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The Other Art History: The Gay, Lesbian, and Female Abstract Expressionists (Part I)

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The Other Art History: The Gay, Lesbian, and Female Abstract Expressionists (Part I)
Beach Comber (1953) by Alfonso Ossorio. Image via Johnseed.

In our monthly series, "The Other Art History," we bring you the Other artists who have largely been excluded from our understanding of movements throughout art history.

In 1944, as Abstract Expressionism began to coalesce in cities like New York and San Francisco, American painter Barnett Newman began to articulate this new American sensibility with a list of “the men in the new movement.” Clement Greenberg’s iconic 1955 essay on Abstract Expressionism (or "AbEx") didn’t do much better, maintaining the exclusion of anyone who wasn’t male or lived outside of New York. The poet Frank O’Hara, who was openly gay, was appalled by the rampant homophobia on display at The Cedar—the notorious AbEx hangout in New York’s Greenwich Village. Lee Krasner, one of the movements most influential painters (also Jackson Pollock’s wife), found the bar to be unbearable: “I loathed the place,” she said, “the women were treated like cattle.”  

According to Calvin Tomkins, art critic for The New Yorker, “the leading artists of Pollock’s and de Kooning’s generation had been, almost without exception, aggressively male, hard-drinking, and heterosexual.” Art historian Caroline A. Jones echoes that sentiment in an essay titled “Finishing School: John Cage and the Abstract Expressionist Ego,” wherein she explains how the movement became a celebration of “the masculine solitary whose staunchly heterosexual libido drove his brush.”  

This was a post-war America, thick in the midst of McCarthyist paranoia, and whose hero was the unshakeable “anti-intellectual man of action.” When the August 1949 issue of LIFE magazine rhetorically asked the American public whether Jackson Pollock was “the greatest living painter in the United States,” simple, all-American machismo was the hook, selling the American public on the idea that Abstract Expressionism embodied the triumph of the individual male spirit. Jackson Pollock became the movement’s Lone Ranger—a solitary, haphazard, tortured, and triumphant man’s man.

Like much of history, our retrospective cultural narratives are predominantly told from the position of privilege, often to the exclusion of the oppressed and the marginalized who are left to navigate a history that continually posits them as the Other. In this monthly series, "The Other Art History," we bring you those Other artists who have largely been excluded (or perhaps more accurately, occluded) from our understanding of movements throughout art history. Today, we'll review the oft-overlooked non-male, non-heterosexual, and non-machismo touting proponents of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

As it turns out, rebellion, anarchy, emotional intensity, and an appeal to subconscious thought are not exclusively straight male traits. Abstract Expressionism may have been historically celebrated for its masculinity, but it’s about time we understand it as having always been much more than that. Stay tuned next week for Part II!
     

 

BETTY PARSONS
betty parsonsThe artist and gallerist Betty Parsons. Image via Alexander Gray.

Despite the fact that Abstract Expressionism is so often celebrated for its projected masculinity, the movement would have been nothing had it not been for the generous patronage and cultural ingenuity of one openly lesbian woman by the name of Betty Parsons. One of the earliest proponents of the movement, Parsons was once referred to as “the den mother of Abstract Expressionism.” Her midtown gallery, which opened in 1946, quickly became one of the most prestigious and daring galleries in New York, giving Abstract Expressionist artists their first large-scale exposures. By 1948, the Betty Parsons Gallery was representing Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, the four of whom Parsons would affectionately refer to as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

As Abstract Expressionism grew to become America’s first major art movement, Betty Parsons used the platform of her auspicious gallery to promote the works of artists that had so often been overlooked in favor of straight, white men. Highlighting the works of women and LGBTQ artists, Parsons was constantly on the lookout for what she called the “New Spirit.” Over the next thirty years, the Betty Parsons Gallery would come to represent othered artists like Anne Ryan, Agnes Martin, Hedda Sterne, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Alfonso Ossorio, and Forrest Bess, launching their careers and legitimizing their work.

When Betty Parsons wasn’t working tirelessly to promote the brave new works of pioneering artists, she herself was creating artworks. In fact, the Betty Parsons Gallery was always closed during the summers so that Parsons could devote the time to her own work. “She was genuinely crazy about art,” said art critic Hilton Kramer of Parsons. “It was her whole life.”

In 1981, New York Mayor Ed Koch honored Parsons among seven others for their “extraordinary contributions to the cultural life of New York City. Passing away a year later at 82 years old, Betty Parsons is remembered as being an incomparably altruistic and open-minded gallerist; one who was always encouraging and caring and never refusing a walk-in artist with work to show. Though she is famously quoted as having said, “I give them walls. They do the rest,” had it not been for the Betty Parsons Gallery, AbEx might have never gained significant cultural traction.

RELATED ARTICLE: Dealer Betty Parsons Pioneered Male Abstract Expressionists—But Who Were the Unrecognized Women Artists She Exhibited?

 

ALFONSO OSSORIO 

alfonso ossorioBaby Collector (1950). Image via Johnseed.

