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Marianne Moore | Jay St station on the A train

Today’s women of the map is what I love about this project: someone utterly unknown to me made visible. One complex and complicated, wholly self-invented and self-sufficient. Marianne Moore was a rockstar of modernist poetry at the time of TS Elliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, a well regarded editor and her “Collected Poems” won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Bollingen Prize. Elliot proclaimed her “part of the small body of durable poetry written in our time” and John Ashbury was “tempted simply to call her our greatest modern poet.”

So why does nearly no one now consider her such? Maybe because her most famous poem, called simply “Poetry,” begins “I, too, dislike it.” It also includes the oft-quoted line “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” She rather loved writing “data-dense animal poems.”

Her poems are often challenging to read. The language is abstract, precise, erudite. But she had another side, a sports loving, jeans wearing, advertising writing, All-American sensibility. She kept journals [swipe for her handwriting]. She wore a cape with accompanying black tricorn cap [swipe for that image!], had a trapeze in her apartment to help manage her scoliosis and threw out the opening pitch at Yankee Stadium in 1968.

When asked how she became a poet she replied “endless curiosity, observation, research and a great amount of joy in the thing.” She was – gasp! – an enthusiast. I imagine this played a bit lowbrow for the intellectual set and helped erase her from the literary cannon. To wit, here’s how she was remembered on the front page of the New York Times after her death on this day in 1972: “She was cheerful and optimistic and sometimes answered the telephone herself.”

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Elaine de Kooning | 23rd St station on the F train

Elaine was one of the most power figures in America’s first great artistic revolution, Abstract Expressionism. Vibrant, intelligent, talented. Not only a painter and figurist, she could also write. “The right word was as vital to her as breathing,” her sister said. As a bridge between those two worlds, she used the force of her personality and the power of her pen to bring the movement out of the studio and into the mainstream. 

To be an artist, she said, you had to be reckless. I’d like to think of her as audacious. I love this from Ninth Street Women: Elaine liked to think of herself as a modern-day version of the hetaerae of Ancient Greece, a comrade to and companion of intellectual men, a woman who was equal to them and treated as such. 

She may have considered herself equal to the men, but it was their art, not her own, that garnered the spotlight. She became “wife of” Bill de Kooning, even if she never stopped painting. 

Her art matched her personality: vibrant, bold, playful but serious. Not surprisingly, she painted a lot of men and there is an intimacy to those portraits that I just love. 

After her separation from Bill, Elaine lived in near poverty. She taught at dozens of colleges, was politically active and continued to writawst e and paint, including a commissioned portrait of JFK. I saw it last year at the National Gallery [swipe for the photo]. She’d been in the last stages of the painting when JFK was assassinated. Devastated, she didn’t touch her brush again for a year. The last decade of her life found her reunited with Bill after a 20 year hiatus. The ended as they began: she as advocate and protector, painting in his light [never his shadow]. She died 31 years ago today, just 70 years old, with a studio full of recent canvases.

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Lee Krasner | 18th Ave station on the 1 train

Here she is, the indomitable and prolific artist known as Lee Krasner. Born in Brooklyn on this day in 1908 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Lee changed American art.

It’s fitting I return to this project today because Lee’s story challenges the idea that women haven’t played an active role in history, except perhaps as help maids and villains. Correcting the record is fundamental to the City of Women and our efforts to change the maps.

Her story is utterly compelling, both as a woman and a painter challenging social norms. Lee was by all accounts “a marvelous pain in the ass” who “detested stupidity.” She was tenacious, driven, a forthright and stalwart accolade. There is little complication here, perhaps an odd thing to say about an artist who was the “mother courage” of abstract expressionism. But it was how she saw herself: “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.”

She kept working, even when as a young student the great Hans Hofmann said to her, “This is so good, you would not know it was done by a woman,” as a WPA muralist finishing de Kooning’s work, relegated first to the “ladies union” and later to little more than Mrs. Jackson Pollock, later still as his widow. All along she simply wanted to be seen for what she was: a painter. “I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”

Standing before her life’s work at the Barbicon earlier this year was unexpectedly emotional. I was gob smacked by her talent, the breadth of her work, its scale and boldness. And I was angry that we had been deprived of this genius all these many years. This is an artist who deserves to be known.

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Millay | 8th Ave on the L

National Poetry Day.

It’s fate, a sign, an elbow to the ribs: today is the day to finally put the fiery, multi-talented, irrepressible, bewitching Edna St. Vincent Millay on the map.

I mean just look at her!

She is the epitome of freed feminist rebel cool [baggy pants! smoking! practical shoes!]. Her poetry read much like the woman: brutally honest, political, unapologetic, emotionally vulnerable, beautiful. It won her a Pulitzer in 1923, the first woman to earn the honor.

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light!