Women Artists and the Abstract Revolution

An interview with Christian and Florence Levett, whose Florence-based collection of mostly female Abstractionists brings to mind the words of Perle Fine, one of the movement's early artists: "My paintings speak the only language I know: color. I like to make the canvas shout or whisper".

Christian and Florence Levett in their home gallery, in Florence. Ph. Marco Badiani

In the late 1950s, Life magazine would credit Abstract Expressionist Grace Hartigan as “the most celebrated of the young American women painters”. Although her initial success did not continue, Hartigan greatly inspired her generation. “I was just dazzled,” future art historian Linda Nochlin would write, after hearing the artist lecture at university. “We all wore skirts and she came up in her paint-covered blue jeans and smoked all during her talk. She was just marvellous. Grace was proof that a woman could do everything… anything.” The Florence-based Levett Collection – with four Hartigans on display – hosts over 100 artworks by women whom, like Hartigan, could “do anything”.

Working shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts, they took New York by storm in the early 1950s and beyond. During ‘Women Artists and the Abstract Revolution’, our springtime ‘Restoration Conversation’, AWA’s fans and friends caught a glimpse of some the movement’s biggest names, including Joan Michell, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. Yet our internationally broadcast talk with art collectors Christian and Florence Levett revealed notable works by lesser-known artists as well. The Levett Collection home-gallery – open for museum docent groups and scholars – comprises works by likes of Perle Fine, Yvonne Thomas, Elaine de Kooning and Pat Passlof, among others. Here are our hosts’ thoughts on these hugely talented artists whose works merit rediscovery.

Perle Fine, Painting No. 56, c.1954, The Levett Collection, Florence

Florence Levett on…

Number 56

“Perle Fine painted her Number 56 in 1954. She was one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. She was born in 1905, earlier than many of her peers, which meant she was at the forefront of developing the techniques that went into creating the movement. She was one of twelve female artists selected for the 9th Street Exhibition, curated by Leo Castelli, which represented a pivotal moment in the history of art. He brought together 74 Abstract Expressionists and his aim was to launch the movement to the world, which is exactly what it did. The show made a name for the painters involved and it put New York at the center of the art scene. Number 56 is quite a gentle piece with soothing colors and you can see her vertical and horizontal lines, almost as if she has painted the canvas in a sort of brick layout. It’s a reminder of how influenced she was by Mondrian and geometric abstraction.”

Bending Blue

Bending Blue is three-meter-high painting by Helen Frankenthaler. It’s a later piece, from 1977, but it’s a perfect example of color fielding. The artist would mix acrylic paints in old coffee cans and before adding paint thinner and pouring the mix onto the canvas. She would work on the floor rather than using an easel. She would work to stain the canvas – there’s no impasto, there’s no brushwork… so, they are very flat, but she would manipulate the paint on the canvas, using house brushes, rollers and sponges, in order to shape the colors. She has washed the whole canvas with a beautiful, glowing peach and then she has added blue, red, yellow and white on top.”

Helen Frankenthaler, Bending Blue, 1977. The Levett Collection, Florence

Living inside an art gallery

“Grace Hartigan’s paintings – in fact, all of the gallery’s paintings – definitely do not bring chaos to me. On the contrary, they bring very positive energy. It feels like we are surrounded by these women and the energy that these paintings project is incredibly inspiring. We have two young daughters who are going to grow up in this environment and I don’t think there is anything better. Nothing could be more important. So, no, it doesn’t feel chaotic. In fact, it feels strangely calm. I know that the rooms are hung almost floor to ceiling with these huge, bold canvases, but it is pure pleasure. We are very privileged to be able to live with them.”

Pat Passlof, Stove, 1959. The Levett Collection, Florence

Christian Levett on…

Passlof’s The Stove

“Pat Passlof’s The Stove is a demonstration of action painting and you can see wild brush strokes underneath what’s become a sort of massive pale blue curtain. There’s a completely abstract picture hidden behind it which is incredibly detailed when it comes to color – at the bottom right and top left, particularly. She has clearly spent an enormous amount of time creating masses and masses bright layers and then, surprisingly, she paints over about 75 percent of it with an incredibly beautiful pale blue! I think that maybe she has done that to draw you into what is going on in the background.”

De Kooning’s Kennedy

“In 1962, Elaine de Kooning was commissioned by the Truman Library to paint Kennedy’s portrait and the President sat for her in December 1962 and January 1963, but he moved around a lot while she painted and didn’t stop working while sitting for her. So, although she was known for being able to produce portraits quickly, he ended up being almost impossible to paint… she would create over one hundred preparatory sketches and did nothing else for an entire year. De Kooning was tremendously disturbed by the President’s assassination and was possibly a bit in love with him. The portrait wasn’t given to the Truman Library until 1965 – three years after it’s commission. In this picture, we can see Kennedy’s face, although she would sometimes wipe out her portraits’ faces. She felt it allowed the viewer to focus on the person’s posture and attitude, rather than being immediately drawn to the face.”

Yvonne Thomas, Transmutation, 1959. The Levett Collection, Florence

A string of ‘good days’

Transmutation is a 1959 painting by Yvonne Thomas. She was also in the 9th Street Exhibition in 1951, after moving to America from France. I’d like to draw attention to this picture because she was early in the movement. Although our collection is mostly by American artists, most of them have first or second generation European backgrounds, i.e., a lot of these female artists either had European parents or had moved to the US from Europe themselves. Obviously, some had escaped the Holocaust and some still had family in Europe during that time. I find her paintings throughout the 1950s just consistently wonderful. I’ve almost never seen a bad one… and any artist can have a bad day! When you look at an artist’s market over time, you begin to differentiate the good pictures from the bad pictures and their good periods from their bad periods but, Yvonne Thomas, for me… every picture I’ve seen of hers, throughout the 1950s is a fantastic picture and that’s not an easy thing to achieve.”


Christian and Florence Levett

Former British investment manager Christian Levett and his wife Florence open their Florence home gallery to scholars, docents and students. It is possible to arrange a Florence visit, through their museum in France, the Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins, which showcases an impressive collection, ranging from the ancient to the contemporary: info@mouginsmusee.com

This article was originally published in Inside AWA magazine, Summer edition, 2021