Mary Abbott


MARY ABBOTT (1921-2019)

Mary Lee Abbott was born into a prominent American family (John Adams was one of her ancestors). She lived variously in New York, Washington, D.C., and Southampton, New York. At a young age, she enrolled in Saturday classes at the Art Students League, later taking advanced courses under George Grosz, Anne Goldthwaite, and Morris Kantor, and pursuing summer study with Eugene Weiss at the Corcoran School of Art, Washington, D.C.

In 1946, she rented a studio at 88 Tenth Street in Manhattan, and in 1948 the sculptor and painter David Hare introduced her to the experimental Subjects of the Artist School. Abbott was one of a handful of women to attend, receiving instruction from Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, and this pivotal experience clarified her turn toward complete abstraction. She was invited by Philip Pavia to join The Club as one of the few women members, and she frequented the Cedar Street Tavern to discuss art, philosophy, and ideas. Willem de Kooning, who delivered a talk at Subjects of the Artist and whom she met around 1948-1948, was a key figure in her personal life and artistic development. Their relationship engendered a lifelong aesthetic dialogue, evident in her early abstractions from the 1950s that show gestural vitality, graphic linearity, and broad brushwork. Abbott’s Bill’s Painting (c. 1951) is dedicated to de Kooning.

Many of her subjects from the late 1940s and early 1950s display the topography and light from her annual winter trips to Haiti and the Virgin Islands. In 1950, she moved to Southampton but maintained a studio in Manhattan. A collaboration between Abbott and Barbara Guest, a first-generation New York School poet, inspired a series of “poetry paintings.” These works combined words and images and were displayed in the exhibition Poetry and Painting alongside work by Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and Larry Rivers. In 1974, Abbott began teaching at the University of Minnesota, returning to New York in 1980.

[Excerpt from the exhibition catalogue, "Women of Abstract Expressionism" published by Yale University Press in association with the Denver Art Museum]