Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Grace Hartigan in 1957. (Photo: Burt Glinn/Magnum)
Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel is more than a well deserved highlighting of the lives and careers of these five iconic female artists. Gabriel tells their story within the larger social/cultural/historical narrative, from the 1930s through the 1950s, as Abstract Expressionism moved the center of gravity in contemporary art from Paris to New York.
This was a heady time for artists who went from cold water flats and ignominious poverty to international stardom. Most of the celebritism was reserved for men like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. But these five women, among many others, played a significant role in bringing this cultural moment to fruition even if their stories are less well known. What is clear is that the discrimination they endured was multi-dimensional. Citing letters and journals, Gabriel exposes how these talented women were disregarded and overlooked by so many gallerists, collectors, critics, other artists (mostly male) and even by themselves.
It was tough back then. It is still tough, even if the world has morphed. What we have now is a new set of bads. (“Bad and better,” Hans Rosling‘s iconic phrase for describing life, is highlighted in a previous piece posted here.) Yes, many more women and people of color are recognized artists who exhibit and sell their work, but the “system”—for want of a better word—is still deeply flawed.
Art is a business, yes. But it is also the same arena where a mysterious creative process is happening that will always live outside the constructs of profitability and success. Jerry Saltz captures this in his description of Philip Guston as “an artist who foregoes easy answers, looks for and channels doubt and not knowing. An artist like this understands that he or she isn’t controlling their art—not really; that on some cosmic level art controls the artist.”
Meanwhile Saltz sees “artists everywhere trying to break through the fog of professionalism and careerism that have crept into the art world; the corporate carefulness that’s made too many painters make little moves in known directions; toe pre-approved formal lines; and make the system feel clogged up, static, sterile.”
One response to this is the line, “that’s just the way things are.” But that is a phrase that portends profound defeat, no matter what field it is describing. It signifies catastrophic capitulation to the worst in human relationships when it is uttered by characters in Milkman, the Man Booker prize winning novel by Anna Burns about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It signifies unconscionable retreat when offered as response to Anand Giridharadas‘s stunning and muscular book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, a highly researched exposé on the deeply flawed and yet ubiquitous thinking that private money is the answer to solving the world’s problems.
Giridharadas uses the phrase “marketworld” to describe these power brokers, a term that has its equivalency in the smaller demimonde of the visual arts that we commonly refer to as the “art world.” Working on a smaller scale, art world plutocrats manipulate markets, ideas and careers for personal gain. For many it is just a power game.
This rigging of the system is on full display in Nathaniel Kahn‘s recent film, The Price of Everything. By allowing industry influencers to just speak to the camera without narrative provocation or confrontation, Kahn exposes most of these powerful taste makers as painfully uninformed about art, blatantly venal and boorishly self serving.
Last year when the film was released, I attended a screening at a local theater. The evening included a panel of local artists and gallerists who were for the most part sincere, dedicated, hard working art denizens. Their response to the film was like my own: These people and the markets they are manipulating have nothing to do with what I do in my studio, day after day. One panelist said it left her feeling sick inside. Another said the only reasonable response was just to laugh at the absurdity. But to ignore the skewing influence of these forces seems like a slide into the abyss of “that’s just the way things are” thinking, and I don’t want to succumb to that place of powerless defeat.
Artists tend to be iconoclasts and transgressives, the kind of people who don’t do well in power hierarchies or rule-respecting environments. But at the same time there is an essential tension at play. As Hannah Gadsby so wisely points out in her Netflix special Nanette, artists don’t look like they care about power and money, but they do. They need support to do their work.
The way things are now doesn’t work well, particularly for artists who approach their work with a sincere devotion that is akin to a religious vocation. What they do has nothing to do with market forces, commercial acceptance and fandom. Their work comes first and foremost. What they fight for is the freedom to connect into that mysterious, unfettered creativity.
For people like this, art making is private, self-defined and mysterious. So where does that put them in the prevailing hierarchy where promotion is a celebrity making machine that often merchandises personalities even more than the art itself? Well, in most cases, it doesn’t have any place for them at all.
And yet the armature of power is inescapable. For those of us who imagine we are working and living outside of those oppressive hegemonies, the reality is otherwise. In her 1970 seminal essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” Jo Freeman exposes the myth of creating hierarchy-free environments:
Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion…This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones…Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and…is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules.
This reminds me of the frustratingly looped language around the statement, “I don’t care about fashion,” a phrase that then becomes the very definition of your fashion style. “No, wait!” is wasted. There is no escaping categorization, hard as you fight.
I was raised with the belief that it is bad form to bring up a problem unless you can offer a solution. Over the years I have learned that most of the really important problems are actually quite complex and cannot be fixed with obvious solutions. But these are also the problems that are particularly worthy of being discussed. Perhaps it is the tone with which one approaches these intractable circumstances that matters. Constant complaining is tedious. Humor and a lighter hand go farther.
While I am answerless on this “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (Winston Churchill), I can still “tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson.) So I close this unresolved issue with some words that bring me a sense of hope.
Nick Cave, well known for his outrageous soundsuits, is a wise person and a maker extraordinaire. He is an artist who has been able to navigate the waters of success while keeping the connection with his authenticity feeling fresh. I give the last word to him.
This is art through this vast vernacular of service…For years, I’ve always been sitting in silence—two, three hours, just sitting in silence. It allows me to also think about the importance of that within my existence. Can you imagine if we all had to do that every day?
The studio environment allows me to dream in this very complex dance and space of working with nothingness and making—this extraordinariness comes through and out of that space, of looking and feeling liberated and independent in this full range of gloriousness.
Nick Cave (Photos: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Seattle Times, Hyperallergic)