Ninth Street Women

Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art


Read by Lisa Stathoplos

By Mary Gabriel

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Five women revolutionize the modern art world in postwar America in this “gratifying, generous, and lush” true story from a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist (Jennifer Szalai, New York Times).

Set amid the most turbulent social and political period of modern times, Ninth Street Women is the impassioned, wild, sometimes tragic, always exhilarating chronicle of five women who dared to enter the male-dominated world of twentieth-century abstract painting — not as muses but as artists. From their cold-water lofts, where they worked, drank, fought, and loved, these pioneers burst open the door to the art world for themselves and countless others to come.

Gutsy and indomitable, Lee Krasner was a hell-raising leader among artists long before she became part of the modern art world’s first celebrity couple by marrying Jackson Pollock. Elaine de Kooning, whose brilliant mind and peerless charm made her the emotional center of the New York School, used her work and words to build a bridge between the avant-garde and a public that scorned abstract art as a hoax. Grace Hartigan fearlessly abandoned life as a New Jersey housewife and mother to achieve stardom as one of the boldest painters of her generation. Joan Mitchell, whose notoriously tough exterior shielded a vulnerable artist within, escaped a privileged but emotionally damaging Chicago childhood to translate her fierce vision into magnificent canvases. And Helen Frankenthaler, the beautiful daughter of a prominent New York family, chose the difficult path of the creative life.

Her gamble paid off: At twenty-three she created a work so original it launched a new school of painting. These women changed American art and society, tearing up the prevailing social code and replacing it with a doctrine of liberation. In Ninth Street Women, acclaimed author Mary Gabriel tells a remarkable and inspiring story of the power of art and artists in shaping not just postwar America but the future.



THE IDEA FOR this book arose out of a conversation I had with painter Grace Hartigan in the fall of 1990. At sixty-eight, she was in the midst of her biggest year in decades, with multiple exhibitions scheduled and a monograph of her work newly released. The publisher of the art magazine where I worked decided that all this activity warranted a feature, which she asked me to write. It was an assignment I approached with trepidation. I had known of Grace for years; she was the head of the graduate painting program at the Maryland Institute College of Art while I was an undergraduate. From a safe distance, I had watched terrified as she walked, blond and imperious, ahead of a gaggle of eager students, held forth loudly amid rapt listeners at the Mount Royal Tavern next door, and delivered withering critiques as she toured classrooms and studios. From my student perspective, she was a tough old bird who I imagined had had to fight throughout her career against art world prejudices that viewed a woman’s art as “women’s work” (inherently lesser) and that, having endured such systematic debasement, she was not inclined toward magnanimity. I therefore rang the bell at her Baltimore loft braced for an hour with an impatient, dismissive diva. Of greatest interest to me as I waited on the street below was how many minutes would pass until I could return there.

And then Grace opened the door.

The woman who greeted me warmly and generously was utterly disarming. She bore no resemblance to the person I had grown to fear. Confused and smitten, I followed her up the many flights to her studio, where we sat as our one-hour interview stretched into four, as the light through her massive windows faded from gold to gray, as the story she told stirred my imagination and changed my life. I was in the presence of a woman who had sacrificed everything, including her only child, to be what she was: an artist. The rewards had been few, beyond a life well lived (not materially, but spiritually) and the recognition in her waning years that she had been honest about who she was and what she needed. A rare accomplishment for a woman of any generation, it was particularly so of hers, when servitude to family was the only goal toward which a “healthy” woman was to aspire. Grace was living proof that, on the contrary, a life dreamed could be a life lived. All it took was courage, commitment, and humor. I remember both of us laughing a lot that afternoon. Though the subject was serious, the stories Grace told were fantastic and the woman who recounted them was as wild as the twenty-six-year-old who had abandoned everything in 1948 to paint, though she wasn’t even sure how.

