29 August 2019

An exclusive interview with Mary Gabriel about her acclaimed book “Ninth Street Women”, feminism in art history and why she didn’t want to write strictly about women.

By Philipp Hindahl

Mary Gabriel, your book “Ninth Street Women” tells the story of five women painters among the Abstract Expressionists over three decades. How long did you spend working on the book?

Seven years. With this book, part of my goal was to introduce and talk about not only these five women, but also the peripheral figures who surround them. Because not only has history been reduced largely to men only, but indeed to just a few men. This great community, this great revolution in art and writing, has been lost to us.

What was your initial motivation to write the book?

I studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where Grace Hartigan – one of the five women in the book – was head of the graduate painting class, but I never really paid any attention to her. Even though I wanted to be a painter.

Lee Krasner, The Seasons, 1957, Photography by Sheldan C. Collins. Copyright by Pollock-Krasner Foundation/ARS, NY

How did she ultimately get your attention?

I went to meet her in 1990 as a journalist. I expected a cranky old diva with a chip on her shoulder from being mistreated because she was a woman, but when I met her she was just so incredibly wonderful. Grace Hartigan told me this story of mid-century New York, which was so wild and wonderful. The moment I left her studio, after we had talked for four hours, I thought that’s going to be a great book, but I didn’t get around to writing it until 2011.

It has become quite an extensive work, perhaps a reference book of the future.

The more characters I introduced, the bigger the book got. Then I also realized that in order to tell the story, you need to describe the time in which the events took place. I needed to describe history.

A broad ensemble of characters appears and you sketch the backdrop in detail. You also get up close to the protagonists and describe how they become female artists in the big city. I felt reminded of 19th-century French novels in the scope of the characters and scenery.

That’s true! This art movement, Abstract Expressionism, was a very romantic movement. In that way it is actually similar to the whole French period of discovery around the revolution in 1848. When you think about what came out of the war [World War II], it was also a social revolution.

It’s interesting that you said there is something romantic about this movement. It has often been hailed as the last period of the bohème. Do you feel nostalgia for that time?

Yes, I do. Part of the reason I didn’t mind spending so long on the book was that it was so wonderful to live in that era. Can you imagine?

When you think about what came out of the war, it was also a social revolution.

Mary Gabriel
Mary Gabriel, Portrait, Photo: Mike Habermann

Personally, I am quite happy to live in the present!

Yes, it was certainly difficult too, horribly difficult. They were struggling every single day with the most basic needs: a place to live that had heat, having enough food, obtaining material to work with. But at the same time, the wealth they had in their relationships and in their minds, in their creativity, must have been fantastic. And every day they seemed to grow. They learned from one another, at the club, at the lectures they heard, from the writers they met.

In the book you focus on five female figures who would probably have rejected the label of “women artists”. And yet they are now in a book together purely because of their gender. Do you think there is a risk that here, as so often, women appear as exceptions on the art scene?

It is a problem. Hopefully there will be a time when artists aren’t notable because they are part of a minority, but at the moment we’re not there yet. So, I think until history is sufficiently restored so that it tells the whole story and not just half of it, we have to address characters as women. I tried not to make it a book strictly about women – that would have made me guilty of the same historical crimes as people who have written just about men. Instead, I tried to focus on the women and show that they were part of a community, and that it wasn’t broken down by gender.

I think the relationship between Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock is an interesting example, since both of them were painters and they lived together for eleven years up until Pollock’s death in 1956. Pollock is a nervous wreck, totally dysfunctional, alcoholic, and yet he becomes the superstar. She is weirdly forgotten and stays in the background.

Well in her case it is a very interesting situation, but it wasn’t because she thought that as a woman she should step aside and let the man do his art. It is just that she, her life, revolved around art. She lived and breathed art. For her, it was the most important thing in the world. She saw in Pollock an artist the like of whom she had never encountered. She knew that his art was not just a breakthrough, but revolutionary. Her job was to protect this creative spirit whom she felt was doing so much.

I tried not to make it a book strictly about women.

Mary Gabriel

This view seems to be somewhat alien today though.

I went into the book absolutely hating Jackson Pollock, but I came out of it loving the guy, as Lee would. I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him personally, I just appreciate the risks he took as an artist.

But Krasner also took risks.

Exactly! The journey you take through her development is just so fascinating. I think the most powerful part is when Lee went through a euphoric phase in her painting, where she did really big paintings that were all about women. Not women as objects, but womanly imagery, vines, flowers, wombs, and breasts. They were exuberant, wild, huge. And then she had a breakdown after her mother died in the late fifties. Her paintings became very dark because she was working only at night. She had insomnia. She didn’t want to use color because she didn’t want to use artificial lighting. The paintings she produced were pretty monochrome. When you see them in person, these massive things, they are so moving because the anguish of her life with Pollock, those eleven years, and his death, then her mother’s death, and all the sacrifices made through those years come out on those canvases.

