I can’t recall the last time I read 700 pages of fiction or nonfiction, but I read Ninth Street Women with relish all the way through. It tells the story of five American painters, all of whom were women and most of whom were associated with what is often called “The Second Generation” of The New York School of Abstract Expressionists. The writing is exceptional; Gabriel is a master at the nonfictional approach to telling a great story. Her prose flows like fiction, attending to the arc of the various subjects’ stories, laying out the ups and downs of their careers and their lives.
Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning were married to First Generation artists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Somewhat overshadowed early on by their more famous husbands, Krasner spent much of her early years minding her more famous alcoholic mate and unable to find the time to develop her own work. But she eventually got the chance to make some terrific abstract paintings. (click here and use the back button on your browser to return) https://whitney.org/collection/works/6153 Elaine de Kooning developed a career in art journalism along with her own work, which eventually moved past strict abstraction to painting portraits that employed abstract brushwork and combined the emotional feel of abstraction with recognizable imagery, producing wonders like John F. Kennedy’s presidential portrait. https://npg.si.edu/blog/elaine-de-koonings-jfk
Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler were younger and never lived in the shadow of more famous mates, although Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell, another First Generation artist, somewhat later in life. Hartigan sometimes incorporated human figuration into her abstraction. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79636 Mitchell developed the use of colorful brushwork into a signature style that was perhaps the purest abstraction of any of these artists, and far and away my favorite. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79586 Frankenthaler is most often associated with thinning and pouring paint onto linen or canvas to create color fields she left alone or used as background for abstract designs. I dare say this one early Frankenthaler bears some relation to two of the best First Generation painters, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.
Along the way we get entertaining accounts of all the New York School’s hangouts, like the Cedar Bar and The Five Spot where the downtown artists drank and talked all night or listened to a young Thelonius Monk and others; and the Club, where the downtown and even uptown artists talked serious shop through the Fifties and Sixties. We learn about the various galleries and gallery owners who showed their work, the writers who covered them, and the East Hampton and Provincetown getaways where they spent summers and beyond. Their personal lives, and the number of lovers they took—both the women and the men—are covered in appropriate and entertaining detail. Having thought the Sixties didn’t really start until the Summer of Love, and the Fifties were more Ozzie & Harriet, I was a bit surprised at some of this.
I came across Gabriel’s delightfully engaging account of all this as part of my research for a novel set in the same time and place, involving some of these and related historical figures. For my money it’s the best nonfiction treatment, and certainly the most accessible for a general audience, of anything I’ve come across.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .