Ninth Street Women

16

Dear Artist,

“To be put in any category not defined by one’s work is to be falsified,” said Elaine de Kooning, responding in 1971 to being characterized as a “woman artist.” She was pushing back against a new field of art history which was burgeoning on the sidelines of the contemporary art world called, “feminist art theory.” She wanted to be judged not by gender but solely on her ideas and skill.

helen-frankenthaler_basin

“Basin”
oil painting
by Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Twenty years earlier, Elaine de Kooning had debuted with 71 other artists at the Ninth Street Gallery in New York. The show featured eleven women and sixty-one men, including Elaine’s husband, Willem de Kooning, plus Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, the husband of another exhibitor, Lee Krasner. The month-long show launched a new wave of up-until-then virtual unknowns — loft squatters soon to become the Modern Masters of American Abstract Expressionism. Well, the men were soon recognized, at least. The women lumped along on a circuitous path as the at-times painter-wives of stratospheric art stars, with another ten, twenty, forty or sixty-plus years to go before establishing their own places in art history.

elaine-de-kooning_sunday-afternoon-1957

“Sunday Afternoon” 1957
oil painting
by Elaine de Kooning

At the time of the show in 1951, Lee Krasner was 43. She’d studied classically at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design and had worked as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project after being singled out as a star pupil of Hans Hofmann, who’d praised her work as good enough to pass for a man’s. She was living in Springs, Long Island with her husband, who’d recently been featured on the cover of Life, dripping aluminum paint and cigarette butts under the text, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

By comparison, Hoffman’s other student, 23-year-old Helen Frankenthaler had only just graduated from Bennington College when she was accepted into the Ninth Street Gallery show. The following year, her painting, “Mountains and Sea,” would blow up the fiefdoms of colourfield and abstraction and pioneer her own personal and technical voice. She would marry Motherwell six years later. “What makes certain paintings successful or not,” she said, “has to do with my being a painter and a thinking, feeling person, more than my sex, color, height, origin.”

joan-mitchell_1961_untitled_

“Untitled” 1961
oil on canvas
by Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Let the picture lead you where it must go.” (Helen Frankenthaler)

Esoterica: I remember receiving a rejection letter from an art gallery that focused solely on dismantling gender bias and the devaluation of women in the arts. When the letter stated specifically that my work did not meet the standards to elevate the status of women in the art world, I wondered how any woman artist could not, in some way, be advancing the status of women in the art world. In terms of representation in commercial galleries, women hover around the 30% mark, with women continuing to make up only 3-5% of museum permanent collections in the U.S and Europe. Of all the ways my work might not be up to snuff, not contributing to the elevation of the status of women in the arts was considered my failing? After a moment of rage, I let the letter slip down casually behind the radiator and went back to work.

Mary Gabriel’s new chronicle, “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art,” is available here.

Joan-mitchell_helen-frankenthaler_grace-hartigan_1957

Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.
https://voltzclarke.com/exhibitions/sara-genn-exhibition/

“A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle. All time is comprehended.” (Grace Hartigan)

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16 Comments

    • Sheila Johnston on

      But that doesn’t make it any less relevant today. If we stop remembering, things will never change. I rejoice every time I find a new (to me) female artist, particularly those from previous centuries.

    • connie solberg on

      How can it be old when it’s just as relevant today as it was in previous generations? What’s old is the attention being given to men, both in previous decades and now, and the fawning over their contribution to the arts at the expense of the women who have been left on the wayside. I’m a bit tired of hearing that so and so is now being “rediscovered”, after their death, as being important, when because of their gender, they were more or less ignored in life. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The historic contribution of women in all aspects of humanity has been pushed aside, but our daughters and future generations need to be inspired and pushed forward by acknowledging their genius as well.

  1. Valerie I. VanOrden on

    I know that Christian Hymn writer, Fanny Crosby wrote over 2,000 hymns, many under false names or pseudonyms. Why the deception? Probably because she was a woman. This relates to visual art. My teacher at WMU used to sign her art Fair prints ” Daisy May”, because she really didn’t want to have people associate her name..real name…with art Fair art, once known as “street art” in the 70’s.

    • As a collector, those numbers sound about right. I have a pretty extensive collection of a wide variety of Canadian art and I have always felt as though I value art by both men and women equally – some of my most favorite Canadian artists of all time are women: Rita Letendre, Ann Beam, Susan Andrina Ross, Bernice Fenwick Martin, Mary Fox to name a few. I knew Susan Ross used to sign her work “S.A. Ross” because in her words “women didn’t have any clout”. but from my perspective, I thought I had women pretty well represented. However, when I ran through my inventory list, only 26% of the works are by women which seems pretty much in line with the 30% gallery represented artists figure. You buy what you see and like, so no surprises there – statistically it makes perfect sense – if you don’t see it, you can’t buy it.

      As an artist, interestingly enough the particular galleries I show at are both run by women. The first of the galleries has a pretty even split of 50% men/women. In the other gallery, of the artists they represent, 77% are women so in this particular instance, I am in the minority. They both do a great job, are very successful, and have done very well selling my work as well as the other gallery artists’ work.

      By extension, it seems one solution to the problem might be to have more women running private and public galleries? That may help level the playing field but how do you control something like that? How do you encourage women to go into the gallery business? Am I onto something here or is my particular experience anomalous?

  2. I think women have important, different things to say in large part because we are women. We have said them for centuries and have received very little recognition for them. Being dubbed a woman artist is something that might be passing as equality of the sexes comes into being but for now, we are being discriminated against because we are women so we must stand up for ourselves as women. If we were all Black, it would be the same strategy. This is no more than one woman’s opinion, however, and as women, we welcome all comers. Diversity is our middle name and one of the things we have to say that is different.

  3. Sometimes it seems that it’s not men vs women, but how anyone gets “discovered “…there are so, so, many talented artists who paint for the love of it, and to supplement or support themselves. It’s like writing…who knows…all I can comment on with truth, is that I personally love to paint, learn, and “my little pile of failures “ one year, becomes new and fresh when viewed the next year.

  4. I’m the mother of four grown daughters. They shake their heads in wonder, when I tell them about the first day we were allowed to wear pants to school in Seattle.

    I taught my daughters there is nothing wrong with the color pink; but there is everything wrong with, “acting” pink.

    I know some art critics still consider certain subjects to be the natural realm of women. Today, we use whatever colors we like, and paint all subjects; hopefully, with less predjudice.

    I was careful to name my daughters with first or second names, that may be used as, “boy’s names”.

    I hope the quality, or validity of their work will not be dismissed by seeing them simply as, “women artists, or writers”. But, I know that tendency exists.

    I paint with pink. Who made that color a villain, anyway? I feel paintings of women washing clothes, and mothers taking care of their children, are just as valid as paintings of airplanes, race cars, or big trucks.

    Is the day coming when our artwork is valued as much as a mans? Oh, I think so. See that woman in the pink leggings, pulling out her credit card?

    She’s coming my way.

    • connie solberg on

      If you get the chance and time, you really should read this book. Her portraits are outstanding, (ca. 1946-53, and her abstractions do not remind me of her husband’s work. Her 1958 abstractions are nothing like her Willem’s work…..This comprehensive book is not only immensely informative, it is a great read…..

  5. Awareness is a mystery. It happens when we ask for it. Awareness of humanness in working together and working alone is not a mistake, and those that have it, have asked for it over and over again. Awareness is no mistake, yet it is
    a beautiful mystery.

  6. Thank you for another wonderful and thoughtful essay, Sara! And much good luck to you with your show!

    One of the other women in the Ninth Street Show, Jean Steubing Maggrett, who did not go on to be well-known but who had a full and creative life, used to live not far from me in Northern California. I wrote two blog articles about her meeting Willard Bond, another New York painter who came to the city a little later.

    A little bit about the show, and Jean’s part in making it happen, from my article:

    “Jean lived in the Village, in a loft studio on East 9th Street, opposite the building that became the site of the 9th Street Show, which introduced the work of the New York School to the world. Jean, a member of the Art Club, and a student of Hans Hofmann’s, suggested the space, and collected the money to rent it, and on opening night a floodlight from her studio lit up an enormous canvas sign Franz Kline had painted to announce the exhibit, which hung from an upper floor above the show. ”

    If you’d like to read a little more, here’s a link to Part 1:
    http://www.karenlynningalls.com/blog/memories-of-the-new-york-school-i

    and Part 2:
    http://www.karenlynningalls.com/blog/memories-of-bohemian-new-york-ii

    Jean lives with her family in Tucson now, and I haven’t seen her for quite a few years, and Willard passed away the following year, but I treasure that day and the stories she told about the heady days of postwar New York artists and the Art Club, and getting to listen to the two of them swap memories.

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casa-buena

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http://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Being-Healed-7101-wpcf_255x300.jpgBeing Healed by Brasvellbreen, Svalbard
oil on panel with clear quartz, pyrite
36x42"/91x107cm

Featured Artist

Candace studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Angers, France but it is her travels in the deserts of Africa and Oman, Antarctica and the Arctic, and sacred sights of Machu Picchu and Petra that serve as her true place of learning. A desire to combine these experiences with a deeper understanding of her own spirituality has provided the underlying focus and inspiration for her paintings.
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