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The Big Idea

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

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The Other Art History: The Gay, Lesbian, and Female Abstract Expressionists (Part II)
Bernice Bing. Image via the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project.

In the words of the New Yorker’s art critic Calvin Tomkins, “the leading artists of Pollock’s and de Kooning’s generation had been, almost without exception, aggressively male, hard-drinking, and heterosexual.” A lot of that’s totally true, particularly of those artists hanging around the Cedar in Greenwich Village and living off 10th Street. I mean, Jackson Pollock literally died in a car crash while driving his mistress and her friend in the Hamptons completely drunk. But just because art history remembers Abstract Expressionism predominantly as an expression of an existentially tortured male libido, that doesn’t mean they were the only ones out there expressing themselves, you know... abstractly. 

In its simplest, least expository terms, Abstract Expressionism (often abbreviated "AbEx") is a movement defined by its commitment to art as the purest expression of the self. Regarded as the first modern American art movement, establishing New York as the new center of the art world, it took the philosophies of European Surrealism—prioritizing impulse, gesture, and the subconscious—and ran wild. Given how broad and how universally applicable these terms are to humanity in general, it seems a little strange that they be claimed by and credited almost entirely to machismo.

It’s especially strange when you consider the fact that one of the leading proponents of Abstract Expressionism was artist and gallerist Betty Parsons; a very influential lesbian woman. Last week, in Part I, we explained how the Betty Parsons Gallery championed not only the leading male artists of the AbEx movement, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, but also worked tirelessly to promote the careers of underrepresented artists—namely women, and LGBTQ artists. From artists like Alfonso Ossorio, who utilized the anarchic energy encouraged by Abstract Expressionism to express his homosexuality in a way that was intimate but not explicit, to Agnes Martin, whose incredibly quiet and subdued canvases sought inner reverie and joy in silence, the Betty Parsons Gallery was devoted to all artists who possessed what Parsons called “The New Spirit.”

Continuing the legacy of Parsons’s inclusive attitude, we bring you Part II of the gay, lesbian, and female Abstract Expressionists and present seven more artists who absolutely represent that “New Spirit” of AbEx. In the words of art historian Josef Helfenstein describing the work of Hedda Sterne (listed below), “When the heroic male narratives of modernism begin to fade, we may, eventually, be ready to recognize this amazingly idiosyncratic body of work.”


BERNICE BING

bernice bingBernice Bing, late 1950s. Image via Blog City Lights.

Though much of the Abstract Expressionist movement is historically focused around New York, there was also a vibrant and vital scene in the San Francisco Bay area, producing artists like Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner, and Fred Martin, working in direct conversation with the burgeoning Beat movement. Among those West Coast Abstract Expressionists was Bernice Bing. Often going by her childhood nickname “Bingo,” Bernice Bing was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown to Chinese-American parents, and raised predominantly by Caucasian foster families after her mother died when she was six years old. Growing up with limited exposure to her Asian heritage, when she came under the artistic tutelage of Japanese-born abstract painter Saburo Hasegawa at the California College of Arts and Crafts, it sparked Bing’s interest in her own identity as an Asian American lesbian woman.  

For Bing, this new spirit of Abstract Expressionism represented a way for her to rebel against a middle-class, white, heteronormative upbringing. According to a 1999 essay published by the Queer Cultural Council, Bing began to “re-define her sense of identity in opposition to the prescribed ‘normalcy’ of white middle class foster homes and the orphanage in which she was raised after her mother's death—as well as against traditional gender/cultural expectations of her extended Chinese family in California.” Combining Western abstraction with the Eastern philosophies and poetry of Po Chu-i, Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu, Shakyamuni, and Wang Hsi-chih, Bing was able to develop a language of abstraction that was existentially her own.

