She Was Sort of Crazy: On Women Artists


Arts & Culture

Hilma af Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum

I went to the Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim alone. It was my birthday. I had other obligations, but I snuck out of them. I don’t like birthdays, and I wanted to be alone with art made by a woman. I found parts of the show stunning and parts of it strange and underwhelming. I admired her ambition; I liked the idea of her. I liked the idea of her having finally been discovered, anointed, and I admired her faith that a more spiritually transcendent future class of people would appreciate the work that she knew would be misunderstood in her own time. I admired the scale at which she worked and its specificity: it almost seemed to exist outside of time. She painted landscapes and portraits to make money. On the side, she created ecstatic, massive works, taking her instructions from the “High Masters,” spirits from whom she received messages at the regular seances she held with four of her friends who referred to themselves as “The Five.”

At one point, about halfway up the path of the museum, reading a panel that described the seances, a middle-age man standing next to me and, I think, assuming I was whomever he had come to the museum with, whispered, conspiratorially to me, “She was sort of crazy, huh?” Then he saw me and blanched, as he realized I wasn’t who he thought he’d whispered to. I laughed and left him there.

I was annoyed; he was a man, calling a female artist crazy. I hoped he felt at least a small amount of shame at having a stranger hear him say this thing out loud. Klint did, though, seem a little crazy. She was insane enough to think her paintings had a sort of spiritual transcendence, to think that her work was capital-A Art. I sort of think anyone who believes this, myself included, especially if they’re a woman, must be at least a little bit insane. 

The same day I went to my favorite bookshop in the Village and bought myself a present. A seven-hundred-page hardcover, which I would never usually allow myself to buy, titled Ninth Street Women, which is a survey of the lives of Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell. I’d read a breathtaking review of it. I’ve spent the last year obsessively looking at art, sometimes to the detriment of my professional obligations or picking up my kids from school on time. Sometimes I don’t know why I’ve come to see this art or what I’m looking at; sometimes, I stand delighted, disarmed, by the amount it makes me feel.

Throughout the book, small domestic details are interspersed with sweeping descriptions of the women’s artwork. The big names, the artists we all think of when we hear the word expressionist, come up often. Sometimes they take over the narrative and sometimes they function only as domestic partners, hindrances. There was Pollock (Lee Krasner’s husband) and his drinking, De Kooning (Elaine’s husband) and the younger women he nearly always had close by. My favorite protagonists changed every chapter. Lee (in the book, the women are referred to intimately like this, by first names, like they’re all, like we’re all, friends) was committed to Pollock’s success, merciless in advancing his career, but she was also nearly crippled, more than once, by Clement Greenberg walking into her studio and making some off-the-cuff comment about the value of her work. The collages she made later were created by tearing up the canvases she found wanting, then finding something in the scraps. Then there was Elaine and her compassion. Compassion is such a female thing to love about a female artist, and yet, compassion is far too often lacking in those of us who are fighting constantly just to be allowed somehow to do the thing we want to do. A man tried to mug her and she invited him in for coffee. Indigent friends often slept on her couch. Her kindness feels connected to her interest in portraiture (it was not just Bill’s directive that portraiture was more suited to women). Looking at and seeing other people, over and over, working to get them right. Joan Mitchell and her desire to have “one small child.” She never got the child, but she got prominence instead. Her tragic romance with a mediocre (but more celebrated) married French Canadian man. The way she returned, always, to the work. She, too, was merciless. She drank too much. She made huge, splashy, vibrant canvases until very late in life. At her funeral, she asked that each person in attendance think of a way that she had wronged them deeply and forgive her. Probably everyone in the room had a slight they could easily conjure. Grace Hartigan and her deep love for Frank O’Hara, their collaborations, her early success; Jeffrey, her abandoned child. There is something that feels both unfathomable and inevitable in the lives these women lived. Hartigan’s escape, in middle age, to Baltimore, when her fame had almost consumed her and then faded. Female artists, having briefly been allowed relevance, drifted back into irrelevance. Helen and her parties. She lived uptown with Robert Motherwell for a while. The downtown artists made fun of her bourgeois life; she was told she was crazy to return to figures; in both these instances, she seemed not to care. Morris Louis would call her, because of those figures, “the bridge between Pollock and what is possible.”

At some point, I got anxious to see their work in person. The descriptions were engaging, but many of these women worked big and I wanted to stand in front of what they’d done. I’d become obsessed with the idea of Lee’s collages: work that gets torn up, reappropriated, recontextualized, destroyed, and then rebuilt. Luckily, I thought, there was a whole show devoted to abstract expressionism at the Metropolitan, and there was a good amount of all five women’s work in their permanent collection. These women were the spine of abstract expressionism, I thought. I felt certain they’d be there.

They weren’t, of course, not all of them. There was a whole room of Pollocks. Mark Rothko got an even bigger room. There was one De Kooning (Willem, not Elaine). In the last room, Joan got a wall for a large painting of blues and blacks and purples stretched out over four large canvases lined up in a row. There was a single piece by Helen. Elaine did so much figurative work; she is perhaps most well known for her portraits. Lee’s work maybe didn’t really take off until after Pollock’s death, when the moment for abstract expressionism had already almost passed. But Grace, who among these women had been the most celebrated in her lifetime, also wasn’t there. This could be because she was later associated with pop art, though she hated that affiliation. I spent the rest of the week checking MoMA, then the Whitney. At each of these places, Lee and Elaine and Grace were nowhere to be found.

