From 1929 to 1959, five women were central to a profound artistic revolution.
Drawing on memoirs, more than 200 interviews, a huge trove of archival material, and a wide range of books and articles, Gabriel (Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, 2011, etc.) has created an ambitious, comprehensive, and impressively detailed history of abstract expressionism focused on the lives and works of Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. The author effectively sets her subjects in historical and cultural context, including “the ever-changing role of women in U.S. society, and the often overlooked spiritual importance of art to humankind.” The last goal is realized best through the testimonies of the women themselves about the significance of art to their spiritual well-being. Of different generations and often rivals, they did not cohere into a group, but they shared “courage, a spirit of rebellion, and a commitment to create.” They noisily railed against being ignored by the art establishment, angry that their husbands or lovers (Elaine’s Willem de Kooning and Krasner’s Jackson Pollock, for example) won attention and accolades while they were assumed “to accept the part of a grateful appendage” or, at best, a muse. Pollock, touted in a Life magazine profile as possibly “the greatest living painter in the United States,” emerged as the first artist celebrity. Gabriel takes her title from a groundbreaking exhibition organized, mounted, and publicized by artists in May 1951 that made the New York School of painters—the term was coined by Robert Motherwell—instantly visible. Although gaining critical attention, the first generation of New School artists struggled financially, working and living in unheated studios, subsisting on meager meals, trading art for food, and fueling themselves with copious amounts of alcohol. Their “community of goodwill and creativity” was undermined by betrayal, infidelity, and drunkenness. The author traces the changing art world with the influx of new galleries and “a tidal wave of money” as art caught on as an investment.
A sympathetic, authoritative collective biography.