Making Space for Women Artists

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday April 13, 2017

There’s nothing like backlash to propel a dissed art movement back into the mainstream, and Abstract Expressionism is no exception. In today’s post-Feminist environment, it’s a perfect model: Art by white men to promote an inner being. Art sprung from spiritual—not political—impulses. Art celebrating the individual—not where he came from. Art that is, above all, large.

This week an exhibition aimed at correcting that imbalance opens at the Museum of Modern Art: Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction.The show, which presents about 100 works by over 50 international artists, begins with the few female stars of the AbEx movement—a list headed by Mark Rothko, William deKooning and, above all, Jackson Pollock. The museum’s press release, in fact, states that the recent acquisition of a number of works on view here reflects an ongoing efforts to improve its representation of women artists.

In the first gallery, a stellar work by Joan Mitchell (Ladybug, 1957) has everything the hungry eye could want in a gestural abstraction: thick brush-marked swoops of paint all over a lightly primed canvas. Not least of its beauty [yes, the B word] derives from its underlying color wheel relationships—a theoretical mode that was derided by most contemporaneous artists who ranked self-expression ahead of formalism. Beauty also claims the surface of Lee Krasner’s Gaea, 1966, the title in homage to the primordial Greek deity who could also be called Earth Mother. One of the best surprises in the opening section is a small (18 x 14 inches) work by Janet Sobel, an exquisitely talented drip painter whose 1946 piece on view here presaged Jackson Pollock’s mammoth works that “introduced” the idea of drip painting, and was coined “action painting.” Sobel's brief painting career, which began at age 43, ended before she could make a name for herself.

 Joan Mitchell,Ladybug, 1957, courtesy MoMA

The show advances the art of abstraction through a transitional group of pieces in the realm of fiber arts, with works by Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks and Lucienne Day; highly abstracted chair by Lina Bo Bardi, and zen-like ceramic bowls by Lucie Rie.

The postwar New York School—heavily collected by MoMA—also includes Yayoi Kusama’s “net paintings,” done while the Japanese artist spent more than a decade in the city as an important participant in the downtown avant-garde scene, creating these obsessive abstractions as well as happenings in which she introduced the polka dot work for which she is best known today. It also includes Agnes Martin, whose numinous grid paintings are informed by the meditation she habitually practiced before picking up a brush.

Outside of New York, the Bay Area was a hotbed of new art being made with non-art materials, labeled “Eccentric Abstraction” by Lucy Lippard and represented here by a wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa. Women artists were key pioneers of this new direction, proposing mediums and methods that challenged the existing order and often called attention to body parts and functions. Among the works on view in this section are Embryo II, 1967 by Lynda Benglis and Untitled, 1961 by Lee Bontecou. These works can be seen as precursors of the Body Art movement, whose chief proponent, Carolee Schneemann, was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts this week at the 57th Internal Art Exhibition of the Venice Bienniale.

The work that introduces the show along with a wall text is a small, sublimely realized grid-based painting by Etel Adnan, born in Lebanon, 1925, and still working today. Her paintings were recently seen in New York at Calicoon Fine Arts (2014) and the Whitney Biennial (2014) and currently at Flag Art Foundation through mid-May.

Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstractionopens Saturday, April 15 and continues through mid-August. Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, NY, NY Info



Clockwise from top left: Sonia Gechtoff in studio ca. 1961-62 (Image courtesy Sonia Gechtoff), Mary Abbott in studio ca. 1949–50 (Courtesy McCormick Gallery, Chicago), Perle Fine in studio in 1959, Judith Godwin in 1977 (Courtesy Judith Godwin), Deborah Remington (Courtesy Deborah Remington Charitable Trust for the Visual Arts), Helen Frankenthaler in 1956. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

If you want to see more women in AbEx, you’ll have to travel west, where Women of Abstract Expressionism continues through the end of April at the Palm Spring Art Museum. The show, organized by the Denver Art Museum last year, brings together more than 50 paintings by 12 artists working on the East and West coasts during the 1940s to ‘60s: Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher.

“For millennia, women have been creators and innovators of artistic expression,” Christoph Heinrich, director of the DAM, said in a press statement. “Few women have found their way into the accounts of art history, and not until the 20th century have they received some of the credit that is long overdue. We are delighted to be the first U.S. museum to tell these stories of the most prolific female Abstract Expressionists.”


Elaine de Kooning, Bullfight, 1959; courtesy Denver Art Museum.

Christopher Knight, art critic of the LA Times, wrote, “It’s the kind of show that can shake up preconceptions. The fat, brashly colored, crashing brushstrokes in the work of Elaine de Kooning (wife of Willem) seem overblown and contrived, as if they are trying too hard for impact. By contrast, “The King Is Dead” — an agitated, all-over field of red, white and blue markings studded with rainbow flickers plus dense black — puts Grace Hartigan at the leading edge (the marvelous painting dates from 1950).

“And Ethel Schwabacher, an artist virtually unknown to me, starts out as an adept camp follower of Philip Guston’s misty abstractions, before quickly moving into a strikingly distinctive fusion of shapes and brushwork that seemed carved from explosive color. Each of the 12 is represented by anywhere from three to six pictures. The catalog includes a useful chronology of the period and several good essays.

Women of Abstract Expressionismcontinues through May 28 at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, CA Info




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