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Mary Abbott in her Saint Croix studio in the early 1950s. Courtesy of McCormick Gallery, Chicago.

Mary Abbott (1921–2019)

The American painter Mary Abbott, who used bold colors and gestural brushstrokes “to draw the imagination,” died on August 23 at ninety-eight years old. Abbott, whose influence permeated the circle of Abstract Expressionists she belonged to, created vivid oil paintings and watercolors often inspired by nature and her travels. “I like the process of painting. The intensity of living nature through myself—using the medium, paint, color, and line defining the poetry of living space; that is my aim, life and work,” she once said.

Abbott was among the artists included in “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” the first museum exhibition ever dedicated exclusively to the pioneering women of the AbEx movement. Curated by Gwen Chanzit and presented at the Denver Museum of Art in 2016, the show also included the work of Jay DeFeo, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher.

Born in New York City in 1921, Abbott, a descendant of US presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, knew she wanted to pursue art from a young age. When she was seventeen, she studied at the Art Students League under the tutelage of George Grosz and went on to attend the Corcoran Museum School in Washington, DC, where she took classes with Eugene Weiss. In addition to painting, she also had a career as a model and was featured on the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

In 1943, Abbott married Lewis R. Teague, a painter and soldier in the US Army. Abbott moved around with Teague as he was assigned to different posts until they split in 1946. That same year, the artist relocated to Greenwich Village in New York, where she found an apartment on Tenth Street, now synonymous with the community of artists who would carve out a postwar avant-garde. Not long after she befriended David Hare, who introduced her to the experimental school Subjects of the Artist, where she met and learned from Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning, who invited her to join “The Club,” a group that gathered weekly in the East Village to drink and discuss art. The only other female members of the clique were Perle Fine and Elaine de Kooning.

Abbott would eventually marry the businessman Tom Clyde, with whom she traveled to the islands of the Caribbean, where the tropical foliage fueled her creative output. When the union ended in 1966, she became a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Ten years later, she returned to New York, where she maintained homes in Manhattan and Southampton. Over the course of her career, Abbott exhibited her work at galleries such as Kootz, Tibor de Nagy, and Tanager, as well as at the Museum of Modern Art, among other museums, and was represented by the McCormick Gallery in Chicago. 

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