Grace was part of the art movement born in New York in the 1930s that shifted the capital of Western culture from Paris to New York, and changed the very history of art. It was nothing short of a revolution and, like every revolutionary endeavor, it was peopled with an assortment of talented, brilliant, and mad visionaries who existed, initially, so far outside society that they were invisible to everyone but each other. She described the people she counted as friends—men and women, straight and gay, writers and painters and composers—who survived and thrived during the most turbulent two decades of modern U.S. history and amid a society so timidly conservative that its greatest ambition was conformity. Grace and her friends were outlaws in that world, joyfully upending every tradition that presented itself—artistic and social—and in the process creating a new way of painting, sculpting, writing, and composing that shaped the standards by which we still make and appreciate art today. But Grace’s stories went beyond the sweeping importance of the movement. She described the intimate struggles endured and victories achieved by people who became legend and, almost more interestingly and significantly, people long forgotten who were nonetheless vitally important to their peers. In each of those stories, because Grace spoke of friends, the trials and triumphs felt immediate. Art wasn’t removed from life, it was life.

I had never encountered art history as stirring. Paintings I had only half understood now came alive because I felt I had met, if only figuratively, the artists who made them. I began to understand the cross-pollination between painting and music, or painting and poetry, through Grace’s myriad tales of the writers and composers she knew and loved. And I recognized the necessity of understanding the times in which Grace and her fellow artists lived. They did not create in a vacuum, as those who rely on theory to explain art often imply. They had not expunged all recognizable imagery from their work on an aesthetic whim or to coldly advance the progression of modern art begun in the previous century. They stripped their work of all life except their own internal meanderings because they existed in a world destroyed by war, dehumanized by the death camps, and denied a future by the atomic bomb. Under those circumstances, what else could they paint with any degree of honesty?

As Grace spoke, she didn’t dwell on the fact that she was a woman artist or that other women formed an important part of the Abstract Expressionist group. But each time she mentioned a woman painter or sculptor, I found myself wondering why, in the official history, those names so rarely surfaced. Their contributions were significant. In fact, in the cases of Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, the movement would not have existed or unfolded as it did without them. And yet, the story of that movement has been taught and accepted as the tale of a few heroic men.

There are many reasons for that interpretation, some endemic to the history of art, in which man is traditionally the creator and woman the muse, and some specific to America at mid-century. Prior to the Abstract Expressionists, Americans generally mistrusted male artists (female artists weren’t even worth discussing) and labeled them as effete or elitist. The New York crowd, beginning in the 1930s, was the first generation to make painting and sculpture an American “manly” occupation. The movement’s macho character was, therefore, part and parcel of the transformation it initiated. But another important reason the Abstract Expressionist story has belonged to men involves something much more insidious: the market. When art became a “business” in the turbocharged consumer economy of the late 1950s, work by women artists wasn’t considered as valuable as that of men, which meant dealers didn’t show it, magazines didn’t write about it, collectors didn’t buy or donate it to museums, and art history courses failed to mention it. Gradually, most of the women who were part of the Abstract Expressionist movement were at best sidelined and at worst forgotten, despite the fact that they had been heralded before the “art business” took control of the art world and that they were pioneers, breaking down centuries-old cultural and social barriers.

Before the Abstract Expressionists, professional women artists were considered exceptional, either oddballs or “European” because they worked in a less hostile climate abroad. Beginning in the 1930s, however, women artists formed part of the New York art scene and by the 1950s, a handful of them had reached its very center. That history has been largely lost, leaving the chronicle of Abstract Expressionism half told, and robbing many aspiring artists of an awareness of a grand tradition.

It is true that art, while indebted to tradition, is usually at odds with it; art is about the thrill of mutiny. Young painters and sculptors are particularly unwilling to be hampered by the past, especially if that past is encased in the cement shoes of gender. But familiarity with tradition can be liberating for an artist because it provides a map illustrating the route other people have taken, which is especially valuable at the start of such a perilous journey. Male artists can inspire and instruct, surely. Artistic concerns are gender neutral. But there are social and personal issues a woman artist faces that cannot be found in the stories of men; these are the obstacles confronted and obstacles overcome. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “For spiritual values and a creative tradition to continue unbroken we need concrete artifacts, the work of hands, written words to read, images to look at, a dialogue with brave and imaginative women who came before us.”1 It’s instructive as well as comforting to know how other women have managed and what other women have dared. It’s also gratifying to find in their stories an occasional energizing dose of inspiration. When Grace began her quest to become an artist, she faced two questions: How do I paint? and How do I live as a painter? She turned to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning to help with the first. To answer the second, she turned to a woman, Elaine. I am ashamed to say that before I met Grace I would not have considered asking her advice on the subject. I was too indebted to a Western art tradition to imagine a woman artist had as much to teach me as a man. After my evening with her, I saw not only the value but the absolute necessity of learning from both.