Throughout the 1980s, Bing began devoting much of her practice to studying traditional calligraphy and incorporating its discipline and meditative aspects into her abstract work. One of Bernice Bing’s boldest works is a witty drawing titled Cuntry from 1988 that is ostensibly a tree with wild, energetic limbs. The title, however, draws attention to the frenetic tree’s unmistakably vaginal form. “Trees in California,” wrote Bing about her work, “are very exciting in the way they grow, in the mystery behind their growth, in how the branches stretch out. There are extraordinary structures within each tree that are very attractive to my painting style in calligraphic abstract terms. Also, I have been experimenting... in allowing the unconscious mind to bring forth imagery as the picture begins to give an indication of its own life."

Along with being a powerful visual artist (her peers remember her fondly as “a painter’s painter”), Bernice Bing was also a prominent and prodigious community arts activist. Among her many contributions, in 1968, Bing was invited by the director of the National Endowment for the Arts to speak on a panel devising new ways to engage people of color in contemporary art. Out of that discussion, funding was granted to the San Francisco Arts Commission to develop the Neighborhood Arts Program, which Bing co-organized from 1969-71. Bing also established an arts workshop in conjunction with a local Chinatown gang after gang rivalry exploded in gun violence, leaving 5 dead and 11 injured (none of whom were gang affiliated) at the Golden Dragon Restaurant in 1977. Bing worked with the Wah Ching gang to create an arts workshop for adolescent boys to channel their energies. She also co-founded SCRAP (Scroungers’ Center for Reusable Art Parts), directed the South of Market Cultural Center, and was a participating member of women’s arts organizations including Rural Women’s Resources Inc., Women’s Caucus for the Arts, the Asian American Women’s Artist Association, and Lesbian Visual Artists.

Remembered throughout the artistic community as a powerful and prolific creator and community organizer, Bernice Bing was also a legendary drinker and dancer. Her legacy as such even inspired a drink at the local Cellar Bar: a martini made with 151 proof rum called “The Bingotini.” She is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Women’s Caucus for Art, and is collected by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, as well as the Crocker Art Museum. She is also the subject of a 2013 documentary titled, “The World of Bernice Bing,” co-produced by the Asian American Women Artists Association and Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, and directed by Madeleine Lim.


DOROTHY DEHNER

dorothy dehner

Untitled [MR21] (1964). Image via Michael Rosenfeld Art.


When Dorothy Dehner received the first solo retrospective of her sculptural work at the Jewish Museum in 1965, the Abstract Expressionist had only been sculpting for ten years. Despite the fact that she’d always been infatuated with the medium, her late arrival to it is largely attributed to a long and tumultuous marriage to the more widely known sculptor David Smith. Prior to their separation in 1951, Dehner and Smith had lived and worked out of an old farmhouse in Bolton’s Landing in New York’s Adirondacks for nearly 20 years which Dehner would later describe as having been full of “great elation and great sorrow.” 

While Smith had his own studio, Dehner painted at a small table in a corner of the house. Despite the fact that Smith would often seek out Dehner’s opinions about his work and would frequently ask her to title his pieces (Dehner, along with being a remarkable visual artist, was also a gifted poet), Smith was unsupportive and belittling when it came to Dehner’s work. “Occasionally, when he saw a drawing he liked, he would say, ‘That’s kinda good,’” recalled Dehner in a 1990 interview with the Washington Post. “‘I’ll give you nickel for that.’”

Once, Smith had even completely ripped off one of Dehner’s drawings. When Smith saw the little abstract rendering, he’d told Dehner that it’d make a good sculpture. Dehner, excited by the possibility of finally seeing one of her works rendered in three dimensions, suggested that they collaborate on one. Smith refused, citing his own jealousy and then proceeded to produce the sculpture himself, never crediting her for inspiration. Smith was also prone to violent outbursts, and after refusing to go to therapy and after one final blowup, Dehner left Smith and Bolton’s Landing for good at 50 years old.

