Three female artists who helped create abstract expressionism: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler.


The three artists that gallery owners James Payne and Joanne Shurvell have chosen to represent New York in their series The Great Art Cities Explained are as refreshing as they are surprising.

Andy Warhol?


Keith Haring?


Jean-Michel Basquiat ?


These gentlemen would be the obvious choice, although only one of the three – Basquiat is a New York native.

Instead, Payne and Shurvell shine the spotlight on three New York-born Abstract Expressionists.

Three New York-born Abstract Expressionists – Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler.

These women’s contributions to the movement were considerable, but both Krasner and deKooning spent much of their careers overshadowed by famous husbands – fellow Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

New York-based Abstract Expressionism put Paris at the center of the art world and was the most macho movement. Krasner, Frankenthaler and Elaine de Kooning often heard their work described as “feminine”, “lyrical” or “delicate”, the implication being that it was somehow inferior to.

Hans Hofmann, an Abstract Expressionist who ran the 8th Street studio where Krasner studied after training at the Cooper Union, the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, and working for the Federal Art Project of the WPA once praised one of his paintings saying, “It’s so good you wouldn’t believe it was done by a woman.”

Payne and Shurvell detail how the outgoing Krasner, already established in the New York art scene, shared important contacts with Pollock, to whom she became romantically engaged shortly after their work was shown alongside Picasso, Matisse and Georges Braque in the French and American Pivot of 1942. Painting exhibition at the McMillen Gallery.

She was an energetic promoter of his work and a cheerleader when he dropped out.

They married and moved to Long Island in an unsuccessful attempt to end his drinking and extracurricular affairs. He commandeered a barn on the property for his studio, while she made do with a bedroom.

As Pollock sprawls around large canvases on the barn floor, famous splatters, Krasner produced a Little Image series on a table, sometimes applying paint directly from the tube.

MoMA’s description of a small untitled image in their collection reads:

Krasner compared these symbols to Hebrew letters, which she had studied as a child but could no longer read or write. In any case, she said, she was interested in creating a language of private symbols that did not communicate any specific meaning.

After Pollock died in a car accident while driving under the influence—his mistress survived—Krasner claimed the barn studio for his own practice.

It was a transformative movement. Her work has not only grown, it has been informed by the full-body gestures that have contributed to its creation.

Ten years later, she obtained her first personal exhibition in New York, and the MoMA offered her a retrospective in 1984, six months before her death.

In a hugely entertaining 1978 interview on Inside New York’s Art World, below, Krasner recalls how his gender was initially disregarded in how his work was received.

I start in high school, and there are only female artists, all female. Then I’m at Cooper Union, an art school for women, all women artists and even when I’m on WPA later there’s no – you know, there’s nothing unusual about to be a woman and to be an artist. It’s much later that all of this starts to happen, especially when the headquarters move out of Paris, which was the center, and move to New York, and I think that period is known as Abstract Expressionism, where we now have galleries, prizes, money, attention. Until then, it’s a pretty quiet scene. It is there that I realize for the first time to be a woman and that there is “a situation”.

Elaine de Kooning was an abstract portrait painter, art critic, political activist, teacher and “the fastest brush girl in town”, but these accomplishments were too often seen as less accomplished than being Mrs. Willem de Kooning , the female half of an abstract expressionist “it couple”.

The Great Art Cities Explained suggests that the twenty-year period in which she and Willem separated—they reconciled when she was in her late fifties—was a period of personal and artistic growth. She was inspired by the bullfights she witnessed on her travels, turned a vigorous feminine gaze on male subjects, and was commissioned to paint the official portrait of President Kennedy:

All my sketches of life as he talked on the phone, took notes, read newspapers, held lectures, had to be done very quickly, capturing features and gestures, half for memory, even while I was watching , because he never remained seated. It wasn’t so much that he seemed restless, rather, he sat like an athlete or a schoolboy, constantly shifting in his chair. At first, this youthful impression was a hindrance, as was the fact that he never sat still.

Like Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler was also part of a golden couple of abstract expressionism, but fortune decreed that she would not play a distant second fiddle to her husband Robert Motherwell.

This surely owes something to her pioneering development of the “dip-stain” technique, in which she poured turpentine-thinned oil paint directly onto an unprimed, flat-laid canvas.

The dipping stain predates her marriage.

After a visit to Frankenthaler’s studio, where they saw his iconic mountains and sea, abstract painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis also embraced the technique, along with his penchant for wide, flat expanses of color – which became known as Color Field Painting. .

Like Pollock, Frankenthaler scored a LIFE magazine spread, although as The art she says note, not all LIFE artist profiles are created equal:

The dialogue between these two broadcasts seems to be a story of socially determined male energy and female composure. While Pollock’s dominance is a key part of her artistic practice, the issue isn’t that he’s standing while she’s sitting. Rather, it is that, with Pollock, we are allowed to glimpse the intimate sides of his tortured and revolutionary practice. In stark contrast, Parks’ images of Frankenthaler reinforce our need to see female artists as refined, highly organized figures who are as complete as the masterpieces they produce. Even though these works seem very abstract and visceral, each stroke is perceived, on some level, as representing a calculated and perfected moment of visual illumination.

We are intrigued by Frankenthaler’s remark in 1989 at the New York Times:

There are three subjects I don’t like to talk about: my former marriage, women artists and what I think of my contemporaries.

For those interested in learning more about these three abstract painters, Payne and Shurvell offer the following book recommendations:

Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art by Marie-Gabriel

Women of Abstract Expressionism by Irving Sandler

Abstract Expressionism by David Anfam

Three Women Artists: The Expansion of Abstract Expressionism in the American West by Amy Von Lintel, Bonnie Roos, et al.

Lee Krasner: a biography by Gail Levin

Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov

A Generous Vision: The Creative Life of Elaine de Kooning by Cathy Curtis

Elaine de Kooning: Portraits by Brandon Brame Fortune

Watch a playlist of others The Great Art Cities Explained here.

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Ayun Halliday is the chief primatologist of East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Little Potato Manifesto. Am here @AyunHalliday.


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