When Mary Gabriel attended art school in the mid-1980s, every man on campus wanted to be Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock. The possibility of becoming an artist while female could not have seemed more remote—until Gabriel met the painter Grace Hartigan.
Though she went on to become a Reuters editor for nearly two decades, Gabriel’s latest book, Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, circles back to Hartigan and the lives of other women who were crucial figures in the then-emerging postwar genre of abstract expressionism. The new volume follows Gabriel’s previous run of biographies on powerful women with a fondness for taking risks—including the women’s suffrage leader Victoria Woodhull and the art collectors Etta and Claribel Cone—or, as in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book from 2011, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, the story of a romantic relationship with politics at its center.
The idea for this book began almost twenty years ago, when she met Hartigan, whose own account of the rise of abstract expressionist art is filled with the names and anecdotes of women artists who have been relegated to the periphery of the story by canonical art history. In many ways, the canvases by the abstract painters featured in Ninth Street Women, along with works by male contemporaries like Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, were their own revolution. “Guys are great, but that’s a tiny portion of the story. When you look at historical moments, if you only tell it from the point of view of men, you’ve only told half the story,” Gabriel says.