On the Legendary 9th Street Art Exhibition

Art History

January 27, 2021

When it comes to visual art, the early post-war period was marked by the emergence of a new movement that was born outside Europe – Abstract Expressionism spread rapidly across the United States and it gathered a generation of artists who managed to change the course of modern art. Under the influence of European avant-garde on a scale from the subjectivity of German Expressionists to the Surrealist fascination with the unconscious, the Americans launched a unique approach to abstraction with a multitude of styles.

Much was written about its leading proponents, such as Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning, who gained international acclaim and were promoted as American art icons. However, it is rarely known that the seminal exhibition which championed the entire movement was the 9th Street Art Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture held in New York in 1951.

In the spotlight of this artist-led event were the New York School and the artists like Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert de Niro Sr., Elaine de Kooning, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, and others.

9th Street Art Exhibition - Abstract Expressionism Artists Reminisce

Before The New York Exhibition

During the late 1940s, numerous artists had art studios in lower Manhattan, between 8th and 12th streets and First and Sixth Avenues. This loose collective was known as the Downtown Group and many of its artists were part of the Federal Art Project and had served the army during WW II.

Guided by Philip Pavia, during 1949 the members of the Downtown Group formed a more structured group called The Club that came up with the idea to organize their first presentation now known as the 9th Street Art Exhibition. To announce the show, the artist Franz Kline produced the promotional materials, while Aaron Siskind documented it with a series of photographs. In total 74 artists participated, but only 64 are listed on Franz Kline's original poster. To recall the organizational circumstances behind the exhibition, arts journalist Philip Barcio briefly summarized:

Rent for the decrepit exhibition space for the entire length of the show was only $70, but nearly everyone involved in the show was broke, and some were literally starving. Future art dealer Leo Castelli covered the bill, and the artists did all of the work to renovate the basement and first floor of a condemned building at 60 East 9th Street. Castelli, in his first curatorial effort, six years before he opened the gallery that made him famous, also hung the show. It was said he was selected because he was popular, and many of the artists thought he would hang their work impartially, but he also paid for most of the expenses. 

9th Street Art Exhibition poster, 1951. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Women Artists

An important aspect of the 9th Street Art Exhibition was the presence of eleven women artists from which five (Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler) received international fame as their works were collected by museums and private collectors.

Throughout the years, their grand contribution to further development of American art became under-appreciated until 2018, when the book Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel appeared and remerged the interest in the domains of women of Abstract Expressionism. Following this publication, an art history class titled Ninth Street Women: The Women of Abstract Expressionism was established by the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).

Second Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, The Stable Gallery poster, 1953. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Legacy of 9th Street Art Exhibition

Not even a single work was sold as the exhibition, in general, was not considered commercial in terms of the art market; it is, however, perceived as a breakthrough since it stir drew the attention of the public, and especially because it managed to spark the theoretical emphasis on the formal and stylistic innovation proposed by the exhibiting artists. The art critics Harold Rosenberg on one side, and Clement Greenberg on the other, enforced a rapid critical recognition of Abstract Expressionism alongside the likes of the collector Peggy Guggenheim and the MoMA’s curator Alfred H. Barr despite this movement was never that popular nationwide during the 1950s.

Some of the artists were featured as part of the New York Painting and Sculpture Annuals 1953–57 held at The Stable Gallery, a converted horse stable, that was located in Manhattan. The second exhibition was followed by Clement Greenberg’s introduction that saluted the Ninth Street Show for setting an example of a bold artist made exhibition.

Although Abstract Expressionism became the leading art phenomenon in the post-war period that set the ground for later development of other art movements such as Neo Dadaism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, the majority of artists presented in the 9th Street Art exhibition remained unknown and some of them withdrew from arts. The ones who made are now known as the seminal figures not only of the movement but the most prolific figures of American painting.

Looking from the contemporary perspective, the 9th Street Art exhibition is the result of joined efforts of a small art community that managed to distance itself from the institutional recognition and promote their art regardless of any constraints. Finally, this event not only marked the launch of Abstract Expressionism, but also enabled New York to become a new center of the art world instead of Paris.

Editors’ Tip: Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

Five women revolutionize the modern art world in postwar America in this "gratifying, generous, and lush" true story from a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist (Jennifer Szalai, New York Times). Set amid the most turbulent social and political period of modern times, Ninth Street Women is the impassioned, wild, sometimes tragic, always exhilarating chronicle of five women who dared to enter the male-dominated world of twentieth-century abstract painting -- not as muses but as artists. From their cold-water lofts, where they worked, drank, fought, and loved, these pioneers burst open the door to the art world for themselves and countless others to come.

Featured image: Aaron Siskind - Installation view of the Ninth Street show, 1951. Leo Castelli Gallery records, circa 1880-2000. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.