The women of the historic Ninth Street Show had a will of iron and an intense need for their talent to be expressed, no matter the cost.
The photograph of Jackson Pollock that appeared in Life in August, 1949, didn’t look like anyone’s idea of an artist. Although he stood in front of an enormous painting, a fantastic tracery of loops and swirls that most readers would have found perplexing or ridiculous, the man himself was something else: rugged, intense, with paint-splattered dungarees and a cigarette dangling, with a touch of insolence, from the corner of his mouth. A rival painter, Willem de Kooning, said that he looked like “some guy who works at a service station pumping gas.” But the image was sexy, too—notably similar in type to the working-class stud made famous by Marlon Brando on Broadway the previous year. The subtitle of the accompanying article read, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” The answer was presumably affirmative: why else was a little-known artist being featured in the biggest mass-circulation magazine in the country? The editors, however, were too skittish to render judgment on his mysterious new art. Instead, they offered the phenomenon of Pollock himself: a conspicuously modern artist without a trace of European la-di-da, an artist born in Wyoming, no less, who did his painting in a barn, using not a palette but cans of aluminum paint, into which he occasionally mixed (how much more macho could it get?) nails and screws. The big news was that it was safe, at last, in America, for a real man to be an artist.
Allowing Life to do the article, despite Pollock’s hesitation, was Lee Krasner’s idea. Otherwise known as Mrs. Jackson Pollock, Krasner was a fervent booster of her husband’s work, outspoken in her conviction that he was, as she liked to say, numero uno. She claimed to have believed in his genius from her first visit to his studio, in 1941, and she’d seen him through years of alcoholic turbulence, when he was selling so little that he couldn’t afford to heat their ramshackle house, on the outer reaches of Long Island. Krasner had worn long johns and heavy sweaters to work in the freezing room that served as her own studio—for she, too, was a fiercely serious artist. She had trained at Cooper Union, in a section of the school reserved for women, and at the National Academy of Design, where she learned to draw and paint in a rigorously traditional style. After discovering modernism, she had gone on to become a star pupil of the revered teacher Hans Hofmann, who praised her work as good enough to pass for a man’s. In the late thirties, working for the W.P.A.’s Federal Art Project, a government program that promoted strictly nondiscriminatory policies, she had led a crew of ten men working on a giant mural, now lost, on the subject of navigation. As was true for many women artists of the time, the program gave her a professional start, hands-on experience, and enough confidence to think that she might make it as a painter, even after the war effort brought the W.P.A. to an end, along with all vestiges of an art world that viewed women as equal players.
It’s impossible to know how she might have developed on her own. By the early forties, she was committed to an upbeat style of geometric abstraction, brightly colored, that gave Cubism a rhythmic swing. But meeting Pollock, moving in with him (in 1942), and marrying him (in 1945) radically reset her course. Beginning in 1943—the year of Pollock’s first solo gallery show—she painted almost nothing but “gray slabs,” as she put it, for three despairing years, while she struggled toward his kind of deeply personal abstraction, attempting to paint not what she devised but what she felt and, even more psychologically daunting, who she was. The answer would once have been clear: she was an escapee from an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, an Artists Union protest organizer, a gutsy woman who took no guff, an ambitious artist. Now, though, she seemed to have been transformed, as in some cruel fairy tale, into a lowly creature known as an artist’s wife. She got past the gray slabs in 1946, and for the next few years kept trying out new approaches, working mostly on a modest scale—she called her best work the “Little Image” paintings—and pushing on with quiet resolve. In 1949, however, just a couple of months after Pollock’s appearance in Life, she decided to stop exhibiting, following a series of dismissive she’s-no-Pollock reviews of a gallery show titled “Artists: Man and Wife.” At the age of forty, she was a scarred veteran who stood for everything that younger women artists feared and rejected. She was even known to cook.
