At the beginning of the 1950s—the pre-glory days of Abstract Expressionism—Elaine de Kooning was already well known in New York art circles, yet she and her husband, Willem, were still struggling financially as artists. By contrast, Andrew Wyeth, the rural Pennsylvanian realist painter (with a touch of surrealism), was thriving on Elaine de Kooning’s home turf. In 1949, Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948) was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art to considerable fanfare. De Kooning, moonlighting as a critic, published a generous appreciation of Wyeth in the March 1950 issue of ARTnews, calling him a “master of the magic-realist technique” and proclaiming his paintings were as “haunting as a train whistle in the night.” It was likely one of the last flattering things a member of the New York School and its critical coterie would say about the artistically traditional Wyeth.
Yet a changing of the guard was underway. In 1949, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings had garnered an adulatory article in Life (“Andrew Wyeth Paints a Picture”), and a November 1949 exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery led Willem de Kooning to later note that Pollock “broke the ice” for everyone in the modernist movement. In March 1951, a year after the Wyeth article, the Abstract Expressionists began to break through with the famous “Ninth Street Show” that featured a Who’s Who of modern art, including several female painters. That moment was central to Mary Gabriel’s 2018 book, Ninth Street Women, which celebrated the accomplishments of Elaine de Kooning and four other female artists: Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell.
This May, seventy years after the Ninth Street Show, an exhibition honoring these artists opened at Somerville Manning Gallery, an institution with strong ties to the Wyeth family of painters.1 Somerville Manning has also dealt in works by most of the Ninth Street women.
The showing is limited to a few pieces by each of Gabriel’s five women, which hang alongside works by six lesser-known contemporary artists, who have artistic ties to the Brandywine region and to the five New York artists, particularly Mitchell. At its heart, the exhibition reaffirms the importance of mentoring by association that has been critical in preserving and extending the influence of movements of major artists.
One of the local painters, Mary Page Evans, was friends with both Hartigan and Mitchell. She was a frequent visitor to Mitchell’s homes in France, where Mitchell lived after leaving New York in the 1950s until her death in 1992. The one Mitchell painting in the show, an untitled diptych from about 1986, is in fact on loan from Evans. Both artists shared an admiration for the French Impressionists, although Evans’s works owe more to the bright colors and floral motifs of the Impressionists than do those of Mitchell.
Another artist in the exhibit, Bill Scott, an abstractionist who makes paintings of often radiant colors, first met Mitchell in 1980 while in Paris on a travel grant. Their friendship continued when she moved to Vétheuil, situated along the Seine northwest of Paris. Scott visited Mitchell frequently and often used Mitchell’s studio there. “I painted every day,” Scott is quoted in the exhibition catalogue, “and at lunchtime walked around the village or down by the Seine. After we had dinner together, Joan usually walked the dogs to her studio where she painted until 4 or 5 in the morning.”
The German-born Marie Theres Berger also made the Paris connection with Mitchell while studying at the École du Louvre after first attending at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts and before later moving on to Provence. Like Evans, Berger paints abstractions derived from floral forms and colors reminiscent of Mitchell’s paintings.
Melissa Meyer was mentored at New York University by Frankenthaler, who also recommended her to the Yaddo artist’s community, where Meyer is still a member. Of all the associated artists in the exhibit, she is perhaps the one with the largest reputation, with paintings in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, the Guggenheim, and the Brooklyn Museum. Her paintings, watercolors and oils, are all-over abstractions of angular calligraphies, often in bright greens, yellows, and pinks, with linear accents of dark blue.
Cheryl Levin is not personally connected with any of the Ninth Street women, but she cites the influences of Krasner and Automatism in her painting’s repetitive use of thin lines to shape larger objects. Appearing quite different close up than at a distance, they are among the most interesting in show.
Perhaps it is fitting that it is Elaine de Kooning who provides the show with an unintended—but much-needed—jagged edge. That edge comes with her 1978 Portrait of Lee Hall. Hall was once part of the New York School, though not included in the Ninth Street Show, but later fled to the relative quietude of the Rhode Island School of Design, remaining friends with the de Koonings.
Hall’s 1993 book, Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage, published four years after Elaine’s death, caused considerable consternation among the New York art community, which viewed the book as little more than a cheap exposé. Eleanor Munro’s review of it in The Los Angeles Times said the biography had “all the ingredients for a fast run and a quick film script: sex for sale, falling-down drunkenness, big money, an ‘explosive marriage’ come apart, then recouped, world-class artists swinging fists and flinging paint.”
While Hall is not mentioned on the show’s poster, next to de Kooning’s portrait of her are two of Hall’s own paintings, Afternoon Storm Shore (1981) and New Mexico Horizon (1983). They are the most placid pieces in the show.