The Rising Market for Women Abstract Expressionists
An artist page for fictitious painter George Hartigan still lingers, like a phantom, on the Museum of Modern Art’s website. Never heard of George? That’s because George was actually the masculine pseudonym adopted by Abstract Expressionist artist Grace Hartigan in the early 1950s, both as tribute to her favorite novelists and, possibly, to confuse gender identification as people eyed her large, gestural canvases. Now over a decade since her death, Hartigan might still benefit from being perceived as George in order to fetch the astronomical prices of her male peers, who have chiefly represented this nonrepresentational style until recently.
The current auction record for Jackson Pollock is $58.3 million for a large drip painting, Number 19 (1948). Willem de Kooning’s auction record is $68.9 million (while privately, his works have allegedly sold for up to $300 million). A Mark Rothko can fetch nearly $87 million at auction.
Hartigan’s auction record, meanwhile, is just under half a million dollars. Hartigan wasn’t the only female artist of her cohort to believe a man’s name was preferable. Lee Krasner was the androgynous moniker chosen by Lenore (who also opted to ditch her married name, Pollock); Michael West’s birth certificate lists her as Corinne; Jay DeFeo adopted her now-famous nickname and stopped using her her given name, Mary Joan, in junior high school.
Still, these artists aren’t usually numbered with the handful of hard-drinking action painters who have come to embody this mid-20th-century American movement. Curator Gwen F. Chanzit wrote in the catalog to her landmark 2016 exhibition “Women of Abstract Expressionism” at the Denver Art Museum that artists historically affiliated with the style “are predominantly male; in this case, not only are they male, but their maleness, their heroic machismo spirit, has become a defining characteristic of the expansive, gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism.”
So it’s unsurprising that women affiliated with Abstract Expressionism have been undervalued in the art market—despite playing active roles and pioneering new techniques, such as the soak-staining method developed by Helen Frankenthaler. When Joan Mitchell approached art dealer Julius Carlebach in the 1950s, hoping he’d sell her paintings, he replied, “Gee, Joan, if only you were French and male and dead.”
As curators and academics devote more exhibitions and books to these female painters, collectors are taking note. The development is part of a larger trend to give historic female artists their due, while also an opportunity to invest in more affordable artists.
The last decade has seen a flurry of projects correcting the historic record for this movement, often led by women. Chanzit curated “Women of Abstract Expressionism”; Mary Gabriel wrote Ninth Street Women; and biographies for Krasner, Mitchell, Hartigan, and Elaine de Kooning were authored by Gail Levin, Patricia Albers, and Cathy Curtis, respectively. “At the time I was writing, auction prices for their work were low,” said Curtis, biographer for both Hartigan and de Kooning. “No particular attention was being paid to them in the museum world.”
Institutional interest continues to snowball, with the Baltimore Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art jointly organizing a major Mitchell retrospective slated for 2021. A traveling Krasner retrospective opened at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in September, after showing at London’s Barbican Centre in 2019.
Installation view of “Lee Kranser: Living Color” at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2020. © FMGB, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2020. Photo by Erika Ede. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
Auction house specialists and gallerists said these projects have noticeably boosted interest from the art market, which “buys with their ears and not their eyes,” according to Angelo Madrigale, director of painting and contemporary art at the Doyle auction house. Hollis Taggart, whose eponymous gallery began representing Michael West’s estate in 2019, credits “Women of Abstract Expressionism” with igniting interest in both higher-profile practitioners as well as lesser known artists like West, Yvonne Thomas, and Charlotte Park.
“In the last 12 to 18 months, we’ve seen tremendous prices for female artists,” said Nicole Schloss, a Sotheby’s contemporary art specialist and co-head of day sales involved in the record-breaking sale of Frankenthaler’s Royal Fireworks (1975) from the Ginny Williams collection, which sold in June for nearly $7.9 million. “You could say that with [Frankenthaler’s] pouring paint she created the Color Field movement, and it’s finally being recognized across the board, which is really just an exciting thing to see.”
Helen Frankenthaler, Royal Fireworks, 1975. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Heather James Fine Art sold dozens of paintings by female Abstract Expressionists over the past six months after mounting an online exhibition, “Abstract Expressionist Women,” according to the gallery’s New York partner Montana Alexander. She added that the appetite for these painters has grown dramatically over the past five years as collectors recognize both historic value and a savvy investment. “If you compare, say, the work of Elaine de Kooning to the work of her partner, Bill de Kooning, there’s still a huge expanse of zeros between what she has achieved and what he has achieved,” she said. “But the merit of the works are very close.”
Elaine de Kooning’s auction record still dates to 1996, when a charcoal sketch of John F. Kennedy linked to her painted presidential portrait of him sold for $101,500. This is despite a 2015 solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the publication of her first biography in 2017. Privately, though, Alexander said de Kooning’s works sell for close to $1 million. “Two years ago we were selling [her work] at that lower range, and now she’s well into the hundreds of thousands, approaching the millions,” she said.
Market spikes for women affiliated with Abstract Expressionism haven’t been uniform. There are three big names—Krasner, Frankenthaler, and Mitchell—at the top of the cohort, and then a drop-off for other painters who also participated in the 1951 “Ninth Street Show,” which signaled the movement’s arrival on the New York art scene. These artists include de Kooning and others like Sonja Sekula, Anne Ryan, and Perle Fine. (Fine’s auction record, for example, is $51,000, for an artwork sold back in 2006.)
Michael West’s auction results are low relative to the big three, but the sale last year of Shadows of “Forgotten Ancestors” (1967) at Christie’s for $81,250 nearly tripled her previous auction record. West has benefitted from gallery representation, having been exhibited at The Armory Show, and her inclusion in the scholarly catalog for “Women of Abstract Expressionism.” Taggart pointed to the recent interest in this cohort as enabling his gallery to successfully promote West as a first-generation Abstract Expressionist. “The level of demand for her work would not have been this strong in years past,” he noted.
Growing attention is one reason why the women of Abstract Expressionism are having their market moment. Another is that their male counterparts are now largely unaffordable. “There’s not much further that the Rothko market can go,” explained Alexander. “There’s only a handful of people on the planet who can afford those types of paintings.”
The broader base of buyers in the market for female Abstract Expressionists is roughly half institutional and half private, Alexander estimated. Schloss noted that these buyers are also international, representing the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. And while some of these private collectors exclusively collect female artists, there are others looking to fill gaps in their collections of mid-century art. Eric Gleason of Kasmin gallery, which has represented Krasner’s work since 2016 on behalf of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, said some buyers are solely motivated by the speculation of this growing market.
“I’m hoping the prices will climb,” said Madrigale, who was involved in the recent sale of a Hartigan still life at Doyle for $187,500, setting the third-highest auction record for the artist. “Take gender out of it—the work is fantastic.”
Just as Hartigan still awaits market valuation matching that of her peers, in her lifetime she also waited for evenhanded critical appraisal. In 1951, the artist recorded in her journal her reaction to something she heard influential art critic Clement Greenberg say. “He wants to be the contemporary of the first great woman painter,” she wrote. “What shit.”
Three years later, she addressed Greenberg directly (presumably as Grace, not George). “In your discussion of me and my painting I think you have been flagrantly irresponsible,” she wrote. “Whatever opinion you have of my work, you must respect my seriousness and energy.” Hartigan is now gaining respect, more than 60 years after demanding it, alongside the other great women painters who were her contemporaries.