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‘Ninth Street Women’ Shines a Welcome New Light on New York’s Postwar Art Scene

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Mary Gabriel knows that the subjects of her new book would have probably bristled at its title and, consequently, the very foundation of her approach. While working on “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art,” Gabriel sensed the “irony of writing about these characters as ‘women artists,’” when they themselves refused “to be characterized as such.” As Elaine de Kooning put it in 1971, in a pointed rebuke to the budding field of feminist art history, “To be put in any category not defined by one’s work is to be falsified.”

Too bad for de Kooning, but luckily for us, Gabriel has declined to take such extreme pronouncements as the last word. “Ninth Street Women” is supremely gratifying, generous and lush but also tough and precise — in other words, as complicated and capacious as the lives it depicts. The story of New York’s postwar art world has been told many times over, but by wresting the perspective from the boozy, macho brawlers who tended to fixate on themselves and one another, Gabriel has found a way to newly illuminate the milieu and upend its clichés.

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CreditSonny Figueroa/The New York Times

The title comes from the Ninth Street Show of 1951, which brought together a raucous and rivalrous art scene for one short month. “Nothing sold,” Gabriel writes, “but no one cared.” The event established New York as a confident and worthy successor to a war-wrecked Paris, showcasing 72 artists whose styles may have differed but whose mutual influence was palpable. Names that were then known mainly to other artists and curators — Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg — would soon become the mainstays of museum collections and art history textbooks.

The women of Gabriel’s book would gain some recognition, too, but their paths tended to be more circuitous. Two of them were married to other artists in the show: Elaine de Kooning to Willem, Krasner to Pollock. Toward the end of the ’50s, Frankenthaler would marry Motherwell. (Or as Gabriel would put it, Helen would marry Motherwell. In addition to giving the book an intimate and even dishy feel, Gabriel’s insistence on first names for her main characters serves a practical purpose: Krasner and de Kooning each took her husband’s surname.)

There were other women in the Ninth Street Show, but Gabriel has chosen to write about this “core five” because the 20-year span of their ages — Krasner was born in 1908, Frankenthaler in 1928 — meant their experiences and artwork didn’t always neatly align.

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Mary GabrielCreditMike Habermann

“Each of these characters represented an important chapter in the development of Abstract Expressionism,” Gabriel writes in her introduction, a dutiful and somewhat unpromising start. This is a book that takes some time to gather momentum. Gabriel (whose “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) begins in 1928, just before the onset of the Depression; for the first 200 pages or so the narrative follows Krasner and de Kooning, who both subordinated their own artistic ambitions to their husbands’. Neither woman wanted to put herself in direct competition with her spouse. Elaine once explained that she decided to paint portraits because Willem deemed them “pictures that girls made.”

Of course, as evinced by these women’s vibrant artistic legacies, their experiences weren’t always as flatly oppressive as they seemed, and once Gabriel adds in the stories of Hartigan, Frankenthaler and Mitchell, her book swells into a rich and layered chorus. She captures a New York art world on the cusp — or the precipice — of extraordinary celebrity and extravagant prices. One of the main dramas in this book is how some New York artists had barely acclimated themselves to years of grinding poverty and public neglect before getting doused by the fire hose of money and fame.

Of the five women, Hartigan was the one who received the kind of swift, spectacular renown that was more readily granted to men. She also happened to have one of the least conventional backgrounds, in the sense of how conventional it was: Born in New Jersey, she worked in an insurance company, married at 19 and had a child the following year. Encouraged by her accountant husband to take a drawing class, she left their young son in the care of his paternal grandparents and ran off to New York with her art teacher.

During the 1950s, “she was the woman artist on the scene,” Gabriel writes, with work that was avidly collected by wealthy patrons and museums. But the sustained exposure turned bewildering; Hartigan began to lose sight of her art and who she was. “I felt that I was being devoured,” she would later say. She identified the competition for prestige as the ultimate source of piggish chauvinism. “Men have no objection to women as creators,” Hartigan insisted. “It’s only when they’re all scrambling for recognition that the trouble begins.”

As Gabriel insinuates, however, Hartigan may have been overstating the distinction. The men in this book often took enormous issue when their partners deigned to put their own creative lives first. And then there was the fraught question of raising a family. Gabriel observes that many women artists at the time felt they had to forgo having children; of her five main characters, only Hartigan had a child, ultimately making what she called the “very cruel, very harsh” choice to abandon him. Krasner would say that it was easier to be a mother of five than to be the wife of an artist — especially, one imagines, an artist as petulantly self-destructive as Pollock, whom the critic Clement Greenberg called “the most radical alcoholic I ever met.”

There’s so much material roiling in “Ninth Street Women,” from exalted art criticism to the seamiest, most delicious gossip, that it’s hard to convey even a sliver of its surprises. “The stories told in this book might be a reminder that where there is art there is hope,” Gabriel writes in her introduction, but that wan, anodyne sentiment doesn’t do justice to the gorgeous and unsettling narrative that follows; it’s as if once Gabriel got started, the canvas before her opened up new vistas. We should be grateful she yielded to its possibilities. As Helen Frankenthaler once said, “Let the picture lead you where it must go.”


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