement and poise held in precarious balance, a push-pull between the world and the self, and a burning desire to probe that tension in ways that men cannot. For too long these women have yielded the spotlight to their male colleagues, lingering – or banished to — just behind the curtains. Mary Gabriel’s magisterial book clasps each woman by the hand and waltzes her gracefully to center stage.