Gender Roles in Abstract Expressionism

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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.

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