What We’re Reading: Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

We tend to emphasize the artwork in front of us on school tours—what can we learn about the artist, the time period, and the way a work was made through close observation? There is absolutely value in this type of object-based learning, in being able to “read” an image and deduce its meaning for yourself; but, delving deeper into a work’s historical context, the artist who created it, and the world they lived in is a different way to enrich our experience with the work. Do you need to know the story behind each and every single work of art? Certainly not, but finding a style or movement that draws your attention and doing a bit of research can actually be…fun? I have always been drawn to Abstract Expressionist works and the history surrounding them, and particularly how women artists were able to make names for themselves in an era that was especially “macho.” A recent read examined just that, and, although it’s a thick, heavy book, both in terms of literal weight and historical content, it’s also entertaining as the lives of the artists featured are closely intertwined and full of personal drama.

Published last September, Mary Gabriel’s heavy yellow book, Ninth Street Women, centers on five female abstract painters whose work was displayed in the famous Ninth Street Show of 1951. It traces the rise (and fall) of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School through the stories of five women, from Lee Krasner who came of age during the Great Depression to Helen Frankenthaler, born the year before it began.

It’s a sort of biography, but what I found most interesting was the tangled web of connections between, not just the five women the book explores in detail, but all of the artists, writers, and gallerists surrounding them. In an art history course, you generally learn about artists and movements sequentially with some broad historical events for context. Or, maybe you take a class that focuses on one particular movement like Impressionism or Cubism. In reality, none of this happens in isolation and the historical context and influences on artists, even within the same movement, are nuanced and complicated. This is especially true in New York during the years surrounding World War II as European artists fled their home countries for the safety of the US while many Americans went the other direction, to serve in the war. The book is a who’s who of the time period, with our five main characters anchoring the story while countless other names, from household to obscure, drop in and out of the picture.

Out of the five “Ninth Street Women”—Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler—two (Mitchell and Frankenthaler) currently have lithographs on display in our Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Collection exhibition, but many others included were connected to them somehow. I finished reading the book shortly before the show opened, so when I wandered through the gallery not knowing which specific works were selected for display, it was exciting to see some of the history that I’d just read about right here in the museum. It speaks to how relatively small the art scene was during that time period, that in an exhibition not even specifically about them, so many of the artists included share connections. Starting with the two Ninth Street Women:

FWMoA visitors admire the Joan Mitchell (left) and Helen Frankenthaler (right) in “Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Collection”. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

It’s telling that Joan Mitchell’s diptych is the largest print in the exhibition. Joan was good friends and collaborators with Kenneth Tyler, master printer at Tyler Graphics, returning stateside from her home in France even as her health was failing, to work with him. The print on display, Trees IV, was created in 1992, during her last trip to New York (she would die in October of that year). Abstract works like this are not for everybody, but in a discussion of it last week, one touring second grader told me that she liked it because, “You get a sense of their personality!” and she was right. (For more on Joan, her biography, Lady Painter, another large yellow book, is also an excellent read.)

Docent Michael leads a school group through “Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Collection”. Joan Mitchell (left), Helen Frankenthaler (right). Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Helen Frankenthaler’s Red Sea was also made at Tyler Graphics (see the matching embossed stamps below!) and also beautifully captures her painterly style, but her printmaking didn’t stop there. Frankenthaler not only pioneered the technique of staining unprimed canvas with thinned paint, she, also with help from Tyler, revolutionized the art of woodcut (seriously, do these look like woodcuts?!). Helen first seriously considered being an artist at fifteen, with encouragement from her teacher, the “first real artist” she had ever met, Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo, whose work is just down the wall from hers in the exhibit.

Lee Krasner’s husband Jackson Pollock followed in his brother Charles’ footsteps in moving to New York and studying under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. Find an early, pre-drip-painting Pollock in the exhibition, shown alongside Benton, whose influence is clear. On the other end of the exhibition is a Charles Pollock, completed after the elder Pollock turned away from Benton’s influence and toward abstraction.

Across from Joan and Helen in the gallery, you’ll find a James Brooks lithograph. Brooks, having recently returned from serving in World War II, rented Lee and Jackson’s apartment on Eighth Street when they first moved to their house on Fireplace Road in Springs. He was also included in the Ninth Street Show from which the book takes its name. It was Brooks who first brought the Pollocks a copy of the 1949 Life magazine with the story that catapulted Jackson to national fame.

Lee, Elaine, and Joan all studied for a time under Hans Hofmann, as did many, many other now well-known artists, among them Wolf Kahn, who has a print next to the Tamayo. Surrealists like Salvador Dali are among the European artists who shook up the New York art scene just before the abstract artists’ careers began to take off, and he’s here too (look for the melting clocks!). As groundbreaking and novel as the Abstract Expressionists’ work was, it would not have been made without the influence of artists like Pablo Picasso or Joan Miró, who also have lithographs on display. Frank Stella and the other hard-edge abstractionists replaced the Abstract Expressionists in the spotlight, and you can find them here too, along with many other contemporary artists for whom the New York School paved the way.

So, next time you find yourself drawn to a particular work or style, find a book about it! You never know what stories you’ll find, and the hidden connections that will enrich your next gallery visit.

Come visit our Abstract Expressionist artists in Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Collection through April 14, 2019.

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