I left Grace’s studio reeling, my head filled with her tales—hilarious, tragic, edifying—and the question, why hadn’t I heard this before? Why didn’t I know that at the most thrilling moment in American art history, women were instrumental in its success and fruition, that men and women worked together as equals supporting one another in the greatest artistic experiment America had yet experienced amid a society arrayed against them and the art they produced. I decided to write a book to try to fill the void. Twenty years later, I finally began. Ninth Street Women is the result.

To tell the story as vividly and intimately as Grace told me, I decided to focus not on a single artist, but on a group of artists. I felt this would allow me to broaden the history and offer a truer, more vibrant portrait of the time. The avant-garde art community in New York at mid-century was tiny, but about one-third of the serious artists who formed part of it at any given moment were women—sometimes a dozen, sometimes as many as thirty. I chose a core five—Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler—based on the importance of their art or their personal significance to the movement. Also, because of the differences in their ages—a span of twenty years—each of these characters represented an important chapter in the development of Abstract Expressionism. During my years working on this project, I was aware of the irony of writing about these characters as “women artists” at all. None of them would have wanted to be characterized as such. The women among the Abstract Expressionists did not constitute a subgroup. They were painters. Period. As for their very real rebellion against a society that declared the best women to be those most easily ignored, Lee, Elaine, Grace, Joan, and Helen didn’t rebel as much as ignore society’s dictates. They didn’t believe its rules pertained to them.

I went in search of their stories first through more than two hundred interviews spanning sixty years, some of which I had the pleasure to conduct myself. I also pored through dozens of archives and collections belonging to libraries, foundations, and individuals, including several not previously open to the public, in a hunt for letters, journals, and notes. Those primary materials, written by the various characters, their friends, and their extended colleagues, helped me establish a clearer picture of their world as they lived it, as opposed to the way it has been interpreted over the past six decades. Finally, I spent years reading a mountain of general, women’s, social, art, literary, and music history books pertaining to that period, as well as the many, many volumes describing the Abstract Expressionist artists, from the very first publications on the subject in the early 1940s to the most recent. What I was after was enough information to allow me to tell the full story, to introduce the reader to my artists in the society in which they lived. I chose to follow the path described by philosopher John Dewey, and art historians Erwin Panofsky and Meyer Schapiro, who taught that one is unable to understand art deeply without understanding the time and place in which a work was created, and without having a proper introduction to the artist responsible for the work.2 The scope of my book expanded accordingly.

What I have come to write, through the biographies of five remarkable women, is the story of a cultural revolution that occurred between the years 1929 and 1959 as it arose out of the Depression and the Second World War, developed amid the Cold War and McCarthyism, and declined during the early boom years of America’s consumer culture when the “latest” was inevitably the “best.” Throughout the book, I have also described the ever-changing role of women in U.S. society, and the often overlooked spiritual importance of art to humankind. As I wrote, that last point became particularly relevant. The modern disassociation of the average person from art began at the very time when those who created it were most akin to them. The Abstract Expressionists were largely working people, the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, men and women who lived a hardscrabble existence. But because their art generally abandoned people, objects, and landscape—those elements most easily recognized by nonartists—it became difficult to understand and therefore easy to dismiss. Critics, art scholars, and museum officials often made matters worse. The formalist language that arose around art so obscured its meaning that art became removed from so-called real life. Gradually, society came to believe it didn’t need art. And that is a tragedy, especially in an age such as ours.

