Back in the 1950s when Abstract Expressionism was blooming on the East End and beginning to boom around the world, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler were among the more prominent women in the movement.
Two were also married to among the “most” prominent, and one dated a critic key to the movement. A new play by a former East Hampton resident lets the three women speak again and shine, as we hear their voices and get a look into their lives.
Krasner was a painter and was married to Jackson Pollock, whose career she helped advance. Along with being a painter, de Kooning was married to Willem de Kooning. Frankenthaler dated critic Clement Greenberg, who embraced the movement.
Prasad Paul Duffy, a playwright, director and former East Hampton resident, has written Strokes of Genius focusing on the three women, their work, worries, wishes and balancing act in a movement and art world then dominated by males.
Strokes of Genius, which he is also directing, is set in Greenwich Village and Springs, and is debuting at Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival September 13–18 in the East Village.
Susan Hochtman plays Krasner, Olivia Jampol plays Frankenthaler and Corinne Britti plays Elaine de Kooning.
“Originally, I wrote it as a six-character play with the three women and their three famous male partners,” Duffy said. “Last year, I decided to abstract it and I cut the men from the play. I opened it up to tell the story exclusively through the women’s point of view.”
That doesn’t mean the male artists have been excluded; but the play is about three female (not exactly “hidden”) figures finding their voices and identity, and helping create a movement.
“The men are part of it. They talk to them offstage. They talk about them,” Duffy continued. “They were heavily influenced by them and were in love with them.”
Duffy is directing the show, the latest effort in a career spanning writing and direction. He has directed various plays such as Bullpen by Dennis Watlington starring Giancarlo Esposito and Wendell Pierce (of The Wire), and When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, Laurence Holder’s play about Malcolm X.
“It’s really about these women empowering themselves to pursue their dream, never giving up until they were recognized with retrospectives before and after their death,” he said.
The play mixes the women’s words with the playwright’s, creating a kind of collage of conversations that follow their own trajectory in a plot that tells the tale of a time and of their lives.
“I culled from interviews and random quotes and I finessed them into scenes, imagining the dialogue between these women when they were hanging out,” Duffy said. “They tell their stories through monologues, their exact words. That’s where I was writing it as an Abstract Expressionist playwright. I abstracted their words into a funny, emotional play about these three maverick women artists.”
Duffy sees the East End, also a character along with Greenwich Village, as providing the peace and quiet that let these artists’ minds run wild.
“You could say that being in the Hamptons inspired their work,” Duffy said. “They needed to get out of the claustrophobic intensity of New York City.”
The Pollocks and the de Koonings, Duffy said, are “part of the Hamptons history and Greenwich Village history,” noting Frankenthaler often visited the Pollocks. The play, while covering a wider span, is framed around the Ninth Street Art Show.
“The downtown artists shifted the focus from Paris to New York,” Duffy said of the art show where Elaine de Kooning was a key organizer. “Modern art wouldn’t have happened the way it did if that show hadn’t happened.”
Duffy, whose research included biographies and interviews, believes Krasner, for instance, was crucial in advancing her husband’s painting career.
“She helped make him a household name. He was on the cover of Life magazine,” he said. “He helped launch the Abstract Expressionist movement. She as a woman was struggling for her work to be recognized alongside the men.”
Krasner, he said, is more conservative, while Elaine de Kooning “is more progressive or flamboyant with her sexuality.”
“They are frenemies, because their husbands are rivals/colleagues, being the two top Abstract Expressionists of their day,” he said.
The dialogue at one point crystalizes the paradox of trying to advance their painting career and those of their spouse.
“You know what they say, ‘Behind every great man is a greater woman,’” Lee Krasner says in the play.
“Yeah, that’s because we have to help hold them up, because they’re too drunk to stand,” Elaine de Kooning replies.
The play tells a story of artists and a particular time. “At the end of the play, the three women realize they have more in common than differences,” Duffy said.
East Enders interested in this subject can visit the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, a national historic landmark, in East Hampton. But the play shows these three artists, alive again in part in their words, navigating the art world and life.
“It’s really about these women empowering themselves to pursue their dream, never giving up until they were recognized with retrospectives before and after their death,” Duffy said. “Their work is worth millions.”
Strokes of Genius, written and directed by former Hamptons resident Prasad Paul Duffy, part of Dream Up Festival, Theater For The New City, 155 1st Avenue, New York; Tuesday, September 13 at 9 p.m., Wednesday, September 14 at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, September 15 at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, September 17 at 2 p.m. and Sunday, September 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets $18 at dreamupfestival.org.