Three Female Artists Who Helped Create Abstract Expressionism: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning & Helen Frankenthaler.

The three artists that gal­lerists James Payne and Joanne Shurvell have cho­sen to rep­re­sent New York City in their series Great Art Cities Explained are as refresh­ing as they are sur­pris­ing.

Andy Warhol?


Kei­th Har­ing?


Jean-Michel Basquiat?


These gents would be the obvi­ous choice, though only one of the three — Basquiat was a native New York­er.

Instead, Payne and Shurvell aim their spot­light at three NYC-born Abstract Expres­sion­ists.

Three female NYC-born Abstract Expres­sion­ists — Lee Kras­ner, Elaine de Koon­ing, and Helen Franken­thaler.

These wom­en’s con­tri­bu­tions to the move­ment were con­sid­er­able, but Kras­ner and deKoon­ing spent much of their careers over­shad­owed by cel­e­brat­ed hus­bands — fel­low Abstract Expres­sion­ists Jack­son Pol­lock and Willem de Koon­ing.

The New York-based Abstract Expres­sion­ism deposed Paris as the cen­ter of the art world, and was the most macho of move­ments. Kras­ner, Franken­thaler, and Elaine de Koon­ing often heard their work described as “fem­i­nine”, “lyri­cal”, or “del­i­cate”, the impli­ca­tion being that it was some­how less than.

Hans Hof­mann, an Abstract Expres­sion­ist who ran the 8th Street ate­lier where Kras­ner stud­ied after train­ing at Coop­er Union, the Art Stu­dents League, and the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Design, and work­ing for the WPA’s Fed­er­al Art Project, once praised one of her can­vas­es by say­ing, “This is so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.”

Payne and Shurvell detail how the socia­ble Kras­ner, already estab­lished in the NYC art scene, shared impor­tant con­tacts with Pol­lock, with whom she became roman­ti­cal­ly entan­gled short­ly after their work was shown along­side Picasso’s, Matisse’s , and Georges Braque’s in the piv­otal 1942 French and Amer­i­can Paint­ing exhi­bi­tion at the McMillen Gallery.

She was an ener­getic pro­mot­er of his work, and a cheer­leader when he flagged.

They mar­ried and moved to Long Island in an unsuc­cess­ful bid to put the kibosh on his drink­ing and extracur­ric­u­lar affairs. He com­man­deered a barn on the prop­er­ty for his stu­dio, while she made do with a bed­room.

While Pol­lock ranged around large can­vas­es laid on the barn floor, famous­ly splat­ter­ing, Kras­ner pro­duced a Lit­tle Image series on a table, some­times apply­ing paint straight from the tube.

MoMA’s descrip­tion of an unti­tled Lit­tle Image in their col­lec­tion states:

Kras­ner likened these sym­bols to Hebrew let­ters, which she had stud­ied as a child but could no longer read or write. In any case, she said, she was inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing a lan­guage of pri­vate sym­bols that did not com­mu­ni­cate any one spe­cif­ic mean­ing.”

After Pol­lock died in a car crash while dri­ving under the influ­ence — his mis­tress sur­vived — Kras­ner claimed the barn stu­dio for her own prac­tice.

It was a trans­for­ma­tive move. Her work not only grew larg­er, it was informed by the full-body ges­tures that went into its cre­ation.

Ten years lat­er, she got her first solo show in New York, and MoMA gave her a ret­ro­spec­tive in 1984, six months before her death.

In a wild­ly enter­tain­ing 1978 inter­view on Inside New York’s Art World, below, Kras­ner recalls how ear­ly on, her gen­der didn’t fac­tor into how her work was received.

I start in high school, and it’s only women artists, all women. Then I’m at Coop­er Union, woman’s art school, all women artists and even when I’m on WPA lat­er on, there’s no — you know, there’s noth­ing unusu­al about being a woman and being an artist. It’s con­sid­er­ably lat­er that all this begins to hap­pen, specif­i­cal­ly when the seat moves from Paris, which was the cen­ter, and shifts into New York, and I think that peri­od is known as Abstract Expres­sion­ism, where we now have gal­leries, price, mon­ey, atten­tion. Up ’til then it’s a pret­ty qui­et scene. That’s when I’m first aware of being a woman and “a sit­u­a­tion” is there.

Elaine de Koon­ing was an abstract por­traitist, an art crit­ic, a polit­i­cal activist, a teacher, and “the fastest brush in town”, but these accom­plish­ments were all too often viewed as less of an achieve­ment than being Mrs. Willem de Koon­ing, the female half of an Abstract Expres­sion­ist “it cou­ple.”