Art serves a social function not unlike religion. For those who are open to it, it speaks directly to that aspect of man that is not beast-like, and stirs the part of modern man that is nearly calcified from neglect, his soul. I often thought, as I wrote, that our own troubled world is sorely lacking in the nutrients that art provides. The stories told in this book might be a reminder that where there is art there is hope. Or, as Albert Camus wrote, “In the world of condemnation to death which is ours, artists bear witness to that in man which refuses to die.”3

I would like to briefly explain my method to the reader so he or she does not feel cheated by a lack of traditional biographical detail. Because I am writing about five people during a period of a mere thirty years I had to be judicious in my choice of material, both for length and to fit the broader story line. I have used those elements of the five women’s histories that are most pertinent to their lives as artists in the Abstract Expressionist milieu. For example, I don’t dwell overly on childhoods and families except where doing so helps a reader understand essential facts that contributed to the artists’ development. I don’t spend time on specific dates that normally comprise and ritualize a person’s life. I am interested less in a vertical history than a horizontal one, in other words, those experiences and people that influenced the artists, rather than their chronological development. Chronology is, in fact, a thorny issue in this book because memories about specific occurrences often conflicted, as did published accounts. Sometimes a letter appeared to help corroborate a date, sometimes a journal entry, but in other cases I had to rely on the logical preponderance of the evidence in placing an event at a particular time. Also, because the book ends in 1959, when the movement sputters and dies, I have, to my own frustration, offered mere snapshots of the characters’ later lives. Those interested in full biographies of some of these women—dates and all—are lucky. In the past few years, biographies have been published on all but Helen Frankenthaler. References to the biographies of Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Grace Hartigan are included in the bibliography, as are many other wonderful biographies and books on the extraordinary characters with whom the Ninth Street Women lived and worked.




1. Lena, Lenore, Lee

Look, darling, I didn’t give birth to myself and you inherit a lot of stuff right on your back from birth. You’re given a load of shit at birth. Now I don’t want to inherit: I want to choose my life and build it to suit me.

—Louise Nevelson1

“HOW WELL I remember it, Lee Krasner arrived walking up to that second floor with her portfolio. How did she look and what effect did she have on me, Lillian Kiesler?

“She wore, she was dressed, in a black blouse, a black tight skirt, black knit stockings and high heel shoes… even walking in she had an animal magnetism and energy, a kind of arrogance that blinds, that makes waves happen.”

Lillian, who was then Lillian Olinsey, encountered Lee in 1937 in Lillian’s capacity as a volunteer registrar for the most advanced art school in the nation.2 It was less a school, in fact, than an atelier run by a German painter whose true talent as a teacher lay in his ability to inspire. Hans Hofmann’s name was legend among artists hoping to tap the vein that began with Manet and led through Kandinsky, Miró, Matisse, and Picasso. Lee had discovered those artists eight years earlier at the new Museum of Modern Art, but she still had not found a way to use their vocabulary in her work. The only teacher in town who could help her was Hofmann.

“I can remember myself, going into that small office and saying to Hans that there was a unique student upstairs, a girl by the name of Lee Krasner,” Kiesler recalled. By way of introduction, Lee had shown her some drawings, things she had done as a student and in life drawing sessions around the Village. Kiesler was struck by their strength. They weren’t just drawings of a nude model; the artist herself jumped off the paper. Lee’s style was already distinctive, her lines dark, definite, determined. “They were so above all the work that was being done in that school.… I found her just a phenomenon that first day.” Kiesler surprised herself by demanding that Hofmann give Lee a scholarship. He agreed on the force of her recommendation, without bothering to see the work himself.3

Several days later, when Lee returned to the school, Hofmann came into the studio during a life drawing session. Moving from student to student, he criticized their work in a peculiar English peppered with German that was nearly impossible to decipher.4 The tension during such crits was palpable. Hofmann’s judgment was the judgment of Paris, of pre–World War I Paris, where he had painted alongside Matisse and Picasso. Coming to Lee during that first class, Hofmann lifted her drawing off the board it was attached to, tore the lower part of the sketch, and placed the torn piece on top of the intact drawing. Lee stood speechless. There had been no introduction, no discussion of what she was striving for in her work, just the sound of paper tearing and a jolly fat man blithely destroying and re-arranging her work.

