"Ninth Street Women," Mary Gabriel, Little Brown, 927 pages, $35.
The legendary instructor Hans Hofmann once complimented Lee Krasner’s drawing by telling her it was “so good, you would not know it was done by a woman.” Modern art was hard for everyone, but it was differently so for the women who lived to make it, according to Mary Gabriel’s “Ninth Street Women.”
A former journalist, Gabriel earned acclaim for her 2011 biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, “Love and Capital.” She is a gifted storyteller and a dogged researcher. She puts these gifts to excellent use in this panoramic take on the 20th century’s American art revolution.
Born of the alchemy of young artists and thinkers in the ’40s and ’50s, abstract expressionism was a shock to the system. With its full departure from representationalism, it was received by the masses as an act of hostility, a dangerous expression of Marxism or a prank.
Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler were beacons of the movement’s second generation. Krasner and Elaine de Kooning were key to the first. “Ninth Street Women” masterfully unspools the biographies of its central cast and scores of supporting players. It takes us into their Greenwich Village haunts and hangouts, and it rummages through their relationships, too often fueled by alcohol and dizzying infidelities. And it recounts the sexism they endured to be at the top of their genre.
More than a compilation of biographical tales, Gabriel’s book is a reminder of the importance of women to an artistic genre long associated with masculinity.