Strokes of Genius – Women of Abstract Expressionism on Stage
In the 1950s, when Abstract Expressionism was flourishing in the East End and beginning to explode around the world, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler were among the most prominent women in the movement.
Two were also married to “most” prominent figures, and one was dating a key critic of 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 learn about their lives.
Krasner was a painter and was married to Jackson Pollock, whose career she advanced. In addition to being a painter, de Kooning was married to Willem de Kooning. Frankenthaler dated critic Clement Greenberg, who embraced the move.
Prasad Paul Duffy, playwright, director and former East Hampton resident, wrote strokes of genius focusing on the three women, their work, their worries, their wishes and their balance in a world of movement and art then dominated by men.
strokes of geniuswhich he also directs, runs in Greenwich Village and Springs, and debuts at the 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.
“I originally 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 cut the men out of the piece. I opened it up to tell the story exclusively through a female perspective.
This does not mean that male artists have been excluded; but the play is about three (not exactly “hidden”) female characters finding their voices and identities, and helping to create a movement.
“Men are part of it. They talk to them behind the scenes. They talk about it,” Duffy continued. “They were heavily influenced by them and were in love with them.”
Duffy directs the show, the latest effort in a career spanning writing and directing. He has directed various plays such as bullpen by Dennis Watlington with Giancarlo Esposito and Wendell Pierce (of Thread), and When the chickens come home to roost, Laurence Holder’s play on Malcolm X.
“It’s really about those women who empower themselves to pursue their dream, never giving up until they are recognized with retrospectives before and after their death,” he said.
The play mixes the women’s words with those of the playwright, creating a kind of collage of conversations that follow their own trajectory in a plot that tells the story of an era and their lives.
“I selected random interviews and quotes and turned them into scenes, imagining the dialogue between these women as they hung out,” Duffy said. “They tell their stories through monologues, their exact words. That’s where I wrote it as an abstract expressionist playwright. I’ve summed up their words in a fun and moving piece about these three maverick female artists.
Duffy sees the East End, also a character with Greenwich Village, as providing the peace and quiet that let these artists’ spirits run wild.
“You could say being in the Hamptons inspired their work,” Duffy said. “They needed to get away from the claustrophobic intensity of New York.”
The Pollocks and the de Koonings, Duffy said, “are part of the history of the Hamptons and the history of Greenwich Village,” noting that Frankenthaler often visited the Pollocks. The piece, while covering a wider scope, revolves around the Ninth Street Art Show.
“Downtown artists have shifted the focus from Paris to New York,” Duffy said of the art show where Elaine de Kooning was one of the main organizers. “Modern art wouldn’t have happened the way it did if that show hadn’t happened.”
Duffy, whose research included biographies and interviews, believes that Krasner, for example, played a crucial role 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. As a woman, she fought for her work to be recognized alongside men.
Krasner, he said, is more conservative, while Elaine de Kooning “is more progressive or flamboyant with her sexuality.”
“They are enemies, because their husbands are rivals/colleagues, being the two best abstract expressionists of their time,” he said.
The dialogue crystallizes at one point the paradox of trying to advance their career as a painter and that of their spouse.
“You know what they say, ‘Behind every great man is a greater woman,'” Lee Krasner says in the room.
“Yeah, it’s because we have to help them stand up, because they’re too drunk to stand up,” replies Elaine de Kooning.
The piece tells a story of artists and a particular era. “At the end of the play, the three women realize that they have more in common than differences,” Duffy said.
East Enders interested in this subject can visit the Pollock-Krasner Home and Study Center, a National Historic Landmark, in East Hampton. But the play shows these three artists, resurrected in part by their words, navigating the world of art and life.
“It’s really about those women empowering themselves to pursue their dream, never giving up until they’re 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, as part of the 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.