“I remember Hans later saying to me that yes… she was a most powerful student, one of the most powerful students, but that she, of course, needed criticism,” Kiesler said.5

Lee would rise to the challenge and became one of Hofmann’s stars. Years later, when Jackson Pollock was listed among Hofmann’s celebrity pupils, the old man corrected the history, saying no, Pollock was not my student, he was a student of my student—Lee Krasner.6

The dynamic young woman who appeared at Hofmann’s school came from a family of Russian immigrants who ran a fish, vegetable, and fruit stand in Brooklyn. She was born Lena, reinvented herself as Lenore, and would eventually settle on Lee. (Along the way her family name would also change: Krassner became Krasner.) Lee left Brooklyn in 1921 for Manhattan to study applied art at an all-girls’ public high school and then enrolled in 1926 at age seventeen for two years at Cooper Union, which also offered a women-only program.7 Despite the gender segregation, Lee was not cloistered in either school. She had moved to Greenwich Village, making a home there among intellectuals and bohemians whose political allegiances tended toward Trotsky and whose taste in art was thoroughly French. She lived an unselfconsciously liberated existence—not because she had read about such a life in books and aspired to emulate it but because that was who she was.

Lee had a long history of rebellion. As a girl, she had announced she was no longer a practicing Jew because she realized that, according to her morning prayers, God favored men over women. When her elder sister died, she refused to marry her brother-in-law and assume responsibility for his children, as was the custom in Orthodox immigrant families. (Lee saddled her fourteen-year-old sister with that burden, for which her sister never forgave her.) In school, she annoyed her teachers. (One wrote, “This student is always a bother… insists upon having her own way.”)8 Lee had charted an alternate course in a world that told her a woman’s duty was to submit to her family, to the man she would marry, and eventually to the whims of her children. She wanted none of it. It was in daring to declare herself an artist, however, that Lee positioned herself forever beyond the social pale.

At the start of the decade, women had won the right to vote and, in subsequent years, these newly empowered citizens made strides in some professions—medicine, law, and literature among them.9 But the door had remained firmly closed to women who wanted to be professional artists. It wasn’t just a matter of sex. America’s hallowed work ethic rewarded those who kept their nose to the grindstone and eyes averted from the stars. Fine artists and their products were simply not valued, their activities seen as superfluous. It was almost unheard of for an American man in the first half of the twentieth century to call himself an artist and hope to live on the proceeds of his work, unless he traveled in cultured circles that embarked on annual voyages to Europe. For a woman, it was a near impossibility—unless, again, she had the means to resettle abroad.10 For a working-class Jewish woman like Lee, it was unthinkable.11 Many years later, she located the plight of the woman artist in the historic struggle waged by men against women that was as old as Judeo-Christian history. Handily brushing aside that heavy burden, Lee said, “There’s nothing I can do about those 5,000 years.”12 She determined to be an artist anyway.

The phenomenon named Lena Lenore Lee Krassner Krasner was her first creation. “I came out of nowhere,” Lee explained.13 She had had no material help; her parents allowed her to do what she wanted as long as she didn’t ask for anything. She was not inspired to be an artist by example; the only painting in the family home was a reproduction of Queen Isabella. And when she began to study art, she said she wasn’t even sure what the word meant.14 In fact, far from receiving encouragement on her chosen path, Lee was actively discouraged. She repeatedly received failing marks because she could not do the academic drawing required of students.15 And yet, she persevered. She was driven from an early age by an inner force that was as undeniable and unstoppable as it was inexplicable.

Lee left Cooper Union in 1928, in search of something more serious, and enrolled at one of the oldest and best fine arts schools in the United States, the National Academy of Design. As part of her portfolio for admission, she submitted a self-portrait that she had painted outdoors by positioning a mirror on a tree. It was so good, and the plein air composition so unusual, that the admissions committee didn’t believe she had done the painting in the location and manner she had claimed. Accepted on a probationary status, Lee took her place among the six hundred students receiving the Academy’s traditional École des Beaux-Arts training. One of them was a tall blond Russian aristocrat who drove a yellow-and-chrome Lincoln convertible.16 His name was Igor Pantuhoff.

While Lee’s immigrant family had come from a Russian shtetl, Igor’s father had been a friend of the last czar, Nicholas (some accounts say he was the czar’s cousin), and the family had lived in a town adjoining the Imperial Palace. Having chosen the losing side in the fight between the czar’s army and the Bolsheviks, Igor’s father swept his family to safety, eventually settling them comfortably into an apartment on Central Park West.17 Igor was an accomplished portraitist and classical artist of the type the Academy championed. He therefore excelled at school, winning many of its prizes, including the coveted Prix de Rome.18 On the surface, he was a veritable prince charming: talented, “startlingly handsome,” exotic. But during the nearly ten years that he and Lee were lovers, he proved to be a cruel, anti-Semitic, and dishonest drunk. In his thick Russian accent, Igor once publicly stated in reference to Lee that he liked “being with an ugly woman because it makes me feel more handsome.”19 Their complex relationship would, in some ways, be an unfortunate template for her future marriage to Pollock. Igor and Jackson were both troubled men who represented for Lee a load that she would choose to bear out of respect for their talent and, despite their many flaws, out of love for the men. She believed her strength could save them. They did, too. “It never was surprising to me… that the most desirable men would be attracted to her, why not?” asked Lillian. “She gave them an ambiance that they would not have if it were not for Lee. She really did make the waves happen.”20

Igor and Lee made a remarkable team, both in the Academy and around Washington Square. Voluble and outwardly self-assured, Igor made friends easily across the spectrum of society. His home, however, was in a more moneyed class; it was where he belonged and what he aspired to. He set out to teach Lee how to dress the part, selecting clothes to enhance a body that was often described as voluptuous, fantastic, “luminous”—and applying makeup, not to soften her strong features, but to accentuate them. Under Igor’s tutelage, Lee wore multiple shades of eye shadow, dark kohl liner and heavy mascara to enhance her blue eyes, deep red to augment her sensuous lips, and rouge to increase the flare of her high cheekbones, which met at a prominent, somewhat haughty nose. Her auburn hair he had cut in a fashionable bob.21 The Lee who emerged was not beautiful: She was striking. Her face and attire now complemented her formidable personality. It was a sign of her regard for Igor that she gave him free rein in helping her transform herself from a schoolgirl to the woman who would be Lee Krasner, just at the time that she was making her debut on the nascent modern art scene in New York.


