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Ninth Street Women: Relishing Art, Reframing History

Mary Gabriel flips the popular narrative, allowing us to reassess the people, the art, and the moment — the rise of Abstract Expressionism — through the lens of the women who lived it and forced the art world to make space.

Ninth Street Women has been my favorite nonfiction literary experience of the last decade.

I don’t say that lightly. I’m not on the Little Brown payroll. I was not compensated, provided a copy, or even asked to give a review.

I come away from this book with five new heroes, and as a better person than when I started reading: more appreciative of art, more knowledgeable on history, and inspired to continue learning and to pursue my own creative ventures more bravely.

I feel profoundly indebted to Mary Gabriel, the author, for bringing this cast of characters into my life.

Approaching a book like this takes strategy, though, and the right mindset. It is dense, clocking in at well over 700 pages of material, not including Gabriel’s extensive notes. And it is sprawling, both in its cast — five women, various husbands and lovers, a messy assortment of art critics and gallery owners and creative types — and in its timeline, bringing us from Great Depression WPA days through World War II and into McCarthyism, The Feminine Mystique, and the shifting social climates of the 1950s and ‘60s.

With that in mind, I want to offer some tips for anyone who might consider diving in, especially readers who might otherwise feel intimidated by a lengthy piece of nonfiction. I love reading, but I will confess that even I sometimes balk at longer works. No shame in that.

Here’s how to take it on:

  1. Do it. Take the leap. It is absolutely worth it.
  2. Settle in for the long haul. Accept that this is not a book you will finish in a week. Allow Gabriel to sweep you up and transport you into the New York studio scene and rollicking summer nights in the Hamptons, back when poor artists could afford to live and work there. Find joy in Elaine de Kooning drunkenly limping through an East Hampton field at near-daybreak. Luxuriate in lush descriptions of Helen Frankenthaler watering down her paint and coaxing the color to seep into the fabric of her canvases, ultimately leading to the development of an entirely new school of thought. Relax and savor the details.
  3. Welcome these women into your life like new friends. Let your friendship develop over time, lest the fire burn too hot too quickly. Visit them and then step away as you feel inclined. Recognize them as whole, flawed people — heroes, sure, but not perfect and not immune to mistakes, slights, and squabbles. You will inevitably connect with one or two women more than the others. This is okay; they have personalities, as do you. But all are fabulous (as are you) and each is a pioneer in her own right.
  4. Get sidetracked. Gabriel’s writing is beautiful and transportive, but it will be natural to want to close (or pause) the book and search for images of the works described, or jump into the Wikipedia pages of supporting characters. Give yourself this permission. I, for example, had to stop and buy a book of Frank O’Hara’s poetry after learning a bit about his life and his entree into the artists’ circle (initially via Elaine), and then his deepening friendship with Grace Hartigan. In one particularly beautiful vignette, we learn that Grace had two pictures on her desk when she died: one with Frank and the other a portrait of Frank. It is a sign of strength, not a flaw, that Gabriel’s work will pique your curiosity and make you want to veer down these side roads. Do it. Take the scenic route.
  5. Use the audiobook. The structure of Ninth Street Women makes it easy to move back and forth between paper and audio versions. The Audible edition is neatly divided into digestible chapters (generally 30-45 minutes) that correspond exactly to the physical book. Cost is a consideration, of course, especially with most public libraries closed. But if you’re able to get both versions, I highly recommend this as a general strategy for tackling lengthy books. As a reader, it’s important to see and feel progress as you work through a book, especially with a 700-pager that might feel daunting. This approach helps. Absorb a chapter on Audible while washing dishes (or walking the dog, or whatever), then pick up the next chapter in the physical book before bed.
  6. When you finish, remember that there are Lees, Joans, Elaines, Graces, and Helens out there today, working and waiting to be recognized and appreciated. A recent report showed that only 11% of the art acquired by major museums in the last decade was by women. Women still face barriers and institutional biases in the art world, especially women of color. Be the change. Reading Ninth Street Women, you’ll come to appreciate the tangible impact of purchasing art on the lives of the creators: how purchases (even small) can keep studio lights on and encourage bursts of creativity. Find women making art in your community. Visit galleries and shows when they reopen. In the meantime, follow artists on Instagram — where there is a bursting community of women making and sharing beautiful, innovative work — and buy a piece online if you find an artist you really connect with. Your walls will thank you, as will the artists and galleries you support.

I initially grabbed this book because I had previously read (and enjoyed) Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry, which examines the ways Jackson Pollock (husband of Lee Krasner) and Willem de Kooning (husband of Elaine) influenced each other over years of working concurrently. “Frenemies,” to a degree, if that term had existed. We encounter Lee and Elaine in that book, but only as secondary, supporting players in the lives and careers of their more famous husbands.

Gabriel completely reframes the popular narrative, allowing us to revisit the characters — to reassess the people, the art, and the moment in history — through the lens of the women who lived it and forced the machismo art world to make space.

Spending time with these women — struggling, drinking and smoking, painting and writing, flirting and fucking, navigating self-doubt, managing difficult men, maneuvering their way into galleries and museums, altering the course of art history — was pure magic. Mary Gabriel is a master and Ninth Street Women is a must-read.

Easily, one of my favorite nonfiction works of all time. I am changed by and grateful for the experience.

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