Unwrapping the paintings for our "Abstraction" exhibition, I had a shock -- or at least a wonderful surprise. I called to my associates and said, "Wow, who of you managed to get this de Kooning 'Landscape' painting?" The answer: "We have no de Kooning 'Landscape' painting for the show. That is a Mary Abbott."
Circa 1950-1951, Mary Abbott painted "Untitled," a vibrant, gutsy work playing off of intense layers of brush strokes across the canvas that give a visceral, landscape-like impression. De Kooning's first known stab at these structures and colors took place in the mid-50's and reached maturity in about 1957. This is somewhat unsettling, as we never think of de Kooning as being influenced by anyone other than his more well-known male counterparts! He spoke mostly of Gorky's influence, never mentioning Mary Abbott's. I decided to look some more.
Where Has Mary Abbott Been All These Years?
When it comes to Abstract Expressionism, the same auspicious names dominate: Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Motherwell, Gorky. These artists have dominated the discussions of art historians, textbooks, museum exhibitions and newspaper headlines since the late 1940s. Imagine a largely overlooked protagonist in this narrative, a crucial figure in the New York Post-war art scene whose story is only now surfacing. This new story is emerging and with it the understanding of the profound influence Mary Abbott had on the Abstract Expressionist movement and especially on her lover, Willem de Kooning.
Though her story includes fascinating professional relationships with Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning and formal study under George Grosz and Eugene Weiss, Mary Abbott's oeuvre speaks loudly for itself. Capturing abstract landscapes even before de Kooning, Abbott's experimentation in abstract-all-over composition achieved a rare level of expression. They pulse with an intimacy and vehemence which her older, male counterparts were only later able to attain. Her intuitive ability to render mood and environment in her abstract canvases demand to be seen.