One such painting is “The Eye is the First Circle” (1960), right?

Yes, it’s a fantastic painting in every way. At that time, Lee Krasner chose to paint in shades of brown. That’s a color most artists don’t go to. It’s earth, but it doesn’t have a lot of depth. There is very little range to it. It’s a negative color almost. The funny thing is that that’s the work Clement Greenberg decided he didn’t want to show. I know Greenberg was intimidated by this night journey: Krasner was shifting away from colors that are intrinsically female, and instead just painting raw emotion. That painting is like a punch to the gut.

Isn’t it strange that a certain manner of painting has a gender attached to it?

Historically it has been described that way, as really a “macho” school of painting. But if you look at Willem de Kooning, I don’t see anything particularly masculine. There is a sweetness about it.

Krasner was [...] instead just painting raw emotion. That painting is like a punch to the gut.

Mary Gabriel

Lee Krasner, The Eye is the First Circle, 1960, Image via www.sothebys.com

So the description doesn’t fit?

It is more the myth and not the actual style of painting. Robert Motherwell stuff, or Franz Kline, is very bold, big, black and white. Vertical and strong. And yet it is also very poetic. I don’t think it’s a masculine way of painting. That’s the myth of the Cedar Bar and the drunkenness in Greenwich Village. And everyone talks about the men who were party to it.

But this myth was created by someone. By people like the critic Clement Greenberg, who was very influential at the time. What I find strange is that so many women back then were active as artists, but at some point – well I wonder why all the gatekeepers are men?

It’s not so much that the gatekeepers are men. There were a lot of female gallery owners: Betty Parsons, Eleanor Ward, and people I didn’t even write about, Peggy Guggenheim, and the museum curators. But it’s the people who are buying the art that dictate things, and they are men. Galleries are businesses, after all, and they want to sell work.

The market is changing though, isn’t it?

Last fall at Christies there were two fantastic works for sale, one by Helen Frankenthaler, a 1959 painting that has never been on the market before, and then there was a Joan Mitchell from the 1970s. Last spring, in 2018, women artists started breaking a lot of records. People thought this was the beginning of a trend, but Lee Krasner’s “The Eye is the First Circle” is easily a 40-million-dollar painting, no question – and it only went for 11.7 in 2018 to a collector couple.

And yet that painting by Lee Krasner doubled her previous record from less than two years before that.

Yes, that’s good, there is an awakening. It can only get better. Hopefully it will continue, but it’s a little depressing at the moment.

Critics and art history are trying to diversify the canon, which is great, but I have a feeling that it is also something the market dictates. I don’t think any museum can afford to buy a Jackson Pollock anymore. And the auction houses are saying: if you like Jackson Pollock maybe try Lee Krasner.

That’s what I thought, too

It’s also pretty cynical.

It is! I think you’re right, many collectors and museums are being priced out of the market. We’ll see what happens.

Have you heard the joke that Abstract Expressionism is supposed to have been a CIA propaganda campaign? That it was propagated all around the world to demonstrate the artistic freedom of the capitalist West. Do you sometimes get the feeling that abstract painting has become depoliticized art for the market?

The real point is that the CIA wanted to counter Soviet cultural influence. But to think that in any way these painters were party to some kind of CIA dissemination of their work is absolutely insane. I don’t know if it ever was depoliticized. Abstract Expressionism as a movement died in 1959 with the advent of Pop, and I think by that time people thought they understood it. The critic Harold Rosenberg always saw Abstract Expressionism as political. And he said very presciently: There will come a time when the theorists describe this, and it will be about the paint application, the size of the canvas, the flat surface, and you’ll lose the historical context in which those works were created, the stories of the people who did the work.

What did he mean by that?

This work arose out of the depression and the Second World War, the absolute deformation of the human spirit. When they were introduced to it in the fifties and sixties, it became wallpaper. It meant nothing. They couldn’t wade through the theorists who wrote about this. If you were an intellectual, you didn’t talk about the who, what, when, why, how. You just described the technical, the philosophical aspects, almost removing the painter from the process. Ridiculous! It’s not the work that became depoliticized, but rather the people who were writing about it.

Lee Krasner is such an interesting figure. Many artists today merely claim to be activists, but she truly was one.

It’s a dilemma for artists. You want to be political, and there’s every good reason to be, but does that mean you have to be political in your art? That was Lee’s question. A lot of these artists were dealing with that in the 1930s. There was the Artists’ Union in the 1930s, in New York, during the depression. I love their logo – it was a fist clenched around paintbrushes. A lot of the artists were Communist Party members, as she was, but at a certain point the party wanted painters to start to create works of propaganda, what they called socialist realism – show a factory of oppressed workers, these types of things. And Lee had no interest in that. I can understand and appreciate her point, because propaganda disappears, its value is limited. But abstract art, or the art that comes from a painter’s spirit – that lives on if it is good.