Museum Ludwig X Terra Foundation Blog

April 17, 2019

Not Bad for a Girl – Gender Roles and Art Criticism in Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism is mostly remembered as having been defined by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. They’ve left us with a picture of Abstract Expressionism as an art movement dominated and shaped by a small group of white male artists whose radical approach to painting has forever changed our perception. But we also know today that Abstract Expressionism was much more diverse as this view would have us believe. Women were also part of the scene surrounding AbEx art (and artists of color as well), but the chauvinist attitudes the time were also present in this scene. Women were encouraged to paint, but if they wanted to be taken seriously as artists, they needed to show that they were just as good or better than their male peers. At the same time, they were of course also expected to fulfill their role as the supportive wife or girlfriend, cheering on their artist partners.

Hardees ad from the 1950s

The 1950s in the United States are probably best known for their emphasis on the nuclear family as the societal ideal and their belief in traditional gender roles. During the Great Depression, many women entered the workforce to ensure their survival. During the following Second World War, they were encouraged to take up the job left behind by the men who were fighting in the Pacific and Europe. This gave many their first taste of freedom, and they were not willing to give this up so easily once the men returned from the war. In the AbEx scene, women were no longer willing to stick to the more “traditional” art world roles of being the artist-muse or his assistant. They wanted to be taken seriously as artists without their work being interpreted through gender stereotypes or their relationships to the men in the scene.

To counter this, Grace Hartigan, for example, used a male surname. She signed her paintings with „George Hartigan,” in a nod to 19th century female authors George Sand and George Eliot, who both wrote under a male pseudonym, until she was confident that her work would be seen for what it was and not as the work of a “woman who paints.” But no one knew this problem quite as well as Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. Even today, we still often speak of them as the wife or girlfriend of the male artists in the scene. Krasner had married Jackson Pollock, and Frankenthaler was first in a relationship with Clement Greenberg and then married Robert Motherwell.

The collection of the Museum Ludwig includes paintings by both Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner along with works by several male AbEx artists. Lee Krasner’s Vernal Yellow dates back to 1980, while Frankenthaler painted High Tide I in 1974. Both women are seen as having been influenced by Pollock; which both agreed with as well. But often it is not just that their work is seen as having been influenced by him but that it is taken as an imitation of his style and technique. Even today, their work is still often seen in this way.

Lee Krasner while working for the WPA. Photographer unknown.

Lee Krasner met Jackson Pollock in 1941, at a time when she was going through a creative block, unsure in what direction her practice should go. All she could paint, according to her, where “gray slabs.”1 Seeing Pollock’s work for the first time had a great impact on her, just as it would have for Frankenthaler a few years later.

Towards the end of the 1940s, she overcame her creative block and began working on a series of paintings known as the Little Image series. The paintings play with pattern and repetition within a dense, layered application of paint, a “play between the painterly and the linear.”2 In 1949, Krasner and Pollock were both invited to show their work at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City in the exhibition Artists: Man and Wife. It is not clear what they showed, but the reviews favored Pollock’s work and not Krasner’s, one review even described her work as “tidying up” his style by transforming his “unrestrained, sweeping lines into neat little squares and triangles.”3

But Krasner did receive positive feedback on her Little Image paintings by fellow painters and Clement Greenberg once commented upon seeing an early painting form the series: “That’s hot. It’s cooking.”[Nemser, p. 91] But while Pollock’s career took off, hers came to a halt: “I was painting, Pollock was breaking through. We had our hands full. I couldn’t take time off and say, ‘Look here. Why am I not being seen…’ I didn’t function that way.”4 In the 1950s, Krasner’s work also changed direction and she began creating collages, using cut-up paintings that she had shown at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 as well as scraps of cut-up canvas from Pollock, layering them with paint. These as well as the paintings that she did after Pollocks death, exhibit a much stronger connection to his work than the Little Image series. Krasner showed the Stable Gallery in 1955, where they were well received, Clement Greenberg even declared this show one of the best of the decade. But then, once again, the drama of living with Pollock took over and she was forced to put her own career on the back burner.

In retrospect it seems ironic that when Krasner and Pollock met, she was the one with more experience and more success. But he quickly bypassed her, and she was relegated to the role of “wife of Jackson Pollock,” and working hard after his death to secure his legacy. But Krasner never stopped painting and her work has undergone several changes over the years, yet towards the end of her life, she returned to collage again, creating the series Solstice of which Vernal Yellow is a part of. Krasner herself described her use of collage as way to revisit and re-focus: “I go back on myself, into my own work, destroy it in some way and come up with a new thing… this seems to be a work process of mine… it’s a form of clarification… a form of growth.”

In 1974, in an interview with Lee Krasner, art historian Cindy Nemser pointed out that when a woman is influenced by a man, she is viewed as his disciple, and her work is read as an imitation of his. Yet when men influence each other, it is thought of as an equal exchange. This is especially true for Krasner, but also for most of the other female AbEx painters.

Krasner has always been clear that their relationship was mutually influential: “It was a two-way affair at all times.”5 It was not just her who encouraged him, but he also encouraged her and was supportive of her career, inviting gallerists to look at her work such as with Betty Parsons, who then gave Krasner her first solo show at her gallery in New York in 1951. Pollock didn’t speak much about her work, but he didn’t speak about his work either. Krasner did the talking for the two of them.

Museum Ludwig Köln, ML, Helen Frankenthaler, Stroke of High Tide I (Flutschlag I), ML 76/3255, 1974, Acryl auf Leinwand, 58 x 238 cm / © Helen Frankenthaler Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019

Jackson Pollock is also almost always mentioned when talking about the work of Helen Frankenthaler. But is not a personal relationship that is the focus here, but his influence on her work, that is, as painter Morris Louis put it, the “bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” This is how he described his first encounter with her work during a visit to New York in the early 1950s. What was possible was the color field painting that Louis and others developed in the 1950s. What caught Louis’ attention was not just her use of color and the way she applied the paint but also the size of her canvases, how she tied the unpainted canvas into the composition. All this together is probably what led him to look at his own practice in a different way and to experiment until he arrived at a point that felt right for him. Frankenthaler had, at least for Louis, advanced painting just as Pollock had for her.

It’s not Louis’ statement per se that is problematic; Louis probably only wanted to express how strongly her work influenced him just as Pollock had influenced her. What is problematic is the way in which this quote has often come to be the foundation for how her work is read and it has persisted for years.In an Artforum review of the exhibition After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959 in 1998, David Rimanelli has gone so far as to suggest that she did not invent the stain technique herself but that her boyfriend at the time, Clement Greenberg, had pointed it out to her: “Frankenthaler’s innovation wasn’t really an innovation: CG [Clement Greenberg] had probably alerted her to the way the oil in certain 1951 paintings by Jackson Pollock had seeped in to the cotton duck, becoming ‘one’ with it.”6 The statement is especially patronizing because Rimanelli also admits that he doesn’t know if this is in fact true. But saying it implies that he believes this despite not knowing if it is true and that in his opinion, Frankenthaler wasn’t capable of figuring this out herself, she needed the help of a man to do so.

This also raises the question if this actually plays a role in the first place. Even if Greenberg or Pollock told her what effect diluting her paints would have on their application, what she did with that information – the controlled pouring of paint on to the canvas, then letting the canvas soak up the paint while manipulating it with tools to change the intensity of the color and create flat surfaces of paint, consciously incorporating the unpainted, or unstained, canvas, into her composition – was all her. Frankenthaler continued developing her technique, seemingly undeterred, creating large-scale abstract paintings as well as a number of seascapes, of which High Tide I is an example.

Neither Frankenthaler nor Krasner ever denied that Pollock (or others) had an influence on their work. Artists talk, exchange ideas and opinions and discuss their work with each other. They seek each other out for precisely this reason. Yet the way in which Frankenthaler and Krasner’s work is discussed is an example of how we too often tend to look at the work of female artists through already predetermined frames defined by art historical discourses and parameters set by men when talking about the art of other men. This kind of art historical discourse favors and privileges them, elevating the male to what is considered the norm. This puts women in a position in which they have to fight to be acknowledged as artists in their own right.

Lee Krasner painting in her studio. Photograph by Mark Patiky. Copyright 1969.

It is difficult to look at much of Krasner’s work without seeing Pollock. Krasner described her work as very personal and coming directly from her life of which Pollock was a significant part. But it is problematic if this is all that we see. In the same vein, we shouldn’t reduce Frankenthaler’s work to merely being a connector between Pollock and color field painting. Their work and that of the other Abstract Expressionist female artists such as Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning or Joan Mitchell, is more than just the product of their relationships to different men.

We have already come a long way. Today, we acknowledge and respect both Krasner and Frankenthaler (and the many other female Abstract Expressionist artists) as artists in their own right, but we still need to try harder when it comes to the way in which we talk about their art. We need to not only re-evaluate how we see their relationships to said men, but also put more effort into seeing their work for what it is; the unique and innovative expression of an artist who just happens to also be a woman. Frankenthaler maybe summed it up best when she said: “You could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock.”7

[Image: Lee Krasner, Vernal Yellow (1980), Collection Museum Ludwig. Foto: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln /© Pollock-Krasner Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019]

 

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  1. Krasner in an interview with Cindy Nemser in 1974
  2. Nemser, p. 89
  3. Munro, ARTNews, 1949
  4. Nemser, p. 91
  5. Krasner in an interview with Cindy Nemser, 1974
  6. Rimanelli, Artforum, 1998
  7. Frankenthaler, quoted in Color as Field, by Karen Wilkin and Carl Belz, p. 31

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2 Comments on Not Bad for a Girl – Gender Roles and Art Criticism in Abstract Expressionism

  1. Thank you for this insightful blog post! We at the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation in NYC have read it with interest and appreciate your bringing attention to these issues.

    1. Janice says:

      That’s wonderful to hear! Thank you so much and I hope you’ll keep following along on the blog.

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