Great Art Cities Explained sug­gests that the twen­ty year peri­od in which she and Willem were estranged — they rec­on­ciled when she was in her late 50s — was one of per­son­al and artis­tic growth. She took inspi­ra­tion from the bull­fights she wit­nessed on her trav­els, turned a lusty female gaze on male sub­jects, and was com­mis­sioned to paint Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s offi­cial por­trait:

All my sketch­es from life as he talked on the phone, jot­ted down notes, read papers, held con­fer­ences, had to be made very quick­ly, catch­ing fea­tures and ges­tures, half for mem­o­ry, even as I looked, because he nev­er sat still. It was not so much that he seemed rest­less, rather, he sat like an ath­lete or col­lege boy, con­stant­ly shift­ing in his chair. At first this impres­sion of youth­ful­ness was a hur­dle, as was the fact that he nev­er sat still.

Like Kras­ner and Elaine de Koon­ing, Helen Franken­thaler was also part of an Abstract Expres­sion­ist gold­en cou­ple, but for­tune decreed she would not play a dis­tant sec­ond fid­dle to hus­band Robert Moth­er­well .

This sure­ly owes some­thing to her pio­neer­ing devel­op­ment of the “soak-stain” tech­nique, where­in she poured tur­pen­tine-thinned oil paint direct­ly onto unprimed can­vas, laid flat.

Soak-stain pre-dat­ed her mar­riage.

After a vis­it to Frankenthaler’s stu­dio, where they viewed her land­mark Moun­tains and Sea, above, abstract painters Ken­neth Noland and Mor­ris Louis also adopt­ed the tech­nique, as well as her pen­chant for broad, flat expans­es of col­or — what became known as Col­or Field Paint­ing.

Like Pol­lock, Franken­thaler scored a LIFE Mag­a­zine spread, though as Art She Says observes, not all LIFE artist pro­files were cre­at­ed equal:

The dia­logue between these two spreads appears to be a tale of social­ly-deter­mined mas­cu­line ener­gy and fem­i­nine com­po­sure. Though Pollock’s dom­i­nant stance is a key part of his artis­tic prax­is, the issue is not that he is stand­ing while she is sit­ting. Rather, it is that, with Pol­lock, we are allowed to glimpse into the inti­mate sides of his tor­tured and ground­break­ing prac­tice. In stark oppo­si­tion, Parks’ images of Franken­thaler rein­force our need to see women artists as high­ly curat­ed, pol­ished fig­ures who are as com­plete as the mas­ter­pieces that they pro­duce. Even if those works appear high­ly abstract­ed and vis­cer­al, each stroke is per­ceived, at some lev­el, to rep­re­sent a cal­cu­lat­ed, per­fect­ed moment of visu­al enlight­en­ment.

We’re intrigued by Frankenthaler’s 1989 remark to the New York Times:

There are three sub­jects I don’t like dis­cussing: my for­mer mar­riage, women artists, and what I think of my con­tem­po­raries.

For those who’d like to learn more about these three abstract painters, Payne and Shurvell offer the fol­low­ing book rec­om­men­da­tions:

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  

Women of Abstract Expres­sion­ism by Irv­ing San­dler 

Abstract Expres­sion­ism by David Anfam 

Three Women Artists: Expand­ing Abstract Expres­sion­ism in the Amer­i­can West by Amy Von Lin­tel, Bon­nie Roos, et al.

Lee Kras­ner: A Biog­ra­phy by Gail Levin 

Fierce Poise: Helen Franken­thaler and 1950s New York by Alexan­der Nemerov

A Gen­er­ous Vision: The Cre­ative Life of Elaine de Koon­ing by Cathy Cur­tis

Elaine de Koon­ing: Por­traits by Bran­don Brame For­tune

Watch a playlist of oth­er Great Art Cities Explained here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Female Pio­neers of the Bauhaus Art Move­ment: Dis­cov­er Gertrud Arndt, Mar­i­anne Brandt, Anni Albers & Oth­er For­got­ten Inno­va­tors

The For­got­ten Women of Sur­re­al­ism: A Mag­i­cal, Short Ani­mat­ed Film

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

A Quick Six Minute Jour­ney Through Mod­ern Art: How You Get from Manet’s 1862 Paint­ing, “The Lun­cheon on the Grass,” to Jack­son Pol­lock 1950s Drip Paint­ings

The Nazi’s Philis­tine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion” of 1937

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Jon says:

    The lack of inclu­sion of Alma W. Thomas — a black woman abstract expres­sion­ist who was the first to join a “school” of thought (Wash­ing­ton Col­or School), the first black woman to have a solo show at the Whit­ney, the first black woman artist whose work was pur­chased by the White House — is absurd and sad, and very typ­i­cal that black artists are often for­got­ten. Her works are now end­ing a 4‑city muse­um ret­ro­spec­tive, and a short film on her life and work has played over 38 film fests in the last year.

  • Joshua Cohen says:

    I’m an art deal­er who used to co-own the Abing­ton Gallery and Frame Shop in Abing­ton, PA with my friend & part­ner Jay Kanef­sky. Our Shop was on Old York Road near Susque­han­na Road.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.