Abstract Expressionism was undoubtedly one of the most influential art movements of the twentieth century. The monumental paintings were open to the viewers’ interpretation, allowing the audience to construct their own meanings. Another important feature of Abstract Expressionism was movement. These huge canvases obliged the artist to either jump to reach the top corners of the canvas or move around the fabric stretched on the floor. Abstract Expressionism is associated mostly with male names like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, or Mark Rothko. However, the movement was also represented by remarkable women. Here are 10 women artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement that you should definitely know!
1. Lee Krasner, the Mother of Abstract Expressionism
For a long time, the works of Lee Krasner were overshadowed by those of her husband, Jackson Pollock. However, Krasner was rediscovered during the seventies, thanks to the efforts of feminist art historians of the time. Born in a poor family of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she started her artistic career as a mural painter during the Great Depression, joining the America Abstract Artists group in 1937. Although she is known for her paintings, Krasner also loved working with mosaics. Collages were another distinct part of Krasner’s oeuvre. Never quite content with her work, she sometimes ripped the finished pieces apart and rearranged the fragments. In a way, she had to sacrifice part of her career to care for her troubled husband. Struggling with his mental health and alcoholism, Jackson Pollock had a habit of turning the lives of those around him into chaos, often becoming violent.
2. Alma Thomas
Although Alma Thomas made painting her full-time job quite late in the 1960s when she was already 68 years old, she nevertheless left a remarkable legacy. Enchanted by art from an early age, Thomas wanted to become an architect, but such a career was unavailable to her due to being an African American woman. Instead, she became a teacher. First, she worked as a kindergarten teacher, and then, after earning a fine art degree in 1924, she spent 35 years teaching art in a high school. Although Thomas is largely considered a representative of the Abstract Expressionism movement, she never limited herself to one particular style. Her colorful works consisting of short, bold, mosaic-like brushstrokes, were compared to the pointillist paintings of Paul Signac.
3. Jay DeFeo
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Jay Defeo started making art while still in junior high school. Among her sources of inspiration were prehistoric art and Italian Renaissance painting. Perhaps her most definitive feature is the use of a monochrome black-and-white palette. Although DeFeo herself had never identified with any kind of art movement, she is usually labeled Abstract Expressionist due to her style and experimental methods.
Her most well-known work is undoubtedly the monumental object called The Rose. This artwork is, in fact, something in between painting and sculpture: the layer of paint is so thick and textured, that over the years it required additional support in order not to collapse under its own weight. The object could have been left unfinished: in 1965 while working on it DeFeo received an eviction notice and was forced to put her work on hold. By that time The Rose was already so large and massive, that a part of the wall had to be knocked down in order to take it out of the apartment.
4. Grace Hartigan
Grace Hartigan, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, came from a poor family, had to marry at 17, and work at an airplane factory. Her shift to art was almost accidental. Once a colleague of Hartigan’s showed her some works of Henri Matisse and inspired by that she started studying painting. Hartigan was introduced to Abstract Expressionism by her teacher.
In order to escape prejudices concerning women artists, Hartigan sometimes exhibited her paintings under the name George. She wanted the audience and critics to focus on her art and not on her gender. Her works frequently showed scenes from New York’s daily life and carried a social commentary on gender inequality. Apart from that, she was inspired by medical illustration. She also collected publications and atlases and interpreted them through the lens of abstract painting.
5. Elaine de Kooning
Much of Elaine de Kooning’s oeuvre consists of abstract portraits. She portrayed many influential people, like John F. Kennedy for example. Many of her portraits, however, show no faces at all, and yet they are still recognizable. De Kooning explained this when commenting on her portrait of the poet Frank O’Hara: First I painted the whole structure of his face, then I wiped out the face, and when the face was gone, it was more Frank than when the face was there. Just like her husband Willem de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists, Elaine de Kooning was looking for something beneath the surface of the visual, and successfully conveyed it in her works.
6. Helen Frankenthaler: Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting
Helen Frankenthaler, a daughter of a New York State Supreme Court Judge, came from a very privileged background. Her parents encouraged her artistic pursuits and sent her to experimental art schools. Working and exhibiting for more than six decades, Frankenthaler never stopped her artistic style from developing. Unlike other Abstract Expressionists, the artist was finding inspiration for her works in natural landscapes.
Frankenthaler became the inventor of the so-called soak-stain method. First, she thinned the oil paint so it became liquid and then poured it over the unprimed canvas so that it would absorb into the fabric. The watercolor effect produced by such stains became one of her signature elements. She was also one of the pioneers of Color Field Painting.
7. Perle Fine
Although Perle Fine was trained in the tradition of illustration and graphic design, her artistic development was fueled by trips to New York museums. Here, she copied the Cubist works of Pablo Picasso and many others. She also, like many other Abstract Expressionists, closely studied the works of Piet Mondrian and his use of colored tape. That influence paired with Fine’s fascination with Cubist collages resulted in works that consisted of pieces of wood and tape constructed over the painted surface. At some point, Fine herself became a close friend of Mondrian, learning his art theories firsthand. In her later years, Fine became nearly forgotten, since many galleries refused to show works by women artists.
8. Judith Godwin
Judith Godwin was born into a well-known family with roots going all the way back to the first settlers of the Virginia colony. Godwin’s father was interested in gardening and landscape design, which fueled her interest in art. While she was trying to become a successful artist, Godwin had to come up with various ways to support herself financially. So, she worked as a landscape designer, interior decorator, stonemason, and carpenter. Godwin was independent and persistent even before her career started. During her university years, she convinced the dean to allow women to wear jeans on campus. Godwin was heavily interested in Zen Buddhism, due to the influence of her close friend, Japanese American painter Kenzo Okada. Over the years, Godwin’s style became more and more complex, with the artist using her intuition as the primary tool when creating compositions.
9. Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell was one of the most successful women of Abstract Expressionism during her lifetime, with her first solo exhibition held in 1952. Well-versed in literature and poetry, Mitchell managed to bring this knowledge into her paintings. Not only did she make abstract prints inspired by poems, but her works also maintained a poetry-like rhythm of line and color. In the late 1950s, Mitchell permanently moved to France where she continued painting until her death in 1992. Her later works were influenced by her years-long battle with cancer.
10. Michael West, the Forgotten Heroine of Abstract Expressionism
Michael West, born Corinne West, was one of the most remarkable, yet completely forgotten artists associated with Abstract Expressionism. In her own words, her main artistic idea was to open the door to a spiritual world through the creative fire of art. Apart from being an incredibly gifted artist, West also wrote her own notes on art history and theory. Like Grace Hartigan, West also changed her name to the male moniker ‘Michael’ in an attempt to reduce prejudice. However, that did not help, and for years she was known as a partner of the painter Arshile Gorky, whom she refused to marry six times, preferring to stay independent. In fact, art historians were able to learn more about West because of the letters she received from Gorky.