Ninth Street Women

Reviewed by Marjorie Heins

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 Little, Brown and Company September 2018 $ 16.99, pp. 944

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
Little, Brown and Company
September 2018
$ 16.99, pp. 944

Mary Gabriel's group biography of five leading women artists in the Abstract Expressionist movement — Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler — weighs in at 722 pages (892 if you count endnotes and bibliography), yet leaves the reader (or at least, this reader) hungry for what is left out. Gabriel spends almost as much time recycling well-known stories about the men these five "Ab Ex" stars married, bedded, or hung out with, as it does on the women themselves. In the process, it pays scant attention to dozens of other female artists of the time.

To be sure, an author has to make choices about what to put in and what to leave out. But I found myself questioning Gabriel’s choices, especially in a work of this length and ambition, one of whose major themes is the sexism that plagued the art world in the time period Gabriel covers, and that actually got worse as the art market became big business and female artists were increasingly diminished and obscured in museums, galleries, and academia.

The book takes its title from a 1951 exhibition on Ninth Street in Greenwich Village. It was an independent effort by downtown avant-gardeartists to showcase their work to a still largely indifferent public and uptown art establishment. But Gabriel's choice of title might lead the reader to think that her five artists were the only women represented in this show. In fact, there were eleven women, among them the brilliantly inventive Perle Fine and Sonia Sekula. Gabriel mentions both in passing, but they hover in her book like inconsequential spirits, as do several others, including the redoubtable Hedda Sterne, famous in art history as the sole woman in a Life magazine photograph called "the Irascibles" — artists who protested the retrograde choices made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in its modern art show of 1950. Sterne gets a few mentions but no discussion of her life or work.

By contrast, Gabriel gives us long sections on Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Frank O'Hara, and other men important to the five women who form the spine of her story. Some of it is no doubt necessary, but these men's stories have been covered before in biographies and histories from which Gabriel liberally borrows. For a comprehensive look at the many Ab Ex women who have been discounted or neglected by the opinion leaders of art history, a better bet would be Joan Marter's wonderful catalog for the 2016 exhibition, "Women of Abstract Expressionism," which contains capsule biographies and much background material on 42 boundary-pushing female artists, many of whom lived and worked in New York.

Despite its shortchanging of other female artists, Ninth Street Womenoffers many pleasures. It is eminently readable and entertaining. It weaves together with considerable skill a complex narrative of the life and times of Krasner, de Kooning, Hartigan, Mitchell, and Frankenthaler — their psychology, their drives, their many lovers, what they gave up, what they suffered through, how they partied (intensely and often), how they were affected by the political turmoil of the post-World War II era, and at least in some instances, what their paintings are about and why they matter. Gabriel paints a vivid picture of the New York City downtown art world: freezing lofts in Chelsea in the 1940s, where the then still-harmonious couple of Elaine and Willem de Kooning lived, worked, and struggled; the Tenth Street scene, dense with artists' studios and co-op galleries; the famous "Club" on Eighth Street, where artists, critics, and pioneering gallery owners and curators debated culture, politics, and art; and the even more famous Cedar Bar, site of countless boozy all-nighters, and of some of Ab Ex icon Jackson Pollock's most spectacularly violent alcoholic escapades.

There is plenty of sex and gossip. We get a vivid sense of Elaine de Kooning's generosity and charm, Joan Mitchell's difficult bullying personality, Grace Hartigan's guilt over abandoning her child to be cared for by his grandparents, and Lee Krasner's brave, perhaps masochistic, struggles with the explosive alcoholism of her husband Jackson Pollock. The writing is mostly felicitous, although Gabriel occasionally lapses into breathless clichés, especially when describing art: "It was spirituality and it was sensuality. It was life"; "the imaginings of a mind that soared"; "naked energy unleashed."

Admittedly, describing visual art — putting what's happening on the canvas into words — is difficult (some would say impossible). Gabriel does nail a few good descriptions, but mostly we have to take it on faith for all the "masterpieces" she pronounces but does not explain. It helps that the book contains 34 full-color (albeit smallish) reproductions of stunning works by her five female stars, so we can see for ourselves what she is talking about.

Gabriel is a master at choosing the telling detail. She recounts, for example, the story of how Joan Mitchell decided that Paris was the place for her after a local cab driver explained to her the color theory behind one of Van Gogh's Irises; the fact that a course on Marxism that critic Harold Rosenberg offered at the New School at the height of anti-communist witch hunting in 1950 had just three students: the fearless Elaine de Kooning and two FBI agents; and the tidbit that such was Grace Hartigan's popularity among fellow artists that their favorite paint store named a color "Hartigan Violet" in her honor.