  • "A gorgeous and unsettling narrative...Ninth Street Women is supremely gratifying, generous, and lush but also tough and precise -- in other words, as complicated and capacious as the lives it depicts...It's as if once Gabriel got started, the canvas before her opened up new vistas. We should be grateful she yielded to its possibilities."—Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
  • "Ninth Street Women is like a great, sprawling Russian novel, filled with memorable characters and sharply etched scenes. It's no mean feat to breathe life into five very different and very brave women, none of whom gave a whit about conventional mores. But Ms. Gabriel fleshes out her portraits with intimate details, astute analyses of the art and good old-fashioned storytelling."—Ann Landi, Wall Street Journal
  • "Ninth Street Women is a must read...Gabriel seamlessly weaves the intimate and the public, the lives and the art, making us feel we were there...It is a story that is a part of the American story, told here in vivid, meaningful detail, an absolutely pivotal text."—Margaret Randall, Women's Review of Books
  • "Gabriel's fascinating group portrait shimmers with vivid personal detail...She traces their interwoven paths from studio to Cedar Bar to the Eight Street loft known as the Club...Over time, Willem de Kooning outshone Elaine; Jackson Pollock eclipsed Krasner. Key contributions were erased...Gabriel makes sure these major artists who have been written out of history are not forgotten."—Jane Ciabattari,
  • "Masterful. Mixing critical insight with juicy storytelling, Mary Gabriel brings five brilliant female painters to the fore of the art revolution that cut a wide swath in postwar America."—Patricia Albers, author of Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter
  • "Gripping and enthralling, Mary Gabriel made me share every turbulent moment of these remarkable women's lives. A magisterial reference, this book will be the definitive text for years to come. It is also the most devastatingly accurate portrayal of five women who had the temerity to call themselves artists in the male-dominated twentieth century."—Deirdre Bair, author of Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend
  • "I loved every page of this necessary book. At last we see such once-sidelined artists as Joan Mitchell and Elaine de Kooning in depth, and both the telling gossip of their lives and the brave authenticity of their work are thrilling. Mary Gabriel restores the humanist ambition at the core of all the New York painters of this era, whether male or female--the boldness of their risky lives and the seriousness of their noble enterprise."—Brad Gooch, author of Rumi's Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love
  • "Sheer delight. A richly detailed epic starring not only five heroic female painters, but a supporting cast that defines the entire existential and Beat era, from Frank O'Hara to Billie Holiday to Samuel Beckett. Gabriel's vision of Lee Krasner jazz dancing with Piet Mondrian alone is worth the price of the book. With palpable empathy for the flawed brilliance of her five stars, their jealous foes, and their long-suffering enablers, Gabriel conjures the high-risk paths they chose, what making great art cost their lives, and what they lost and won in the end."—Michael Findlay, director of Acquavella Galleries and author of Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art
  • "A colorful narrative as compelling as a novel. Gabriel brilliantly shows how the women of Abstract Expressionism carved out paths for themselves in an often hostile community, fashioning careers and producing exciting work fully as important as that of their male peers--men whom they befriended, married, bedded, or disdained."—Mary V. Dearborn, author of Ernest Hemingway: A Biography
  • "A fascinating, meticulously researched account of five painters who broke through the gender barriers in the art world of the 1950s. Gabriel is deft at teasing out the behind-the-scenes drama in these women's lives and careers. Essential reading for any student of the period, and of the New York School generally."—David Salle, author of How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art
  • "A sweeping panorama of American art history in the decades around World War II--specifically Abstract Expressionism and the rise of U.S. art world dominance internationally. A major contribution to the literature of twentieth-century cultural and social history."—Julia Van Haaften, author of Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography
  • "Gabriel delivers an immersive group biography of eclectic, free-spirited painters who shocked the art world in the 1940s and '50s with abstract expressionism...Through the lens of these women's lives, Gabriel delivers a sweeping history of abstract expressionism and the postwar New York School, and an affectionate tribute to the underappreciated women of America's avant-garde."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Gabriel 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...A sympathetic, authoritative collective biography."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "Biographer Gabriel corrects long-standing misperceptions about New York's abstract-expressionism movement by telling the dramatic, often traumatic stories of the five gifted and courageous women painters at the center of that radical flowering...avidly researched, deeply analyzed, gorgeously written, and endlessly involving five-track mix of biography and history... Gabriel not only provides vibrantly detailed accounts of these five exceptional avant-garde artists' friendships and rivalries, affairs and marriages, doubt and despair, conviction and resilience; she also establishes a richly dimensional context for their struggles and innovations...Gabriel has created an incandescent, engrossing, and paradigm-altering art epic."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "These individuals are brought to life by Pulitzer Prize finalist Gabriel, who shows how each defied social convention and professional boundaries to create new creative forms and attain equality with their male counterparts. . . . A must for modern art historians and enthusiasts."—Library Journal (starred review)
  • "More than a compilation of biographical tales, Gabriel's book is a reminder of the importance of women to an artistic genre long associated with masculinity. But it is also is a vivid portrait of the very nature of the artist. The stars of the era suffered and sinned as mortals, but their works -- and their creative appetites -- were otherworldly. Ninth Street Women gets us a just a little bit closer to their galaxy."—Karen Sandstrom, Washington Post

On Sale
Feb 19, 2019
Hachette Audio

Mary Gabriel

About the Author

Mary Gabriel is the author of Ninth Street Women, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art, which won the 2022 NYU/Axinn Foundation Prize for narrative nonfiction and the 2019 Library of Virginia and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts's Mary Lynn Kotz Award. Gabriel's previous book, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria WoodhullUncensored and The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone. She worked in Washington and London as a Reuters editor for nearly two decades and lives in Ireland.

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