Revolutionary Gestures: Works from a Private Southampton Collection

By Sotheby's
“When I start [painting] I don’t know what’s going to happen…. When you’re dancing, you don’t stop to think: now I’ll take a step…you allow it to flow.”
Elaine de Kooning

S otheby’s is honored to present a selection of exceptional works by groundbreaking female artists working in the mid-twentieth-century. Spanning from the East End of Long Island to downtown Manhattan, this booming artistic scene became the center of the international art world during one of the most transformative eras in art history. Revolutionary Gestures: Works from a Private Southampton Collection, highlights the brilliant and diverse contributions that these women made to Abstract Expressionism – the first modern art movement in the United States – and includes fresh-to-market examples by artists including Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Hedda Sterne, Michael (Corinne) West as well as Dorothy Dehner. Until recently, these artists’ major contributions to the Abstract Expressionist movement, and their visibility and involvement in the New York art scene during the 1940s and 1950s, had largely been overlooked. Despite not receiving the same critical attention as that of their male counterparts, the artistic and intellectual contributions to the Abstract Expressionist movement, which flourished in New York in the period following World War II, are widely recognized today as essential to the radical development of twentieth-century art in the United States.

In her illuminating 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 (2018), writer Mary Gabriel provides an in-depth study of the unique techniques, experiences and legacies of the women who exhibited alongside their male colleagues in the groundbreaking Ninth Street Show, which opened in Greenwich Village in May 1951. This historic display of seventy-two artists, which included central figures to the Abstract Expressionist movement such as Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston, was an unprecedented event in the history of art in the United States. As legendary gallerist Leo Castelli later recalled, “We considered this almost as the first Salon des Independents; this is what I called it as a matter of fact…. I thought that never before anything of this kind had occurred in America” (Oral history interview with Leo Castelli, July 1969, AAA-SI). Thrilling examples of the unique artistic visions of the Ninth Street Women are brilliantly demonstrated in Elaine de Kooning’s Standing Bull and Grace Hartigan’s Fantasy Study, two highlights from this collection that display an ingenuity and raw, expressive mark making constant throughout both artist’s highly original oeuvres. Coming to market nearly seven decades after the Ninth Street Show, these works remain as groundbreaking as they were considered when these remarkable women were fighting their way onto the gallery walls alongside their male counterparts.

Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Grace Hartigan at the opening of Frankenthaler’s solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, February 12, 1957. Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos. Artwork © 2022 Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Headlining the collection is New York VII, a brilliant example of pioneering artist Hedda Sterne’s mature style and unique contribution to the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. Created using aerosol spray paint – a new product in hardware stores at the time – to echo the motion and speed of the city, New York VII, a painting from one of Sterne’s most recognized series titled Roads, suggesting a fascination with New York’s highways, as well as a mature style informed by her personal environment. Spray-paint canvases from this widely recognized body of work, as well as Sterne’s New York series, which she painted simultaneously, were acquired early on by such key modernist collections as the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Other highlights from the collection include works by Michael (Corrine) West and Dorothy Dehner, whose direct gestural styles, as well as their proximity to the Ninth Street Women, encouraged critics to place them among the so-called “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionists, emerging in the early 1950s, only to become some of the most celebrated artists of the decade.

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