Gabriel rightly weaves plenty of political background into her story--in particular, the dread, nihilism, and anxiety fomented by the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, and the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and threatened, at the height of the Cold War, to destroy the planet. She echoes a familiar art-historical theory: that the pure abstraction pioneered by Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, and other "first generation" Ab Ex'ers during this time was a turning inward to emotional and spiritual themes in response to all that political despair.

Certainly, as Pollock famously said, "the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture." But it doesn't necessarily follow that the new forms must eschew any representation of the material world. One of Gabriel's better explanations of the turn toward abstraction comes by way of the writer and pal of many Greenwich Village artists, Dore Ashton. For the downtown artists, Gabriel says, quoting Ashton, "'art began to be seen as a way to save civilization. Not political art but spiritual art in the sense of man's spirit.'"

Gabriel interweaves the politics of the 1950s, and particularly the Red Scare, with the struggles of the artists. Her snapshots of political history are necessarily superficial, given that the main subject of the book lies elsewhere, and her reliance almost exclusively on secondary sources is justifiable. But she uses them even for quotations central to her story, instead of going back to the original sources, whether they be The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, the 1948 Kinsey Report, or advice from the fifties' leading child care guru, Dr. Spock. It is admittedly time-consuming to track down the primary source for every paraphrase or quotation, but as anyone who has done archival research knows, piggybacking on another author's quotation or transcription inevitably perpetuates errors.

For its central subject, the lives and work of Krasner, de Kooning, Hartigan, Mitchell, and Frankenthaler, Gabriel also relies heavily on secondary sources, including existing biographies of four of them. But she also enlivens the book with well-chosen excerpts from journals and letters, with her own interviews with veterans of the downtown scene, and with ample quotations from interviews and oral histories done by others.

A substantive problem with Gabriel's rendition of political history is her treatment (or lack of treatment) of the U.S. government's support of Abstract Expressionist art. She neglects to mention the well-documented fact that by the mid-1950s, the CIA was furtively sponsoring Abstract Expressionism as a symbol of freedom in its "cultural Cold War" with the Soviet Union. This was done at first indirectly, through the CIA's secret funding of an international organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Then, in 1958, the CIA directly but again clandestinely funded a major traveling international art show, through its dummy Farfield Foundation. As Frances Stoner Saunders and other scholars have documented,[1] the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was an all-too-willing collaborator in the campaign, and it served as a revolving door for employment of State Department and CIA officials. If Gabriel disagrees with the analysis of Saunders and the others, she should say why rather than ignoring this significant piece of the Ab Ex story.

Indeed, her few mentions of the cultural Cold War are oblique; she fails to cite Saunders or other sources on CIA involvement, and twice her text is misleading. The first time, she writes that government officials were "no doubt... happy" that MoMA had begun sending exhibitions abroad (627). This certainly implies no direct involvement. The second time, she says that MoMA's 1958 traveling international Ab Ex show was "encouraged, while not overtly supported" by the government (656). Gabriel doesn't mention that it was covertly supported by the government. Especially in a book that one reviewer (biographer Deirdre Bair) has hailed as "the definitive text for years to come," to mislead by this sort of omission is, to say the least, troubling.

So, Ninth Street Women is not "the definitive text" that Bair claims. And its focus on five female Ab Ex stars who got major recognition in their lifetimes, to the near-exclusion of other talented women, undermines Gabriel's theme of widespread sex discrimination and rampant machismoin the art world. But her book nonetheless has many virtues and is fun to read. Most important, it accords Krasner, de Kooning, Hartigan, Mitchell, and Frankenthaler their rightful place as brilliant painters and major pioneers of mid-twentieth century art.

Marjorie Heins is the author of six books about civil rights, free speech, and political repression, most recently Ironies and Complications of Free Speech: News and Commentary From the Free Expression Policy Project (2018). Her writings on art history include "Abstract Expressionism, Machismo, and the Cultural Cold War," available on Academia.edu.

Notes

[1] For sources on the U.S. government's covert support of Abstract Expressionism, see Frances Stoner Saunders's The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New Press, 1999); Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (U. Chicago Press, 1983); Louis Menand, "Unpopular Front: American Art and the Cold War," New Yorker, Oct. 17, 2005; Eva Cockcroft, "Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War," Artforum, June 1974.