The Birth of Abstract Expressionism: The Groundbreaking 9th Street Art Exhibition

The 9th Street Art Exhibition

A group of artists, led by Leo Castelli and backed by a generous financial backer, overcame external recognition from official institutions to showcase their work. Despite their differences, these painters became united by the communal spirit of art as an obsession and vocation.

Eleven artists took part in the 9th street art exhibition, five of whom—Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell—would later receive international fame.

Artists

The 9th street show brought together the most important artists of postwar abstract expressionism to exhibit their work together. Many, including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, would soon become “art stars,” commanding large sums of money and international attention. The other participants such as Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Grace Hartigan, however, remained mostly unknown.

Despite their camaraderie, these were some of the most competitive artists the world had ever seen. They feared favoritism or politics could skew the show’s outcome. Even so, the resulting exhibition was a critical success.

In hindsight, it’s hard to believe the artists in the Ninth Street Show weren’t aware of each other. Yet, when the show opened on May 21, 1951, it was the first time these artists had all shown their works alongside each other. Leo Castelli had requested they contribute smaller paintings because of limited space, but Mitchell brought an exuberant abstract canvas nearly six feet square.

Venue

Presented by the Katonah Museum of Art and inspired by Mary Gabriel’s acclaimed book Ninth Street Women we celebrate these five female artists Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler. These artists, united by a communal spirit and a rejection of institutional recognition were able to overstep the constraints placed upon them and expose their work to the world. The result was the launch of Abstract Expressionism and the shift in the centre of modern art from Paris to New York.

Curated by future famed gallerist Leo Castelli, the exhibition was a game-changer. These iconoclastic painters and their works embodied the ideal that art is a vocation unbounded by money or fame. Their shape-shifting overrode careerist strategies, and their rejection of stylistic purity was the antithesis to the norms of art criticism. Today their legacy lives on as an enduring act of artist solidarity. In an age of inflated commodification and banal ideological agendas their spirit is an important reminder of what true serious art should be.

Poster

The 1951 show rewrote the rules of art in New York. Its success paved the way for the postwar era of Abstract Expressionism. It also ushered in a new generation of painters to international fame. But what is often overlooked are the women artists who made up this cutting edge group.

Among them were Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner, artists who were not only part of the Ninth Street Show, but would go on to receive worldwide acclaim as modern art icons. But for many of the participants, the upcoming exhibition was their first taste of commercial success.

Some of the most controversial issues surrounded the way in which the exhibition was hung. The artists were a competitive bunch and some feared favoritism or politics. Others were concerned about the amount of space that was available in the gallery: who would be upstairs and who would be downstairs?

Summary

The 9th Street Art Exhibition brought together a cutting edge ensemble of New York artists that would soon become the mainstays of museum collections and art history textbooks. Although these artists were well aware of each other – some like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Ad Reinhardt already had established names in the underground art scene – they were not known to the general public at the time.

Leo Castelli acted as the show’s curator, but the artists did the rest. Due to the clamor to participate, each artist was only allowed to exhibit one work.

Five of the women who participated in the 9th Street Show – Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell – went on to have major international careers, with their works collected by major museums and included in ever-expanding bibliographies. Mary Gabriel has recently published the acclaimed book Ninth Street Women to chronicle these pivotal figures who changed the course of modern art.

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