Abstract Expressionism was a movement dominated by male artists, talked about by male critics, with a discourse that emphasized ‘male’ attributes like scale, power, and dramatic gesture. This stereotype has been mythologized over the past half-century, but we cannot discount the many female Abstract Expressionist who were also part of this movement. These women were not taken as seriously as their male counterparts, even though they were creating, selling, and being written about at the same time as the men in the movement. This lack of recognition was due to the sexist nature of the art world in the 1940s and 1950s. Most of these women were written off as female painters rather than artists in their own right. Most of their work wasn’t even acknowledged until after their deaths. Only since feminist art history, recent scholarship, and a groundbreaking show at the Denver Art Museum in Colorado this year, have these women resurfaced in our art historical consciousness. Their work is as expressive, powerful, and emotional as their male contemporaries. The following four women are just a few of the many talented artists created Abstract Expressionist artwork during this time period.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Helen Frankenthaler studied at Bennington College in Vermont where she grew familiar with Old Master painting and techniques of Cubism. Afterward, she returned to New York to study with Hans Hofmann, and began painting with an entirely new technique. She would dilute her oil paints so that they would soak into the canvas rather than collecting on the surface; she called this her “soak-stain” method. She would then pour her thinned paint onto a canvas stretched out on the ground. Though she is often categorized as a color field Abstract Expressionist, her work bridges the gap between color field and gesture painting.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Lee Krasner studied at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. She also studied with Hans Hofmann who once declared that one of her paintings was “so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.” Her work is quite rhythmical, with strong gestural brushstrokes, and thick texture. Her work is strongly influenced by the Parisian Avant-Garde and Surrealism, but ultimately she creates very abstract images grounded in reality. Her achievements were almost entirely eclipsed by her husband Jackson Pollock, until after both of their deaths. In a 1972 interview, Krasner said, “I think even today it’s difficult for people to see me, or to speak to me, or observe my work, and not connect it with Pollock.”
Alma Thomas began her professional painting career a lot later than one might imagine. Born in the Georgia, Thomas studied fine art at Howard University and was an art teacher for 35 years in Washington D.C. before she dedicated herself solely to painting. Thomas’s style expanded on Abstract Expressionism by creating patterns of color, shape, and line. Not only did she have to seek recognition during a movement that was dominated by white men, but she had to overcome the stigma of being of an older generation, being a person of color, and being female. Her images are simultaneously loosely painted and meticulously formulated swatches of color that sprawl over the canvas. The most recent retrospective of her work is closing at the Studio Museum in Harlem on October 30th.
Elaine De Kooning
Similar to Lee Krasner, Elaine De Kooning was outshone by her painter husband Willem De Kooning for most of her professional life. As a fine arts student at the Leonardo Da Vinci Art School in New York, she took drawing classes from De Kooning, who would quickly bring her into his social circle of Abstract Expressionist painters. Elaine De Kooning’s own work was heavily influenced by Cubism and abstract art. Her images are composed through rapid brushstrokes, wild color, and dynamic intensity of emotion. She also worked as an art critic and editorial associate for ArtNews for a period of time. She was also influenced by the American southwest, during her time as a professor at the University of New Mexico. Her most high profile work as commissioned in 1962, she was asked to paint a portrait of President John F. Kennedy for a presidential library.