Krasner ventured to exhibit again two years later, in the historic Ninth Street Show. Held in an empty storefront just off Broadway, rented by the artists themselves, the show was a boisterous call for attention by a new generation, artists for whom Pollock and de Kooning (both of whom took part) had the status almost of Old Masters. Since few of them had ever received any significant notice, the rush to participate was so intense that everyone was limited to a single piece. Even in this renegade atmosphere, there was some initial discussion of whether including women in the exhibition would diminish its chance of being taken seriously. Eventually, the jury selected eleven women, and sixty-one men, to represent the creatively rich (if otherwise impoverished) new downtown art world, with its cheap industrial lofts, high communal spirits, and almost universal devotion to abstraction. Five of the women went on to have international careers, their work collected by major museums and subject to ever-expanding bibliographies: Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning (who was married to Willem), and Krasner—the oldest of them but the last to bloom, coming into her own only after Pollock’s death, in 1956, a painful loss yet the start of a remarkably productive twenty-eight years of widowhood.
Mary Gabriel’s timely and ambitious new book, “Ninth Street Women,” provides a multifaceted account of the five odds-defying female artists who travelled from Ninth Street to the Museum of Modern Art and beyond. Gabriel warns at the start that her seven-hundred-page text lacks “traditional biographical detail”; instead, it is a widely roving group portrait, evoking an entire era and aspiring to explain it. She dwells on broad social and political events, which she believes were not merely a context for the artists’ work but the raison d’être for their allegiance to abstraction. Declaring her opposition to theorists who claim that painters respond primarily to other painters, she begins by proposing that the larger New York group of artists “stripped their work of all life except their own internal meanderings because they existed in a world destroyed by war, dehumanized by the death camps, and denied a future by the atomic bomb.”
One can see the appeal of this idea: it makes the art seem bigger, braver. And Gabriel is deft at weaving an artist into a piece of political history. Still, it’s difficult to demonstrate the weight of a world that remains invisible on the painters’ canvases. Even Krasner, who was politically active, said, “I, for one, didn’t feel that my art had to reflect my political point of view.” Judging by Gabriel’s own account, references to contemporary horrors by any New York artists are rare, and learning of an occasion when Willem de Kooning voiced concern about the atomic bomb does not necessarily convince one that his world view was expansive. (Furthermore, he departed from abstraction when the spirit moved him, as did Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan; had they given up worrying about the bomb?) In fact, much as one might expect, Gabriel’s subjects displayed the all-too-human tendency to respond to world events in ambiguous ways, including keeping their heads down—particularly easy when the rent is overdue—and responding in no apparent way at all.
Fortunately, Gabriel lets the political thesis fade as events take over and the immediacy of these lives becomes all-engrossing. There was so much happening at close range: making art, selling art, not selling art, falling in love with genius, attempting to be a genius, the unforeseen rise of a movement fuelled by creative energy, oil paint, and alcohol. The development of a culture is deeply consequential, and its story—even a very specialized piece of its story—requires no apologies or augmentation. And this piece of the art-world story happens to be very exciting, as brought to life in the balance of Gabriel’s rich, serious-minded, and (in a good way) sometimes gossipy book. It was Elaine de Kooning, after all, who characterized the era under consideration, roughly 1949 through 1959, as a “ten-year party.”
The women arrived at Ninth Street from different places, playing very different roles. Elaine de Kooning, despite being half of the other ruling couple of the art world (and, unlike Krasner, using her husband’s name), was anything but the standard artist’s wife. At thirty-three, some ten years younger than Krasner, she was the doyenne of the downtown art scene, a position that owed more to her charismatic warmth, wit, and bohemian freedom than to her work, which had never been prominently shown. Although she painted her share of de-rigueur abstractions, portraiture was her self-described “addiction”: she joked that it was one area where she didn’t have to compete with her husband, who dismissed portraits as “pictures that girls made.” But her talent shone in the finely rendered portrait drawings she produced, and her loosely brushed, more allusive paintings showed a true originality in their apprehension of what she called the “instantaneous illumination” that allows us to recognize people at a glance. Turning art history on its head, she had two main subjects: men, whom she depicted as both soulful and fully sexual (especially in her immensely tender, private drawings of her husband, naked and asleep); and herself, portrayed—most memorably in a detailed painting from 1946, now in the National Portrait Gallery—as unmistakably an artist, sketchbook in hand, boldly staring us down.
