Mary Abbott. Photo courtesy of McCormick Gallery, Chicago.
Abstract Expressionist painter Mary Abbott, known for her colorful canvases and sweeping brushstrokes, has died at the age of 98. McCormick Gallery in Chicago, which has represented the artist for almost 20 years, said the cause of death was heart failure.
In 2008, the New York Times praised Abbott as “one of the last great Abstract Expressionist painters of her generation.” Nevertheless, Abbott’s work received little scholarly recognition until 2016, when the Denver Art Museum organized the exhibition “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” which traveled to the Mint Museum in North Carolina and the Palm Springs Art Museum in California.
Abbott’s work was shown alongside that of 11 other women who were among the pioneers of the Ab Ex movement in the late 1940s and ’50s, including better-known figures such as Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Grace Hartigan.
(Those five painters were the focus of Mary Gabriel’s prize-winning 2018 book Ninth Street Women, in which Abbott was a recurring figure.)
One of just three living artists in the show, Abbott spoke on the occasion about what drew her to abstract painting. “It just hit me. I just liked it,” she said in a video produced by the museum. “Trying to do things representationally didn’t work for me. [With abstraction] I could talk in a different way.”
Abbott was born in 1921 to Henry Livermore Abbott and Elizabeth Grinnell, members of New York’s social elite. Her family was descended from President John Adams, and counted the Roosevelts as close friends. As a young socialite in the early 1940s, she appeared on the cover of Vogue, launching a brief modeling career with further covers for Charm, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour.