THESE WOMEN ARE MY IDOLS…
10 Female Abstract Expressionists You Should Know
BY ALISON NASTASI
Few art movements are as synonymous with the image of a paint-splattered male painter than abstract expressionism. Some of art history’s most radical masculine personalities emerged from the period, in which the physicality of the works echoed the ever-present “cult of manhood.” Female abstract expressionists adopted pseudonyms, positioning their work as genderless — often leading to deeply personal conflicts with their roles as women, artists, and occasionally, the wives of the movement’s most celebrated figures. Few were accepted into the circle of men, and most weren’t recognized until their deaths. Continuing our series about female artists, we revisit the work and careers of ten abstract expressionists whose contributions are essential to the movement and whose struggle for legitimacy paved the way for women in the arts.
She danced with John Travolta at the White House in the ’80s, became known as one half of the “golden couple” with former husband Robert Motherwell in the ‘60s, and had her first solo exhibition in the ‘50s — praised by New York art world figures like Clement Greenberg. Helen Frankenthaler’s lyrical abstractions are large-scale and stunning to behold — and her influence is unmistakable. She elaborated on a technique adopted by Jackson Pollock, painting directly onto unprepared canvas (on the floor) with turpentine-diluted paint. She made oils look like watercolors. This new “stain” method helped to shape the Color Field movement and was influenced by a trip to Nova Scotia, after which she created 1952’s Mountains and Sea. “The landscapes were in my arms as I did it,” she stated. “I didn’t realize all that I was doing. I was trying to get at something — I didn’t know what until it was manifest.” When asked about her thoughts on being a woman in a male-dominated scene, she stated: “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue. I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”
Elaine de Kooning
“Women painted women: Vigée-Lebrun, Mary Cassatt, and so forth. And I thought, men always painted the opposite sex, and I wanted to paint men as sex objects,” Elaine de Kooning stated in 1987. Her faceless portraits of male figures, such as fellow painter and friend Fairfield Porter, reversed the male/female gaze, but the artworks are assertive and even confrontational. The former editorial associate for ARTnews magazine and wife of leading abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning — whose career largely overshadowed her own prolific contributions to the movement — painted the portrait of President John F. Kennedy in 1962. “One of the reasons I was asked to do the portrait is that, with luck, I can start and finish a life-size portrait in one sitting. . . . However, working at top speed this way, I require absolute immobility of the sitter,” she recalled in ARTnews. “This was impossible with President Kennedy because of his extreme restlessness: he read papers, talked on the phone, jotted down notes, crossed and uncrossed his legs, shifted from one arm of the chair to the other, always in action at rest. So I had to find a completely new approach.” She brought her energetic brushwork and intense color to the image, capturing the restlessness of her sitter.
“A painting is like an organism that turns in space,” Joan Mitchel said in 1985. Her preferred organism was the landscape, writhing with turbulent brushwork, hurried and broken. She admired Vincent van Gogh, even painting an homage to the Dutch artist called No Birds. Her life mirrored his in many ways. She was fond of the bottle. Her body and mind were devastated by disease and depression. “Gee, Joan, if only you were French and male and dead,” a New York art dealer told Mitchell in the 1950s. She was already a leading artist in the New York School at the time (one of the only women accepted into “The Club” of male painters who met at studios and galleries around Manhattan’s Tenth Street), but she spent most of her life in France. “I use the past to make my pic[tures] and I want all of it and even you and me in candlelight on the train and every ‘lover’ I’ve ever had — every friend—nothing closed out,” she once said. “It’s all part of me and I want to confront it and sleep with it — the dreams — and paint it.”
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