The other women were younger and still largely finding themselves, although they seemed to be moving on a faster track. Grace Hartigan, at twenty-nine, had already had a well-received solo show of her vigorous abstractions. Still, she found it difficult to finish her canvas for the Ninth Street Show in time, partly because she habitually doubted her work and partly because her nine-year-old son—whom she’d left to be raised by her ex-husband’s parents, in New Jersey—was staying with her for a while. (In a journal, she recorded the painful distraction of his crying at bedtime: “There was nothing to be said that could soothe him—he has his tragedies defined for him at an early age.”) Joan Mitchell, a twenty-six-year-old Chicago heiress who had studied at the city’s Art Institute, contributed an exuberant abstract canvas nearly six feet square, despite the official request for smaller works, given the crowded nature of the show. Youngest of all, at twenty-two, was Helen Frankenthaler—another wealthy girl, fresh out of Bennington—who contributed a seven-foot-long abstraction that she seemed sure no one would dare reject. Confidence was a property of youth, thriving in inverse proportion to experience.
None of them wanted to paint like a woman, whatever that meant. Alfred Stieglitz’s famous words on first seeing drawings by Georgia O’Keeffe, in 1916—“At last, a woman on paper”—would, for these artists, have been a dreadful rebuke, a sign that they had fallen short of their ambitions, or that something closely guarded had slipped through. The descriptive terms for the prestigious art of the day (“monumental scale,” “energy,” “action,” even “genius”) were understood to be as masculine as Pollock’s swagger. Hartigan, moving away from abstraction, in 1952, wrote of having to get up her courage to “look conservative—reactionary—timid—or even (horrors) feminine” in the process. During the previous year, she had begun, revised, despised, destroyed, resurrected, and, it seems, finally abandoned a painting she called “Woman.” Willem de Kooning also struggled to define the human female in paint, but with a result that is as horrifying as it is famous. His “Woman” series, which he began in 1950 and continued for three years, is a group of monstrous, hypersexualized, devouring grotesques: “Never before had a woman been as brutalized by brushstrokes,” Gabriel notes, which is saying a lot, after Picasso. At the time, Elaine, whose sense of freedom included semi-public sexual affairs that were known to torment her husband, felt compelled to explain that the images were not of her. (She suggested that they might represent her mother-in-law.) A couple of her female artist friends, though, looking over the display of gorgons when the series was exhibited, in 1953—at a fancy midtown gallery that did not show women painters—blithely offered their own observations: “That one’s you. That one’s me . . .”
So how did these artists—continually discouraged, derided, and attacked—do it? How did they keep working, in the face of so many obstacles, and keep believing in themselves? The simplest answer, beyond talent (which the six other women in the Ninth Street Show, now forgotten, also had), is a will of iron, an intense need for that talent to be expressed, no matter the cost, even if it meant giving up one’s child. In Hartigan’s journal, the entry about her son is soon followed by one that begins, “My children are scattered”—by which she means that two recently completed paintings have gone off to galleries. None of the other women had children, by self-preserving design, and despite intense emotional ambivalence. Indeed, a child may have been the only thing that Lee Krasner ever refused Jackson Pollock. (She sometimes said that she already effectively had a child, and his name was Jackson.) The women’s formidable will developed in widely varied personal circumstances. Krasner’s immigrant family was hardly aware of art; she taught herself to draw by copying fashion advertisements in newspapers. Mitchell was brought to museums from her earliest youth—her father, a doctor, was an amateur artist—and had her first painting exhibition when she was twelve, at school.