Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel


Nine Street Women subtitles Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art. Those 5 names are icons, foundational to our modernity. In their early days, they were women with balls. What they all had in common was a drive to overcome any social, gender, personal or political obstacles that were put in their path, and there were plenty. They struggled, and picked themselves off the floor more than once, but never did any of them give up. They refused to fail.

It’s interesting that they encountered less opposition to their determination to be artists in their early days when advanced art in New York City was the least comprehended and assigned the nadir of monetary value. It was later when the swells realized there was money to be made and the highest levels of social prestige to be gained in the abstract art that society previously considered aberrational, that the immortal 5 saw attempts to ghost them in favor of an exclusively male art history.

The condescension in the media was pretty amazing when abstract art started to be seen as chic, say about in 1955 through the early 60’s. Lee Krasner became “Jackson Pollock’s wife”. Her art was thought to be derivative of his. When Helen Frankenthaler married artist Robert Motherwell, it was said that her paintings were influenced by her husband. That the reverse might really be the case was not considered. Great women artists were reduced, as far as mass market newspapers and magazines could manage it, to “ladies painting”, their work considered constitutionally inferior to the male artists who were said to make art history.

Lee Krasner is the earliest figure here, working or trying to work on WPA projects in the 1930’s. Gabriel makes it clear that Lee had a life and a career before, during and after her marriage to Jackson Pollock. Although she dedicated a large part of her married life to supporting a dysfunctional Jackson, the attempts to wipe her out of art history still seem shocking, irrational and outrageous. Clem Greenberg comes off as particularly repulsive in that regard, and especially repulsive generally.

I’ve read extensive biographies of Bill De Kooning and Pollock. But Mary Gabriel does a better job of presenting either than reading the hundreds of pages of their standard biographies.

Why is that? Because Gabriel has a genius for presenting us with lives in relationships. I had a better understanding of Elaine De Kooning’s marriage to the, at first, unknown and then legendary painter than I did from reading Bill De Kooning’s biography.

And Lee’s torture by marriage to Jackson Pollock has never been better described. Even though Ninth Street Women justly and effectively presents us with the lives and works of 5 great American artists who happen to be women, it also presents us with the best portrait of a great era in American art that I have read.

The iconic 5 are the caviar on top of a resplendent gallery of creativity. Composers, poets, writers, artists and the hangers on, the whole Village and East Hampton scene, with names, places and dialogues. Frank O’Hara stands out especially as a guardian angel of the whole, and Jack Kerouac is memorable in a cameo, turning up in the driveway of a Hamptons party and being turned away. 

What dialogues! It feels like Gabriel had an ear in every studio, apartment and bar, was on every trip to Paris. I know she couldn’t have been omniscient, but Ninth Street Women is like a time machine streaming of a golden age in art, an era that could be slaughtered only by its own success.