This dissertation expands knowledge about female artists' critical attitudes toward gender issues in postwar American painting and sculpture. Unpublished letters, journals, and essays, when mapped against the stylistic developments of women in the New York School, identify works of art with anti-sexist content. Women addressed institutional sexism in private and "under the radar" relationships at a time when the subject of abstract art was supposed to be universal, and not race or gender specific. This study challenges the uniformity of the "isolated" woman artist of the 1940s and 50s as described in histories of Abstract Expressionist art.
Section One investigates the friendship of Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Barbara Guest, leading women in the New York School "second generation." Frankenthaler's paintings toyed with sexual imagery and specific art historical references to control the debate over feminine content in abstract art. Hartigan's abstract paintings and prints on the subject of Pallas Athene (1961-2), inspired by the poetry of Guest, confronted a mental space of myth and creation, recording the struggles of a female artist who had achieved among the greatest renown and sales of her generation.
Section Two analyzes organizations of female artists. Despite their conservative reputations, they attracted modernist sculptors who enjoyed critical success. Louise Nevelson's room-sized bricolage environments emerged from her participation with National Association of Women Artists: mythic and sculptural manifestations of the provocative concept of community for women in the 1950s.
Section Three reevaluates the influence of Simone de Beauvoir on artists and critics. The Second Sex (1949) unmasked the myths of women and the failings of female artists. Beauvoir's penetrating scrutiny of popular imagery, as well as commentary on visual art, provided the germinal theoretical approach to a feminist art history, first detectible in the postwar writing and painting of Elaine de Kooning and Minna Citron.
The various feminist positions and networks of the 1940s and 50s, as revealed in the dissertation, staked out the territory of a critical female subjectivity in art, which later developed into an organized, self-conscious feminist art movement.