The artist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) in his studio. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

It’s not news that the New York Abstract Expressionists were an anxiety-ridden, hard-drinking group of cantankerous guys, passionate about art and (for the most part) brutal to women. The rhetoric attached to this generation reinforces these notions; the literature is rife with such terms as “breakthrough” and “arena for action,” and a major study of the period is titled “The Triumph of American Painting.” Yet research reveals that much of the lore of cold-water Tenth Street...

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