Mary Abbott, who was at the heart of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York in the 1940s and ’50s but, like other women painting in that genre, received far less recognition than her male counterparts, died on Aug. 23 in Southampton, N.Y., on Long Island. She was 98.
Thomas McCormick of the McCormick Gallery in Chicago, which represented her, announced the death.
Ms. Abbott painted bold, colorful works, often inspired by nature or music, and traveled in the same circles as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and other artists who were redefining painting in the years after World War II. De Kooning in particular, 17 years her senior, became a friend, lover and protector, including from some of the other male artists.
“I didn’t like Pollock much,” Ms. Abbott related in an interview for the biography “de Kooning: An American Master,” by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (2004). “When he was sober he didn’t talk, and when he was drunk Bill had to keep pulling him off of me.”
That vivid description conveys what women trying to make a name for themselves in that world were facing.
“Mary Abbott was an early participant in the development of Abstract Expressionism,” said Gwen Chanzit, curator of the 2016 Denver Art Museum exhibition “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” which included works by Ms. Abbott, “but like other women painters, she was mostly left out of historical accounts of this male-dominated movement. Only now are the women of Abstract Expressionism beginning to be recognized for their contributions.”
Unlike some of her contemporaries — among them Lee Krasner (1908-84), Pollock’s wife, and Jay DeFeo (1929-89) — Ms. Abbott lived to see a resurgence of interest in the work of female Abstract Expressionists.
“To see this and other early works by Ms. Abbott together is a treat,” Benjamin Genocchio, reviewing a 2008 show at the Spanierman Gallery in East Hampton, N.Y., featuring several of her paintings, wrote in The New York Times, “for most come from private collections and have rarely been publicly shown. Few of her works are on permanent display in New York-area museums. That is a shame, for she is one of the last great Abstract Expressionist painters of her generation.”
Mary Lee Abbott was born on July 27, 1921, in New York City, and for her first two decades seemed headed for an entirely different sort of life. Her father, Henry, was a Navy captain and recipient of the Navy Cross, and her mother, Elizabeth, a poet and syndicated columnist, was a member of the socially prominent Grinnell family. Ms. Abbott was first singled out in The Times and other newspapers not as an artist but as a debutante, her high-society activities documented in painstaking detail.
“Debutantes of this season, headed by Miss Mary Lee Abbott, granddaughter of Mrs. William Morton Grinnell, were among the groups rehearsing this morning at Conscience Point for the Southampton tercentenary pageant, ‘Founded for Freedom,’” The Times reported on Aug. 9, 1940, “which will be given next Wednesday and Thursday at North Sea, within sight of the landing place of the community’s first settlers.”
By then, though, Ms. Abbott had already begun taking classes under George Grosz at the Art Students League in Manhattan. After a foray into modeling — she appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines — she moved in 1946 into a cold-water flat at 88 East 10th Street, near Washington Square Park, and plunged into the artist life.
De Kooning, according to “An American Master,” used to bring her kerosene to make sure she had heat. They were romantically involved for some years.
“There were no dinners,” she was quoted as saying in that book. “There wasn’t money for that. Then later we went to the Cedar Bar.” That tavern was a famed gathering place for avant-garde artists and writers. Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and other noted Abstract Expressionists congregated there.
Ms. Abbott was by then separated from Lewis Teague, an artist she had married in 1943, and in 1949 she went to the Virgin Islands to obtain a divorce from him. There she met Tom Clyde, a retired investor, and they married the next year. They had a residence on Long Island, but because he had back problems they spent winters in Haiti and St. Croix, and Ms. Abbott’s paintings began to be influenced by the people and lush landscapes she found there. Later, when she had once again settled in Southampton, her garden inspired her work.
“Mythology and religion were touchstones, but nature was Abbott’s lifelong interest,” Ms. Chanzit said by email. “Her free brushwork was particularly inspired by place and by the variations of color and light in the natural world. Her paintings were never documents of specific sites, but her personal responses to them.”
She and Mr. Clyde divorced in 1966, and she spent the 1970s teaching at the University of Minnesota. Then she returned to the East Coast, for some years dividing her time between a loft on West Broadway in Manhattan and a small house in Southampton. A decade ago she finally gave up the loft.
Ms. Abbott is survived by a half sister, Elizabeth Abbott.
In 2017 the online gallery IdeelArt wrote about Ms. Abbott, pondering why she was not better known.
“How is it that an artist whose work is considered to have had a profound impact on one of the most important art movements of the past century is also somehow practically unknown to contemporary audiences?” the article asked.
“Based on interviews Abbott has given, things like having her accomplishments touted, getting credit for her influence and being recognized for her contributions to art history are of little importance to her. Still active in her studio today in her mid-90s, Abbott seems content to focus on what she believes is most important: making art; and to let irrelevancies like reputation handle themselves.”
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