Where were all the female Abstract Expressionists?

Abstract painting with blue shapes on a black background. A mix of large rectangular blocks and smaller curvilinear shapes.

Blue & Black (1951 – 53), by female Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner

Reader question: “I wonder if there have been women engaging in abstract expressionist art and if we maybe only don’t know them because Clement Greenberg forgot to tell us about them?” – asked by Natascha

Short answer: Yes! There were plenty of women engaging in Abstract Expressionist art that simply never gained the fame and recognition that their male counterparts did. Perhaps more so than any other art movement (except for maybe Neoclassicism and Minimalism), Abstract Expressionism has always been regarded as a highly masculinised movement. While it’s true that female artists were often systematically excluded and/or marginalised within the movement (hint: most of them used male pseudonyms), they were definitely there, and deserve as much attention as the men.

First of all, a brief explanation of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and who Clement Greenberg is. The easiest way to explain Abstract Expressionist art is that it was abstract (a.k.a. it didn’t depict external reality) and it expressed the artist’s own individual ideas and emotions. As I mentioned in the introduction, Abstract Expressionism is associated with masculinity, and traits such as rebellion and brilliance. It was rebellious because it was anti-figurative – with “figurative” meaning any art that depicts an actual thing that we can recognise (as opposed to abstraction). It was also the first true American art movement, coming largely from the art scene in New York.

A large-scale abstract painting. The entire canvas is covered in splattered paints of different colours forming a web-like pattern. Some splatters are thicker while others are thinner.

Convergence (1952), Jackson Pollock. Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Because it was so focused on the individual’s expression of their own emotional intensity, the movement relied heavily on the idea of the male genius and hero. This is most obviously the case with Jackson Pollock, the most famous Abstract Expressionist. Pollock is most well-known for his “action paintings”, also called “all-over” or “drip” paintings. These were large canvases completely covered in paint that had been dripped or thrown across the canvas in random movements. Pollock would film and photograph himself creating these works, laying out the canvases on the floor and energetically covering them in paint, leading to the term “action painting”. This masculine expression of pure individuality and energy has for many become emblematic of the movement.

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A black and white photo of Jackson Pollock using a paintbrush to splatter paint over a large canvas lying on the floor.

Jackson Pollock painting in his studio

Clement Greenberg, meanwhile, was an art critic best remembered for promoting the Abstract Expressionist movement (and shaping our understandings of it). He helped develop the concept of medium specificity: the idea that each medium has certain qualities unique to it, and that Modernist artists should strive to embody these qualities in their works. For painting, qualities of surface and two-dimensionality were the unique qualities that should be emphasised – something that he felt the Abstract Expressionists did perfectly. In his 1955 essayAmerican-Type Painting, he wrote about the Abstract Expressionism movement, naming artists such as Jackson Pollock (who he was a huge fan of), Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still.

You may notice a trend in those names: they are all male. Male Abstract Expressionists were invariably the ones who got the most attention amongst art critics and art museums at the time. Since critics such as Clement Greenberg, who rarely wrote about female artists, shaped our ideas about who was important in the movement, we’re left today with very little public awareness of the numerous female Abstract Expressionists who were very real and very active in the scene.

A colourful abstract painting. Thick brushstrokes in several different colours fill the canvas in an undefinable shape.

Juarez (1958), Elaine de Kooning

So who were these female Abstract Expressionists? Well, one you actually may have heard of is the “other de Kooning”: Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning’s wife. Elaine de Kooning was a successful artist, writer and art critic, consistently promoting her husband’s work. Willem, on the other hand, was often highly critical of his wife’s work, and even destroyed some of her drawings. Elaine de Kooning created both figurative and abstract work, inspired by things like mythology and cave paintings.

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An abstract painting, mainly in black and white. Black lines are drawn on a creamy white background. The lines are both straight and curvilinear, filling the entire canvas.

Gothic Landscape (1961), Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner is another one who you might have heard of, as she is the one of the only female artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Krasner is famous for having work that defies definition, moving between different styles and embracing changes in mood and subject matter. Many of them, however, are recognisable through their rhythm, patterns and organic imagery. She married Jackson Pollock, but really struggled with the public’s perceptions of her as his wife, as her art was constantly compared to his. As a result, she often just signed her work with her initials or blended her signature into the painting itself to avoid labelling her work as feminine.

A collage in light colours. Various scraps of paper are put together in rectangular shapes. One of the pieces of paper is an old envelope with a stamp on it. A brown, thin piece of string curled together is also stuck onto the collage.

No. 237 (1948/54), Anne Ryan

Other noteworthy female Abstract Expressionists were Helen Frankenthaler, Anne Ryan, Grace Hartigan, Yvonne Thomas, and Sonia Sekula (who also happened to be an out lesbian). All of these artists were included in the 1951 9th Street Art Exhibition, which brought together a huge number of Abstract Expressionists for a ground-breaking show displaying the work of the post-war New York avant-garde, which mostly consisted of Abstract Expressionists. Although it’s great that these artists were represented, it should be noted that they were only a few of almost 70 artists participating in the exhibition.

A large, colourful abstract painting. Very, very thick splatters and lines in black and strong primary colours are put onto a white canvas.

The Wiz (1976), Corinne Michelle West

Considering that Abstract Expressionism was dominated by male artists, it’s not surprising that several female abstract expressionists adopted male pseudonyms to gain recognition for their work. Painter Corinne Michelle West, for example, used the names Mikael and Michael West when painting. Art historian David Lewis states that West indeed used this strategy specifically in order to break into the “men’s club” that was the Abstract Expressionist art scene. Grace Hartigan was another artist who did this, taking on the name George Hartigan in the early ‘50s to get better recognition for her work.

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An abstract painting. It's colourful but the colours are slightly dull. The canvas is divided into brown, blue and pink sections, with abstract shapes painted on top surrounded by black lines.

Ireland (1958), Grace Hartigan

Other female artists, while not adopting male pseudonyms, would otherwise try to draw attention away from the female-ness of their names: Elaine de Kooning, for example, signed her artworks with her initials to avoid her work being labelled as feminine (the J.K. Rowling strategy). Lenore/Lena (Lee) Krasner similarly signed her works with her initials and shortened her name to Lee.

So, female Abstract Expressionists were out there and producing some amazing work, but then as now had to struggle with being marginalised or excluded. Many contemporary exhibitions have started to address this gender imbalance and draw attention to female Abstract Expressionists. Women of Abstract Expressionism was a 2016 exhibition in Denver Art Museum focusing on numerous 1950s female Abstract Expressionists including Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher. The exhibition advertised itself as celebrating the “often unknown female artists of this mid-twentieth-century art movement”, drawing attention to how invisible these artists are in art history. Gwen Chanzit, the curator, noted that “there were almost no women included in the story of art until the 1980s” – it’s time to start including them.

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