What AbEx Women Can Teach Us about Today’s Gold Rush for Female Artists
November 6, 2018 - Artsy, Mary Gabriel
In socioeconomic terms, the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York can be divided into two eras: the first featuring obscurity and poverty, and the second, fortune and fame. But there was very little by way of a transitional bridge between those two periods, which made the arrival of a flood of cash and notoriety in the mid-1950s oddly destabilizing for the artists working in New York. As their colleague, the writer Harold Rosenberg, said, “They lost their minds.…It was the money. Just like schmucks in Hollywood. This hit them much too strong and much too organized.”
Although Rosenberg was talking about Abstract Expressionism men, quite remarkably, the art-market gold rush he described hit some female artists just as hard, and just as quickly.
By 1954, Grace Hartigan, for example, had accomplished a most improbable rise to art-world stardom. At the age of 32, and after painting professionally for a mere five years, her work hung in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was fêted in both the art press and in mass-media publications from Newsweek to Glamour. She had had several solo gallery shows while some men, many years her senior, had had none. And she had earned serious money by the standards of those times: In 1954, she sold $5,500 worth of work (or $52,000 in today’s money), just short of the $7,000 veteran Willem de Kooning made the same year. Hartigan occupied uncharted territory for a female artist: She was at the top.
What had made Hartigan so irresistible was not merely her art, but her person. She was a previously unheard-of species: A strong, self-made, successful American woman and artist, one who smoked, wore paint-splattered jeans, and spoke with a New Jersey accent. She wasn’t exceptional or a kook, as women who painted or sculpted had been characterized through the ages. Readers and gallery-goers recognized themselves in her, and that made the cutting-edge art she produced seem both more accessible and more daring. Ever attuned to the latest fashion, the market lapped it up.
Hartigan, followed by her peers Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, was discovered just as the often-impulsive and fickle art market—the market that we have inherited—was born.
Photo Credit: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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