Less than four years later, Dehner began creating her first sculptural works. Though many critics insisted (and still insist) on comparing her sculptures to Smith’s, Dehner’s works differ mightily both in form and practice. In adopting the traditional lost-wax method of casting (as opposed to Smith’s method of direct welding), Dehner’s works are able to take on beautifully nuanced textural qualities that serve as the fore of her work’s “Surreal lyricism.” Dehner would marry a very supportive publisher by the name of Ferdinand Mann in 1955, and continued to create sculptures for the next 40 years, up until her death in 1994 at the age of 92. Even after an errant prescription rendered her blind in 1991, within two years, Dehner had figured out a way to collaborate with her fabricator and continue sculpting. She has received retrospectives as the Jewish Museum, the Katonah Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Hyde Collection. Her work is on permanent display at Storm King Arts Center in New York and is in the collections of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MoMA, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 

FORREST BESS

forrest bessView of Maya (1951). Image via the Hammer Museum.


In a 1999 documentary on the life of the obscure painter Forrest Bess, Willem Dafoe gives voice to the solitary Texas eccentric from a letter penned to Betty Parsons: “Art,” says Bess via Dafoe, “is a search for beauty. Not a superficial beauty, but a very deep longing for a uniting of all lost parts. I came here to find something and at long last, I can finally see what it is.” It’s difficult to categorize the painter Forrest Bess in any simple terms. Even with regard to sexuality, Bess described himself as a “peculiar type of homosexual.” Though his artworks aren’t generally included in the Abstract Expressionist canon, his paintings were frequently shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery contemporary to the likes of Pollock, Ryan, Martin, and Newman and his philosophies of self-actualization through abstraction are very much in line with the movement. Still, it wasn’t until nearly a decade after his death in 1977 (at the age of 66) that Bess began to receive real institutional recognition.

Much of that has to do with the fact that, along with living a life of isolation (his Texas home was on a small strip of land, accessible only by boat), most of what people remember about Bess is his self-administered sex surgery; the physical manifestation of his anatomical manifesto. Throughout the 1950s, Bess became obsessed with Australian aboriginal theories on immortality, particularly with the ritual of pseudo-hermaphroditic alteration. So possessed by this idea was Bess that in 1955, he underwent a procedure that created an opening beneath his penis at its junction with the scrotum, theoretically allowing Bess to achieve a female orgasm and “the ultimate, eternally rejuvenating form of sexual intercourse.” Many of his anatomical theories are documented in his correspondences with Betty Parsons, art historian Meyer Schapiro, and sex researcher Dr. John Mooney. Bess’s theories, of course, never granted him the immortality that he’d hoped for. What has given Bess life beyond the grave, however, are his paintings.

In 1981, the Whitney Museum of Art revived Bess’ work in a solo show curated by Barbara Haskell, who wrote, “Indeed, this painter's direct, almost primitive images, loaded with symbolic meaning and emotional content, are finding echoes in the so-called New Image painters. It may be that the show at the Whitney is the first step toward readdressing the import of his work.” Characterized by their unsettling sense of tension and pressure, Bess’s paintings are not the product of some intellectual or abstract aim. “These paintings are not comfortable,” writes Michael Brenson in a 1988 review in the New York Times. “They are not about painting.” What Bess painted were his own alchemical visions that came to him every night before he went to sleep. Bess approached his canvases with unquestioning confidence and assuredness—this was his truth, uncompromising and undeniable. “Bess knew where something had to be placed and how it had to be placed there,” continues Brenson. “His lines are more than lines, his circles more than circles. Although he was not a narrative painter, his gift of evocation is a storyteller's gift.”

Working as a commercial fisherman selling bait, Bess painted in his spare time out of his studio in Chinquapin, Texas. Remembered locally as the town eccentric, Bess, through his work, went on to gain recognition since his posthumous 1981 show at the Whitney. In 1988, Hirschl & Adler Modern exhibited over 61 of his canvases and in 1999, Bess was the subject of the aforementioned documentary Forrest Bess: Key to the Riddle, directed by Ari Marcopoulos. In 2012, the sculptor Robert Gober curated an exhibition of Bess’s work as part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial and in 2013, the Menil Collection presented “Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible” as a museum retrospective. Though most of his works are in private collections, his paintings have also been collected by institutions including Houston’s Menil Collection, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the MoMA, and the Whitney.

