credit G. Starke via Flickr

The forgotten artists of abstract expressionism

By Daniel Brophy

A dive into some of the lesser-known figures of the American art movement.

The current narrative of abstract expressionism is singular: it is the New York School. The Cedar Tavern, located at No. 24 University Place, Greenwich Village. Jackson Pollock, dressed in a sweater, clasping a cigarette between his lips. Despite its great defiance of categorisation, stylistic improvisation, energy, and bombast, our image of abstract expressionism through a cultural lens remains white, male, and NYC-centric. This article will attempt to shift this narrative, shining a light on the wives overshadowed by their husbands, amongst the other forgotten figures of the movement.

Janet Sobel

As a mother of five with no artistic training before she picked up a brush, Sobel’s creative path proved difficult, yet her works developed into a catalogue marked by depth, invention, and self-invented technique. Though overshadowed by the momentous figure of Pollock, Sobel was a pioneer of drip painting, using materials such as glass and sand in her work. Her work provides an example of her ability to blend the stylistic influences of abstract expressionism together through various lenses, creating canvases which usurped the ideas of shape.

–   Check out: Milky Way (1945)

Edward Clark

An African-American and a World War II veteran, Clark was unrecognised as a major modernist force until late into his 70-year career. Aided by his classical training at the Parisian Académie de la Grande Chaumière in 1952, he moved to New York City in 1956, creating the “big sweep technique” in which he used a janitor’s broom to create large scale designs. Not only is Clark renowned for his radiance of colour, he is the first painter credited with working on a shaped canvas. A true forgotten innovator within the movement.

–   Check out: Portrait of Muriel (1952) 

Lilly Fenichel

Born in Vienna to a Jewish family, Lilly Fenichel’s family fled the country in 1939, eventually settling in Hollywood, California. Fenichel’s location sets her apart from the classic narrative of the New York School of abstract expressionism, developing into one of the faces of West Coast abstract expressionism and the L.A. ‘Cool School’. Known for her prolific, experimental and non-objective painting, Fenichel was unable to support herself as solely a painter, working as a photographer and art director; she was a staggeringly creative individual whose legacy over six decades of work lives on.

–       Check out: L.A. #10 (1979)

Franz Kline

Originating from a mining town in Pennsylvania and a victim of childhood trauma, Kline was a key figure in the New York School, yet his work remains notably distinct from its other key players. He is often considered a problematic yet unique artist due to the intensity, absurdity and singularity of his work. His stark and mechanical style, influenced by cubism and abandoning representationalism, carves out its own voice in abstract expressionism. Kline created his own artistic space, bleakly patterned with black and white.

–       Check out: Meryon (1961)

Lee Krasner

The wife of Jackson Pollock. The face of the forgotten New York movement of abstract expressionism. Krasner was the youngest of six children raised Orthodox Jewish, whose upbringing, as well as her education at the National Academy of Design in 1932, greatly influenced her work. The opening of MOMA in 1929 proved a watershed moment in her life, as she became a key player in the “New York School”, as well as a member of abstract expressionism’s most famous couple. With a career spanning over 50 years, Krasner created gestural art, pieces which were reflexive, changeable, and reworkings of Hebrew script. Krasner sought an alive canvas—“be alive is the point”.

–       Check out: Seated Nude (1940) 


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