Today’s topic is not about architecture, rather about its older sibling: Art. Over the decades, art represented one of the most profound and debated manifestations of human creativity. More than this, art has always been a reflection of the society in which it grew, hence the multitude of artistic directions emerging from it throughout time.
However, what all these directions have in common is their desire to convey, non-verbally, both the visions and emotions of some brilliant minds that marked human existence itself. One of these brilliant characters is, undeniably, Mary Lee Abbott.
Mary Lee Abbott, who was born on July 27, 1921, and died on August 23, 2019, was one of the American artists at the heart of the Abstract Expressionist (Ab Ex) movement in New York, in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. Even though she attended the same high-end circles of artists as other famous figures worldwide associated with the movement, such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, she never received the same recognition as they did.
Reminiscences of this can be seen even today, yet such issues were extremely common back in the days. At that time female artists like Mary Lee Abbott, Elaine de Kooning, or Perle Fine only partially gained the deserved acclaim only when accompanying other male artists’ names. Abbott, for instance, did not even take part in the 9th Street Art Exhibition (in 1951), which was a famous event for promoting abstract expressionist artists to the world.
Mary Abbott was born in New York City in a family whose line of descendants went back to the second president of the country, John Adams. Her knack for arts might have been instilled by Elizabeth Grinnell (the artist’s mother) who was, for her part, a poet.
The interest in drawing, however, started similar to Andy Warhol’s experience. At the age of 9, Mary developed some infection behind her ear, and later on, she even experienced pneumonia as well. This forced her to stay indoors for almost two years and cultivate her passion for art.
Before pursuing a career in art, Mary Abbott gained early recognition as a fashion model and appeared on the cover of big magazines like Vogue, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1940s. Her modeling career, however, suddenly fell second place when she hit on the avant-garde movement.
As a student, Abbott was given the chance to work alongside many important figures of the period such as George Grosz, Barnett Newman, and David Hare – to name but a few. Despite this, it was only after World War II when Mary Abbott turned completely to art and joined the so-called “Downtown Group.” This association opened the door to new (exclusive) circles of artists such as Philip Pavia, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock.
The artist nurtured mixed feelings for her Ab Ex fellows. Pollock, for instance, won her hatred as he tried to assault Mary Abbott once. Luckily, she managed to push him back, yet whenever recalling his name she stated “his way of making friends was to knock you down and get on top of you.”
Fortuitously, not all the male artists were so desperate, as for example, Willem de Kooning was one of Mary’s dearest friends (even lover once) and influenced her career formation.
One of the most representative collaborations for Mary Abbott’s style and work was a project she had with Barbara Guest in the ‘50s. Just like Mary’s mother, Barbara Guest was a poet – in fact, she was a first-generation representative for the New York School- and their collaboration aimed to create what Abbott referred to as “poetry paintings.” Mary Abbott had to translate to painting what Barbara was able to put into words.
To better understand Mary Lee Abbott’s art, a brief review of the main characteristics of the Abstract Expressionist style is required. Shortly referred to as Ab Ex, abstract expressionism is a post-World War II art movement born in 1940’s New York. The movement placed New York City at the very core of the western art world.
Although it is hard to define specific characteristics of the movement, as it is unique to each and every artist, in particular, Abstract Expressionism may be referred to as a style aiming to express the subconscious, untouched realities experienced by people.
When asked what drew her to abstract painting, Mary Abbott simply stated: “It just hit me. I just liked it. […] Trying to do things representationally didn’t work for me. [With abstraction] I could talk in a different way.”
Abbott’s works root their inspiration into nature, music, and even some personal events in the life of the artist. For instance, most of her work was influenced by the time Mary spent with her husband, businessman Tom Clyde, in places like St. Croix, Haiti, and the Caribbean.
On one occasion, Gwen Chanzit -from the Denver Art Museum- described Mrs. Abbott’s works saying: “While we often think of abstract expressionism in terms of bravado, I think that Mary Abbott’s paintings were more about emotional gesture, about her inner response to the world.”