 

HELEN FRANKENTHALER 

helen frankenthalerBasque Beach (1958). Image via WikiArt.

 

“A really good picture,” as Helen Frankenthaler famously stated, “looks as if it's happened at once.” Most frequently cited as the sole exception to the rule of the AbEx boys’ club, Frankenthaler was among the movement’s most innovative painters, developing a soak-stain technique that would become one of the key inspirations in the development of Color Field painting. The technique, which involved thinning her oil paints with turpentine and using window wipers, sponges, and charcoal outlines to manipulate the pools of paint, was developed around 1952 when Frankenthaler was working on her breakthrough canvas, Mountains and Sea. The piece would have an enormous impact on artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis who quickly adopted Frankenthaler’s methods. For Louis, and likely Noland as well, Frankenthaler represented “the bridge from Pollock to what was possible.”

Prior to Mountains and Sea, Frankenthaler had been studying under Hans Hoffman and had already had her first solo show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York in 1951. She’d also been included in the landmark show, “9th Street Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture.” Only 24 at the time, Frankenthaler’s talent had already been spotted by the likes of Clement Greenberg who championed her work throughout her 60-year career. Greenberg would also be the one to introduce Frankenthaler to those first generation AbEx artists, including Jackson Pollock, whose spirit of artistic independence and rebellion resonated with Frankenthaler deeply, and Robert Motherwell, whom she would marry in 1958 (and divorce in 1971). By 1960, Frankenthaler received her first museum retrospective at The Jewish Museum.

Frequently dismissed as being “merely beautiful,” what Frankenthaler had to say about beauty offers a perfect rebuttal. In a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, Frankenthaler explains how “today, in many ways, beauty is obsolete and not the main concern of art. But you can’t prove beauty. It’s there as a fact. You know it, and you feel it, and it’s real… it gives no specific message other than itself, which in turn should be able to move you into some sort of truth and insight.”

In her decades-long career, Frankenthaler worked tirelessly to produce vital and exciting work, ceaselessly challenging herself and constantly experimenting. She has created works in sculpture, ceramics, and tapestry, and has even designed and built sets and costumes for the New York City Ballet. Her work in printmaking in the 1970s was a critical presence in the medium’s mid-century “print renaissance,” particularly her work in woodcuts which were able to achieve that quintessential Frankenthaler immediacy of image. One of the most distinguished and prolific artists of her generation, Frankenthaler’s work has been the subject of countless exhibitions, with major retrospectives held at the Whitney (which was followed by a European tour), the Guggenheim, the MoMA, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington to name a few. She received the National Medal of Arts in 2001, served on the National Council on the Arts of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1985 to 1992, was the Vice-Chancellor for the American Academy of Arts and Letters from 1974-1991, and in 2011, was appointed an Honorary Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. She passed away that year, at the age of 83.

 

[related-works-module] 

 


HEDDA STERNE

hedda sterneYellow Structure (1952). Image via the Hedda Sterne Foundation.

On May 20, 1950, 18 painters and 10 sculptors signed an open letter to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, protesting their aesthetically conservative jury. In an iconic press photograph taken of the signatories, 15 of the 28 participant artists are present, including Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Ad Reinhardt. It also included Hedda Sterne, who stands towering over the mass of men as the sole woman represented in the group dubbed “The Irascible 18.” Though she was not the only woman to sign the document (it also included Louise Bourgeois and Mary Callery), much of Hedda Sterne’s legacy has been limited to that photograph. “I am more known for that darn photo,” remarked Sterne, in her later years, “than for 80 years of work.”