To most, Filipino American artist Alfonso Ossorio was a dilettante; a Sunday painter at best. This, however, precludes most from understanding the close relationship Ossorio maintained with both Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet, the influences they had on one another’s work, as well as Ossorio’s influence on abstraction in the Philippines and in Spain. The heir to a Filipino sugar plantation fortune, Ossorio was not only Pollock’s peer as a painter, he was also one of Pollock’s most important patrons. By 1952, the two were practically neighbors, with Ossorio and his partner Ted Dragon purchasing a 57-acre East Hampton estate known as “the Creeks.”

Discovered by Betty Parsons, he had his first show featuring his Surrealist-influenced works at New York’s Wakefield Gallery in 1940 at just 24 years old. Following a gruesome stint as a medical illustrator in the army (he was often tasked with having to draw surgical procedures, sketching from a ladder, looking down as surgeons operated on injured soldiers), Ossorio took a much-needed vacation in the Berkshires. It was there, sketching flowers at Tanglewood Music Festival, that Ossorio met a 25-year-old ballet dancer named Edward (Ted) Dragon, who was peacefully picking nosegays. The two remained together until Ossorio’s death in 1990.

It was also around this time that Ossorio first became acquainted with Jackson Pollock’s work, by way of Parsons. He purchased a painting soon after, kindling a close and long-lasting friendship. “Calling Ossorio an Abstract Expressionist—which at times he certainly was—creates a problem for art historians who see AbEx as a heroic American enterprise,” explains a 2016 profile on Ossorio, written by The Huffington Post. “Indeed, Pollock’s drip-based automatism gave Ossorio tools to access and grapple with his personal wounds and fantasies.”

As a gay Filipino American from a strict Catholic family, Ossorio was able to use Pollock’s drips and anarchic energy to express his own inner tumults in ways that were intimate but not explicit. Recent scholarship of Pollock’s work even suggests that the Black Pourings of Pollock’s later years bear striking resemblance to Ossorio’s early, semi-figurative pieces. Meanwhile, in Paris, Jean Dubuffet was so taken by Ossorio’s works from the early 1950s that the French artist developed an entirely new form of art writing in order to describe the small, luminous drawings known as the “Victorias Drawings.” Made using Ossorio’s experimental drawing technique of wax-resistant crayon on Tiffany & Co. stationary, the works in this series are counted as some of Ossorio’s most innovative. A 2013 exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. titled “Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet” traces the exchange between these three artists as they explored the chaos from which all form originates.


AGNES MARTIN

agnes martinI Love the Whole World (1999). Image via Tate.

While a 1966 group exhibition at the Guggenheim titled “Systemic Painting” celebrated Agnes Martin’s work as examples of Minimalist art, Martin herself preferred to be classified as an Abstract Expressionist. Though ostensibly minimalist, the small flaws and unmistakable traces of the artist’s hand, as well as the spirit in which these works were made are quite different from the cold, intellectual yearnings of the Minimalists. Heavily influenced by Taoism, Martin’s reductive means were a way to achieve spiritual ends. She praised Mark Rothko’s color field paintings for having “reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth.” While Rothko pared his canvases down to bold, expansive color to achieve transcendence, Martin worked with lines, grids, and extremely subtle color. Martin’s negation was one of spiritual quiet instead of reverie.

Dividing her time between New York City and the southwest, Martin was discovered by Betty Parsons in 1957 who convinced Martin to relocate permanently to New York. Part of the inclusive second wave of Abstract Expressionists represented by Parsons, Martin was friends and neighbors with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Ellsworth Kelly. They all lived and worked out of the Coenties Slip studio in lower Manhattan, making it a haven from the boys club scene of 10th Street. Martin was also close with Betty's original four horsemen. She was particularly close with Barnett Newman, who would often help install her shows and was a close confidant in the difficult years to come.

Shortly after her move to New York, Martin was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which subjected her to auditory hallucinations and catatonic trances. Along with struggling with this little understood mental illness (Martin was forced to undergo shock therapy sessions multiple times), Martin was also a deeply closeted lesbian. In 1967, after the death of fellow AbEx artist and friend Ad Reinhardt, and the planned demolition of her studio’s building, Agnes Martin gave away all her paint supplies and canvases and headed west in a pickup truck and camper, eventually settling in a remote area of New Mexico.

After a seven-year hiatus in painting, during which she built several adobe homes for herself and wrote poetry, Martin returned to the medium in 1974. In 1976, she made her directorial debut in the contemplative film Gabriel. It was Martin’s first and only attempt at filmmaking, though she remained fastidious in her search for artistic tranquility in both form and practice until her death in 2004. Her work has been widely celebrated and defined as “an essay in discretion on inwardness and silence,” and in 1998, Martin was awarded a National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts. Despite Martin’s adamant privacy—she destroyed all of her early works, and actively discouraged the publication of monographs about her art—her work has been exhibited in solo retrospectives at nearly every major institution around the world, including the Tate Modern, LACMA, and the Guggenheim.

[related-works]



ALMA THOMAS

alma thomasStarry Night and the Astronauts (1999). Image via the Art Institute of Chicago.


