Gender Roles in Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock’s iconic painting

By Olivia Comstock

When we think of the 1950s today, we think of a time of extremely biased gender stereotypes and strict gender roles. This affected every aspect of life, including one’s daily routine, school, politics, culture, movies, and even art. However, there are more nuances to the gender dynamic in the 1950s than simply very masculine men and very feminine women. Within the Abstract Expressionist art movement, women were treated similar to how they were in general society, but the expectations on them were more complex. Being both women and artists allowed the social requirements for women to be placed on them while also having to play the role of the artist. Simultaneously, they were supposed to be mothers and wives because they were women, but at the same time were not supposed to be mothers or wives because they were artists. They were supposed to support their husbands, many of whom were artists, but if they wanted to be taken seriously then they should prioritize their own art. Additionally, because of the subject matter of Abstract Expressionism, women were not only navigating the art world and social world, but they were also featured as negative themes in many paintings by men.

Abstract Expressionist was a prominent avant-garde art movement in New York City during the 1950s in the United States. Even though this movement features primarily male artists, female artists complicated the expectations of their gender. The gender dynamics of the 1950s in America were deeply imbedded within Abstract Expressionism through interactions between the artists and through the art itself. Men, such as William de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, dominated Abstract Expressionism. All of these artists projected extreme masculinity through their art practice and mannerisms. At the same time, several female artists, such as Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner, were aware of this and were trying to find a space for themselves and for success through their own work.

A couple of different factors contributed to the strong sense of traditional family and gender roles of the 1950s. One factor was the anti-communist sentiments caused by the Cold War in the United States. Every area of home-life was an opportunity to fight the communists. The feminine, stay-at-home wives in the United States contrasted the unfeminine, single, and hardworking Soviet women. McCarthyism also targeted gay men. As a result, men needed to be seen as especially masculine and macho so they would not be falsely accused of homosexuality. This reinforced the polarization of gender roles. Another factor that contributed to the traditional family was a backlash against the freedom women experienced during WWII . During the war, women had more independence due to the unprecedented number of women in the workforce. After the war, re-ordering of society returned both men and women to traditional gender roles and to the nuclear family. Overall, men were supposed to be masculine breadwinners while women were supposed to be submissive, feminine, and support their husbands. On the other hand, women who failed to fill this role and stepped out of the traditional bounds were considered selfish and promiscuous.

Abstract Expressionism is characterized by a group of mainly male artists who are presented as extremely macho, hyper-masculine, and Western heroes. They were heavily influenced by Jungian psychology and the writings of anthropologist Joseph Campbell. Their work attempted to access some sort of universal story or feeling that all people could connect to. Stylistically, critic Clement Greenberg summarized their work. “‘If the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ means anything viable, it means painterliness: loose rapid handling, or the look of it; masses that blot or fuse instead of shapes that stay distinct; large, conspicuous rhythms; broken color, uneven saturations and densities of paint; exhibited brush, knife, finger, or rag marks.” Within Abstract Expressionism, there were several prominent female artists as well. However, the strict gender roles in society were also seen within Abstract Expressionism, evident in the treatment of women artists by artist peers, critics, and gallery owners. “The efforts of not only critics, collectors, and gallerists, but to an important degree the artists themselves secured at the basis of value in Abstract Expressionism those characteristics that were also marked as having the highest social value in American society: masculinity, heterosexuality, and whiteness.” The “Artists Club” of Abstract Expressionists purposefully excluded women. In an interview with female artist Lee Krasner, she remembers this, “‘It’s quite clear that I didn’t fit in, although I never felt I didn’t. I was not accepted, let me by it that way…with relation to the group, if you are going to call them a group, there was not room for a woman.’” Male artists also looked down on women’s work and expressed their approval or disapproval. Another artist and teacher, Hans Hofmann commented on one of Lee Krasner’s paintings saying, “This is so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.” The gallerists, critics, and magazines also enforced the societal gender roles, often having quota systems. Female artist Joan Mitchell commented, “I felt, you know, when I was discouraged I wondered if really women could not paint, the way all the men said they [the women] could not paint. But then at other times I said, ‘Fuck them,’ you know.”

Female artists during the 1950s also had to function within two different cultural expectations for them. On one hand, there was pressure to be wives and mothers. To avoid this, several artists did not marry while others separated from their husbands to avoid such pressures. If they wanted to be considered seriously as artists, it was expected that they would not tie themselves down to husbands and children who could distract them. Domesticity and maternity could mean sacrificing art goals while pursuing art could mean sacrificing a traditional life. For the women who did marry, they were supposed to aid their husbands This led many female artists to give up their art in order to help their husbands.

The role of woman as a supporter is very apparent in the photograph by Hans Namuth of Krasner and Pollock
Namuth’s photograph of the de Koonings. This also shows the woman as secondary, even to the woman featured in the painting. 

The very themes in the paintings reflect strict gender roles. The Abstract Expressionist movement was characterized by themes of primitivism and an attempt to represent a mythic universal that all people could relate to and understand. This idea was partially inspired by Jungian psychology, which conjectured there were underlying archetypes and stories that were common to all people. These archetypes and stories perpetuated traditional gender roles, with the women seen as more primitive, closer to nature, and closer to the unconscious. This did two things: the men used female figuration and imagery to help them access the unconscious, and women’s work was discounted because it was more passive, seen as the other, and was a subjective experience. Feminine motifs were used in attempt to access the unconscious, and female traits were largely shown in this context as dangerous. Women were either portrayed as the devouring mother or the femme fatale. Willem de Kooning’s Women series in particular explores this. The figures in Willem’s paintings represent themes of violence and horror through their staring eyes, exposed teeth, and prominent breasts, which confront the viewer. There is only enough detail provided on the figure to know her gender and see that she has a deranged expression. She is represented as a physical threat. These paintings posited that women were dangerous; that only men had access to them, and that only men could depict them. This contributed to the lack of access women had to their own female form.

Willem de Kooning’s painting from his Women series.

Even artists, who are the height of avant-garde culture, progressive, and bohemian are not exempt from the cultural influences of the society they live in. The strict gender roles were pervasive, influencing ordinary citizens and artist communities alike. Female artists faced difficulty becoming prominent figures within their movement in the same way that women in general society faced difficulty stepping outside the boundaries set for them. This still reigns true today. Society still places paradoxical expectations on women. Seemingly, “progressive” groups still turn out to uphold problematic ideologies. Women are still fighting, even if it is not as obvious.


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