I’d traveled the hour or so it takes to get uptown from our apartment in Brooklyn, so I stayed at the museum and looked at what was on offer in the rooms where I’d thought I might find these women. I looked at the Pollocks a long time. I’ve always liked the Pollocks, if somewhat shamefacedly—it’s like liking Franzen, or Knausgaard (both of whom I also like). You know part of what they’re doing to you is a thing you’re meant to reject or find oppressive, and yet it’s charming, if only because they’re so very good at being exactly what you know you shouldn’t trust. Most of why I wanted not to like them had nothing to do with them. It had to do with all that’s been left out because the looking at them has lasted so long, because of all the space that they take up.

I like the courage of the Pollocks: the energy, freneticism. They remind me of my favorite Faulkner novels: like he knows the paint won’t get it right, that he won’t get it right, but fuck if he isn’t going to try. I spent a lot of time looking at the edges of the paintings this time. Paint sloughed off of them, stretched out past them. The paintings end because the canvas is the size it is, and yet, the edges of the canvas suggest that Pollock’s splatters went on and on. I liked what this did to the concept of the form. This man who worked with such fury, was so clearly, arbitrarily, hemmed in by the specific scale of the canvas. It felt, somehow, that this monster of a man (as he was, for so much of his life) was admitting that he’d fail no matter what he did. The edges suggested that there was always more.

This thing I did—looking at the Pollocks longer than I’d meant to—happened in the book sometimes, too. You could see the writer, Mary Gabriel, trying to make her book about the women, but the men’s success was so much louder. The men’s names are all so much more recognizable. Lee was the wife of Jackson Pollock; Elaine, the wife of Willem de Kooning. Joan was the longtime mistress of Jean-Paul Riopelle. For years, Helen would be looked down on because she entered the scene as Clement Greenberg’s much younger girlfriend. They would get pushed, in other words, to the edges of the story. One could imagine how, over time, they’d fallen off.

Most of making things well is about leaving the right things out. And yet, once the edges have been established, how do we go back and reimagine them? How do we see enough to see that what’s contained is not quite right? To tear it all down just like Lee did, to collect the scraps back up from the floor, to reconsider what might be added back in now?

Our four-year-old knows Jackson Pollock. The other day, we went to MoMA as a family. Seeing the splashy canvases, she squealed. “Action painting! Pollock!” she said. People looked and smiled at her. “Such a sweet, smart child,” an older woman said to me, as she reached down to touch her face. I grimaced, trying to turn it into a smile. I was annoyed on Elaine and Lee’s behalf. This recognition was less precocity, less a judgment on the painting’s quality, than it was good marketing. MoMA sells a kit for “action painting,” which is just paints that you can let your kids squirt on a canvas as they walk around it, and a poster that has quotes from Pollock and images of some of his work. My mom got it for our kids as a gift. They know Pollock like we all do, like De Kooning, Rothko, Picasso, Van Gogh, that handful of (male) names we know because they’re so at the center of the world that there are paint kits for children with their names on them.

In Ninth Street Women, I learned that the art market was the beginning of the end for Pollock. The money didn’t come until later, but the insane all-of-a-sudden attention, the profiles in TIME, the highly publicized shows, they destroyed what little hold he’d had on the world outside of work. It is a sort of madness to decide to make things. But it is a fury wholly inside one’s head, contained. Most people who make things, I would argue, are compulsively trying to control, attracted to edges and the limits of materials—paint, for instance, or words. The things that come as a result of these compulsions are a form of sense-making: a scaffolded, cut-and-pasted, formally restricted offering. And then it is received, by the public, in their own way, if it’s even noticed. It can be shocking to realize how very outside of one’s control that part is.

A few days ago I got an email from the publisher of my first book. It was a form email, and I imagine many writers of books get them. I imagine it depresses most of them similarly. It is an email saying that they are getting rid of their stock of your book in their warehouse (they call this, perhaps mercilessly, perhaps in an attempt to be kind, “remaindering”) and will happily offer you as many as you’d like at a reduced fee. It is up to you to pay for shipping. I declined the opportunity. There’s something too sad about it to me. Not enough people bought it and there are too many left. They don’t have room for it any longer. I tried not to be mean in my email, but I also refused to engage in pleasantries. “I don’t need any copies, thanks,” I replied.

All the museums I went to owned works by Krasner and Hartigan and De Kooning. And yet they’re warehoused, they can’t be seen. I find this so sad and also so unsurprising. Of course that’s where they are. Of course that’s what became of them.

“Why make things,” I’ve been writing over and over. In my notebooks, in books I’m reading, on scraps of paper I find in my bag.

I wonder, standing in those museums, about all the other artists who made things, whose work doesn’t fit in these rooms. Whose names don’t do whatever names need to do in order for them to be more consistently on display. I wonder what it means to make art that might be destined to be remaindered, warehoused. Art that no one reads and no one sees. Why do we keep trying in the face of that. How much of it is delusion, crazy, and how much of it is admirable, fury, feeling. How blurry, jagged, and subjective that line will always be.


Lynn Steger Strong’s novel, Hold Still, was published in 2016. Her nonfiction has appeared in Guernica, LARB, Elle, Catapult, and elsewhere. She teaches writing.