Part of the reason why Sterne has been overlooked in art historical narratives is the fact that, despite being the last surviving artist from the first generation of New York Abstract Expressionists at the time of her death, Sterne was wary of labels. “I believe that -isms and other classifications are misleading and diminishing,” remarked Sterne. “What entrances me in art is what cannot be entrapped in words.” This attitude of canonical exclusion, along with her disinterest in the commercially driven art world, made for a particularly hard-to-categorize, and astonishingly varied collection of work. “Sterne’s art is,” wrote art historian Josef Helftenstein in 2006, “a manifesto in favor of the untamable forces of the mind and the continually changing flux of life.” 

Born and raised in Romania, Sterne did not move to the United States until a little after the outbreak of WWII in 1941. Prior to that, the young Sterne had already begun establishing a name for herself in the European avant-garde, studying with artists such as Fernand Léger and André Lhote, and becoming close friends with the Surrealist Victor Brauner. Her work in collage during this period was particularly innovative, having had invented her own unique style and method of automatism in the medium. These early works gained the admiration of the Dada-ist Hans Arp and were also included in the Société des Artistes Indépendants' 50th annual Salon des Indépendants.

After moving to New York, Sterne became close with Peggy Guggenheim, who lived down the block on Beekman Place. By 1943, Sterne’s work became part of Guggenheim’s regular rotation of artists exhibiting at her seminal Art of This Century gallery. It was also around this time that Sterne met the celebrated illustrator Saul Steinberg, who she would eventually marry in 1944, divorce in 1960, and remain close with up until his death in 1999. After her time with the Irascibles throughout the ‘50s, Sterne went on to become a Fulbright Fellow and created works that explored visual perception, semiotics, existentialism, and meditation. Along with Guggenheim’s establishments, Sterne’s work was also exhibited frequently by Betty Parsons. By 1977, Sterne received her first retrospective, exhibited at the Montclair Art Museum. In 1985, the Queens Museum held the second retrospective of her work, titled “Hedda Sterne: Forty Years.” Sterne would continue to create work up until her death in 2011, at 100 years old.

 

JOAN MITCHELL

joan mitchellJoan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio, August 1983. Image via the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

Part of the second generation of the movement, the American painter Joan Mitchell would often refer to herself as “the last Abstract Expressionist.” Coming to the fore in the 1950s, unlike many of her contemporaries, Mitchell rejected the popular AbEx tenant of flatness, embracing the traditional relationships of figure and ground, often referring to landscapes to create her tense, frenetic canvases. "I want to paint the feeling of a space,” said Mitchell. “It might be an enclosed space, it might be a vast space. It might be an object working with Hans Hofmann's phrase ‘push and pull,’ the structure, the light, the space, the color." Her expansive works often cover multiple panels and are typically painted on unprimed canvas. Her marks are bold and raw and have frequently been described as violent.

One of the few women included into the mainstream folds of Abstract Expressionism, Mitchell was a regular at the infamous Cedar Street Tavern where she befriended the likes of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. In 1951, her work was exhibited in the iconic “Ninth Street Show” alongside artists like Jackson Pollock and Hans Hofmann. By 1952, with the exhibition of her first solo show at The New Gallery, Mitchell’s career as an artist had become established, earning her critical success and yearly exhibitions at the Stable Gallery.

Throughout Mitchell’s career, she split her time between New York and Paris. Having established herself in New York City’s art scene, by 1959, Mitchell decided to move to France permanently where she settled into a beautiful two-acre property overlooking the Seine, not far from Monet’s Giverny estate. It was here that Mitchell’s work began to shift to focus toward more natural motifs and became more and more expansive, spreading themselves onto as many as four panels.

