Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock
This is an excerpt from an interesting article taken from
[Husbands and] Wives - ARTINFO.com by Carol Kino, published Oct. 1, 2008
Women in art, as in other fields, have historically taken a backseat to their men. But
times are changing— and so are prices, as the market turns to overlooked artists.
In her 2001 memoir, Between Lives: An Artist and Her World, Dorothea Tanning recounts her first meeting with her future husband, the great Surrealist Max Ernst. It was 1942 and he was scouting for the survey show “Thirty-one Women” when he arrived at her apartment for a brief studio visit, stayed for a lengthy chess game and, a week later, moved in. “That we were both painters did not strike me as anything but the happiest of coincidences,” Tanning writes. That, however, was before their relationship was exposed to the art world, where, to her dismay, she often found herself pigeonholed as merely “his wife.” As she noted of the Surrealists, “the place of women among these iconoclasts was not different from what it was among the population in general, including the bourgeoisie.” Certainly, it is no secret that throughout history, the art world has been a tough place for women—whether they’re up against the sexually charged politics of the Surrealists, the purported egalitarianism of the Bauhaus or the machismo of the Abstract Expressionists. And when the woman in question is married to another artist— especially a renowned one, like Ernst—the problems can be compounded.
Ask market specialists, and they’ll probably tell you that generalizations are impossible. Apart from the individual dynamics of each union, the respective acclaim of husband and wife also depends on how well developed their careers were before marriage; which spouse outlives the other; and who is the most prolific, developed their careers were before marriage; which spouse outlives the other; and who is the most prolific, works in the more popular mediums or has the most recognizable style.
But ask an art historian, and you’ll likely get a different answer. “I don’t think it’s so much the relationship that adds a damper as it is society,” says Maura Reilly, the curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. “The art market is a microcosm of society, which is extraordinarily sexist. Whether or not the men and women within those relationships consider themselves equal, their prices are always unequal, because society maintains that inequality.” The record concurs. Take Sonia and Robert Delaunay, both proponents of Orphism, a sensuous and colorful offshoot of Cubism. Although they collaborated, she devoted a great share of her later years to promoting his work. Sonia outlived Robert by decades and is generally acknowledged as the better artist, but his pieces have frequently exceeded the million-dollar mark at auction, while hers have done so only once, in 2002, when her Marché au Minho of 1915, a vividly hued abstraction of a Portuguese market scene, achieved $3,878,902.
Then there’s Sophie Taeuber-Arp, who, with her husband, Jean Arp, was at the center of Swiss Dada until her accidental death at 53, in 1943, from carbon-monoxide poisoning. Today her work is considerably less known than his. It’s also less costly: At auction, her record stands at $1,411,764—about half of Arp’s $2,673,796 top price.
Although Lee Krasner outlived her husband, Jackson Pollock, by 28 years, her auction high is only about a quarter of his. Ditto for the 79-year-old Helen Frankenthaler, whose career always seemed roughly on par with that of Robert Motherwell, both before and after their 10-year-plus marriage. As for Tanning, now 98, who has studiously tried to avoid being identified as a “woman artist” or even a Surrealist, her auction prices top out at $70,237, achieved in 1990 for The Philosophers, a shadowy scene from 1952 in which two figures appear to tussle over a drink in a bar. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with the $2,429,500 record commanded by Ernst, whose work, experts generally agree, is undervalued. “Historically, women have been somewhat underappreciated,” acknowledges Robert Manley, the head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s New York. Yet in recent years, he adds, the market for many women—especially Krasner, Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell—has dramatically improved. One might logically assume the upsurge has something to do with several decades of feminist scholarship and activism prompting a reassessment by curators and critics. Not so. “It’s just a sign of the overall art market,” he says. “People are looking to overlooked artists, period. I guess looking at women is a natural start.” The Abstract Expressionist wives seem to have had it worse than many. Although the market was not really a factor in those days (Manley notes that in the early ’50s “nobody was buying anything by anyone, man or woman”), the movement itself was legendarily unfriendly to women. Elaine de Kooning, Mercedes Matter and Krasner might have been asked to join the Eighth Street Club, an influential Ab-Ex discussion group founded in 1949, but they weren’t included in board meetings. The Sidney Janis Gallery threw some of them a bone that year by mounting the show “Artist: Man and Wife.” Then there’s the famous comment Krasner’s teacher, Hans Hofmann, once made about one of her paintings: “This is so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.” For Krasner especially, “the market has shown that there was an ill effect from being married to someone who was such a proponent of that field,” says Anthony Grant, a senior international contemporary-art specialist at Sotheby’s. She seems to have spent much of her marriage introducing Pollock to influential people, keeping him sober and generally putting his needs before her own. In East Hampton, he painted in an expansive barn, while she worked in a bedroom. “In 1950s America, she was still expected to play the traditional role of wife,” says Reilly. “If we didn’t have Lee Krasner, we wouldn’t have Jackson Pollock. She kept him alive—she was his rock.” After her husband’s death, in 1956, Krasner moved into his studio and eventually arrived at the exuberant abstractions that she’s known for today. Still, for decades, she didn’t have a major retrospective in the United States. Why? “I’d have to say principally because I am Mrs. Jackson Pollock,” she commented in a 1972 interview. She finally got one, in 1983, the year before her death; it was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and later traveled to the Museum of Modern Art, in New York.
Other Husbands & Wives include Joseph & Anni Albers, Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera, & Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson.