Few art movements are as synonymous with the image of a paint-splattered male painter than abstract expressionism. Some of art history’s most radical masculine personalities emerged from the period, in which the physicality of the works echoed the ever-present “cult of manhood.” Female abstract expressionists adopted pseudonyms, positioning their work as genderless — often leading to deeply personal conflicts with their roles as women, artists, and occasionally, the wives of the movement’s most celebrated figures. Few were accepted into the circle of men, and most weren’t recognized until their deaths. Continuing our series about female artists, we revisit the work and careers of ten abstract expressionists whose contributions are essential to the movement and whose struggle for legitimacy paved the way for women in the arts.
She danced with John Travolta at the White House in the ’80s, became known as one half of the “golden couple” with former husband Robert Motherwell in the ‘60s, and had her first solo exhibition in the ‘50s — praised by New York art world figures like Clement Greenberg. Helen Frankenthaler’s lyrical abstractions are large-scale and stunning to behold — and her influence is unmistakable. She elaborated on a technique adopted by Jackson Pollock, painting directly onto unprepared canvas (on the floor) with turpentine-diluted paint. She made oils look like watercolors. This new “stain” method helped to shape the Color Field movement and was influenced by a trip to Nova Scotia, after which she created 1952’s Mountains and Sea. “The landscapes were in my arms as I did it,” she stated. “I didn’t realize all that I was doing. I was trying to get at something — I didn’t know what until it was manifest.” When asked about her thoughts on being a woman in a male-dominated scene, she stated: “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue. I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”