“The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” Such were the poignant, transcendent concepts behind the canvases of the first African American woman to receive a solo show at the Whitney. For the first 35 years of her professional career, Alma Thomas taught art at a segregated junior high school in Washington D.C. while constantly creating her own work on the side. During her career as an educator, Thomas started a community arts program that encouraged student appreciation of fine art through activities like marionette shows and card making workshops where students would design holiday cards for soldiers at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Medical Center.

When Thomas retired in 1960, she decided that she would devote herself entirely to her career as an artist. While much of her early work was representational, by the 1950s, Thomas began switching to abstract compositions under the tutelage of fellow African American artists James V. Herring and Lois Mailou Jones at Howard University. By the 1960s, Thomas had been introduced to the Color Field movement which was hugely influential to her work. Thomas’s first retrospective was held just six years later at her alma mater, Howard University and in 1972, the Whitney Museum of Art in New York exhibited her works in a solo show. Thomas was 80 years old.

Like all African American artists, identity presented itself as a double-edged sword for Thomas who insisted that the work speak for itself. By resisting being labeled as a black woman artist, Thomas received criticism for “her abstract style as opposed to other Black Americans who worked with figuration and symbolism to fight oppression.” However, despite what might appear to be a kind of blissful ignorance, what Thomas sought was the same type of artistic liberation that so many of her white, male contemporaries explored in their own work. By defying labels, Thomas insisted that her contributions be considered on equal terms as her more privileged contemporaries, and not within the terms of an identity that would so often be used to discredit her work.     

"Creative art is for all time and is therefore independent of time,” said Thomas. “It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race, and nationality; the statement may stand unchallenged." In 2015, the Obamas hung Thomas’s work Resurrection in the Old Family Dining Room in the White House, making it the first work by an African American woman to be shown in the building’s public quarters as part of its permanent collection. Her work has since been the subject of many posthumous retrospectives (Thomas passed away in 1978, just eight years after her historic show at the Whitney) at institutions including the Studio Museum in Harlem, Nasher Museum of Art in North Carolina, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art.



ANNE RYAN

anne ryanNumber 453 (1952). Image via Met Museum.  

Like Alma Thomas, it wasn’t until later in life that painter and mixed-media artist Anne Ryan hit her creative stride. In 1948, an exhibition of Kurt Schwitters’s collages sparked a fire in Ryan, who was 58 years old at the time, prompting her to produce over 400 collages over the next six years. "What he could do in such a small space,” wrote Ryan. “How he transformed bits of paper and scraps of cloth!"

According to art critic Deborah Solomon, Ryan’s immediate attraction to the medium of collage made perfect sense in light of her poetry. When Ryan came across Schwitters’ works, “she recognized the visual equivalent of her sonnets—discrete images packed together in an extremely compressed space.” Prior to her deep dive into collage, Ryan was both a writer and an artist. Working predominantly as a printmaker, she was a part of Atelier 17, a print studio that was crucial to the American and European avant-garde. She also painted, and designed costumes and sets for ballets. Still, it wasn’t until her encounter with Schwitters’ modest works that Ryan began to achieve some critical recognition.


A longtime resident of Greenwich Village, Ryan was in touch with many of the early Abstract Expressionists, including Pollock and Newman but found the large-scale format and brash philosophical implications of their work to be at odds with her own sensibilities. What Ryan saw in Schwitters’s work was an embrace of quotidien scraps, carefully arranged to give them poetic meaning. While Ryan didn’t necessarily subscribe to the popular formal elements of Abstract Expressionism, Ryan’s pieces do speak (though a bit more quietly and succinctly) to the spontaneous creation of something out of nothing. She, like so many of her male contemporaries, used her work to explore the existence of form from chaos.

Because of their modest scale and pastel color palette, Ryan’s collages were often critiqued in terms of their “feminine” qualities. Still, Ryan’s brief prolific practice granted her three solo exhibitions at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Had it not been for her death in 1954, it is feasible to assume that Ryan’s reputation in the Abstract Expressionist movement would have continued to skyrocket. Thanks to efforts by current contemporary artist Elizabeth McFadden (she is also Ryan’s daughter), Ryan’s contributions to AbEx have not been entirely forgotten. An exhibition of her collage work was shown at the Brooklyn Museum shortly after her death, later traveling to the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington DC, the Art Museum of South Texas, and the New Jersey State Museum. Her collages were also the subject of numerous solo shows up until the 1990s, including exhibitions at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Walker Art Center, and Marlborough Gallery. Ryan’s work is included in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Hischhorn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Montclair Art Museum, Walker Art Center, the Whitney, and Yale University Art Gallery to name a select few.


RELATED ARTICLES: 

The Other Art History: The Non-Western Women of Feminist Art

The Other Art History: The Overlooked Women of Surrealism

Dealer Betty Parsons Pioneered Male Abstract Expressionists—But Who Were the Unrecognized Women Artists She Exhibited?

What Was Abstract Expressionism? A Paint-Splattered Primer on America's First Major Art Movement

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