In 1988, Mitchell received her first retrospective—she likened the experience as having been “art-historized alive.” Passing away in 1992, Mitchell’s work has since received major museum retrospectives at institutions such as the Whitney, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the Phillips Collection. Her work is part of major institutional collections, including the MoMA, the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Walker Art Center, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian, and the Hirschhorn Museum. In 2014, an untitled 1960 painting by Mitchell sold for $11.9 million, not only setting the auction record for the artists work but also setting the record for the highest amount bid on any work of art by a female artist. While that position was eventually usurped by Georgia O’Keeffe later that year, Mitchell’s legacy has been one of lasting import. The Joan Mitchell Foundation has awarded grants and stipends to artists since 1993, supporting the work of Nicole Eisenman, Glenn Ligon, Sarah Morris, Nyame Brown, and Mark Dion to name a few.


LEE KRASNER

lee krasnerVernal Yellow (Spring Yellow) (1980). Image via Melanie Biehle.

To remember Lee Krasner merely as Jackson Pollock’s wife is to put blinders on any thorough understanding of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Not only was Krasner instrumental in establishing Pollock as an artist, introducing him to the likes of Willem de Kooning, Peggy Guggenheim, and Clement Greenberg, without whom Pollock might never have had a career; Krasner was also a prolific and immensely talented AbEx painter. Her self-criticality led her to destroy much of her work, particularly those canvases from the late 1940s and ‘50s, leading many to assume that Krasner had abandoned her own career in order to support Pollock. In fact, Krasner never stopped producing work.

Struggling to free herself from the trappings of being a woman artist, nevermind the wife of the most famous painter in America, Krasner’s work was rarely considered beyond its relation to Pollock’s. Recent scholarship has been working to amend this, however, within Krasner’s time, ARTnews had reviewed a 1949 exhibition that included both artists work titled “Artists: Man and Wife” thusly: "There is a tendency among some of these wives to 'tidy up' their husband's styles. Lee Krasner (Mrs. Jackson Pollock) takes her husband's paint and enamels and changes his unrestrained, sweeping lines into neat little squares and triangles." Worse still was a 1972 essay published by art critic B.H. Friedman who accused the surviving wives of late Abstract Expressionist painters of “artistic dependence on their male partners,” referring to them as “Action Widows.”

Throughout Krasner’s long artistic career, her work’s style was constantly in flux, always shifting modes of focus. Unlike most of her contemporaries who stuck to one aesthetic style of painting, Krasner’s oeuvre as a painter is expansive and experimental. Though very little survives of Krasner’s earlier work, what we do know is that seeing Pollock’s paintings in 1942 dramatically changed her cubist-influenced compositions into works that emphasized gesture, anti-figuration, and played with unnatural color schemes. Between 1946-1949, Krasner created over 40 paintings in a series called Little Images. These modestly sized works utilized webbed imagery, mosaics, or hieroglyphics in order to achieve an all-over approach to her canvases. After her Little Images phase, Krasner moved on to experiment with automatic painting, creating hybridized black and white figures throughout 1950. These monochromatic works were exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery later that year, making it Krasner’s first solo show since 1945. Even these works, however, were destroyed by Krasner shortly after their exhibition in favor of her color field paintings. These, in turn, would become fodder for her collages. After Pollock’s tragic death in 1956, Krasner continued to create more and more ambitious works, continuing to experiment with different palettes, forms, and techniques.

While Krasners’ works garnered some critical recognition in their day, it wasn’t until the rise of the feminist movement in the late ‘60s that art historians began to re-evaluate her role in the Abstract Expressionist movement as both an innovative painter and an uncompromising and fantastic critic who was enormously influential on both Pollock and Clement Greenberg. The first retrospective of her work was held at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1965. Krasner continued to create bold and innovative works as an Abstract Expressionist until her death in 1984, at the age of 75. The MoMA held a retrospective of her work later that year, making her one of four women (including the aforementioned Helen Frankenthaler) to receive such an honor from the institution. Her work is collected by nearly every major cultural institution, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MoMA, the National Gallery, and the Whitney.

 
RELATED ARTICLES:

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

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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