Women of Abstract Expressionism

DENVER ART MUSEUM | THROUGH SEPTEMBER 25, 2016
MINT MUSEUM, NORTH CAROLINA | OCTOBER JANUARY, 2017
PALM SPRINGS ART MUSEUM | FEBRUARY MAY, 2017

In the conclusion of his 1983 review of a Lee Krasner retrospective held at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Robert Hughes wrote: “This is an intensely moving exhibition, and it will suggest to all but the most doctrinaire how many revisions of postwar American art history are still waiting to be made.” Now, more than thirty years later—and with such emendations still pending—comes another exhibition featuring Krasner’s work, among others, that aims to knock the painfully constricted socks off the fat feet of the art historical canon—and succeeds with flying colors. Women of Abstract Expressionism is a necessary and impressive show highlighting fifty-one works by twelve artists who worked within and around the Ab-Ex School in the 1940s and ’50s. Of the artists included, none are men; some are better known than others, and all are worthy of our time, not to mention much deeper, sustained critical attention than what can be afforded in a group setting. And if one can manage to ignore much of the wall text and simply observe this fascinating collection of work, the restraints of history seem to fall away, leaving in their wake a rather breathtaking view.

Installation view: Women of Abstract Expressionism, Denver Art Museum, June 12 – September 25, 2016. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

Installed on the top floor of the angular juggernaut that is the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton building, the images act as a sophisticated counterpoint to the stubborn architecture, leaning and looping or standing firm with all the pomp and personality that we have come to expect of the Ab-Ex era. The lyric, ribbonesque strokes and bleary pools of pigment that comprise the canvases invoke oblique references to literature, nature, the body, and current events, but are tied to no single object, no narrow translation. Ethel Schwabacher’s big red Antigone I (1958), for example—the first painting seen upon entering the exhibition—is a riot of offbeat color juxtapositions and tightly wrought gesticulation that carries the dramatic conflict of the classical tragedy beyond its narrative and into the wide-open realm of abstraction. A central mass of black and white is offset by gnashing scribbles of gray, ivory, and ice blue; to the right, an elongated tangle of goldenrod and fleshy pink stands tall against the fray. These are images that live at the point of contact where pure feeling punches art for art’s sake in the gut and every bum of a gesture joins the brawl. The resultant atmosphere in the galleries is at once boisterous and deliciously calm. Jazz music in the guise of Ella and Louis floats on the air, as diffuse as the light and also as welcome.

The show finds its backbone in the 360-degree view from the central atrium where the viewer can glimpse a sampling of works by different artists, otherwise all regrettably sequestered in their own niches and corridors: Frankenthaler’s Jacob’s Ladder (1957) up front, Mary Abbott’s All Green (1954) to the left, Grace Hartigan’s Interior, “The Creeks” (1957) to the right, and ahead, Joan Mitchell’s Hudson River Day Line (1955) and Krasner’s behemoth The Seasons (1957) loom large. Seeing the work together like this in conversation, as they speak, breathe, and become animated, augments the experience of seeing each individually. It provides contrast and context—more-so than any didactic references to the hyper masculine storyline we already know—for a group of artists who have been pushed to the margins of a movement, but who in that sense now get to redefine it. There’s an undeniable glee in being able to reconsider such a familiar artistic period through a lens other than one circumscribed by the usual suspects.

Enter relative unknowns such as Judith Godwin and Deborah Remington, whose Epic (1959) and Eleusian (1951), respectively, take a less strident approach to the broad, calligraphic strokes so favored by Kline by supporting them with wedges of plum, dusky gold, or tomato red. Godwin’s Epic, in particular, feels like Kline scraped back, à la Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning, as though only she could see that there was color pumping through its veins underneath all along. Eleusian, too, is bleak, but dark and captivating, as profound and brooding as the mythical home of Persephone. Considered alongside the sordid tones of Sonia Gechtoff’s Anna Karenina (1955) and violent brown and white jabs of Lee Krasner’s What Beast Must I Adore? (1961), one can see a thread of intense frustration begin to emerge, suggesting the dual, often grim struggle of being both a woman and an artist.

Other paintings opt for the bright and brilliant, including Getchoff’s The Beginning (1960), Elaine de Kooning’s show-stopping Bullfight (1959), and Ethel Schwabacher’s Autumn Leaves (1956), though this last piece carries its own unfortunate tale. Originally titled Dead Leaves, the name was changed so as to be less morbid and have greater “appeal.” Such an anecdote is quietly infuriating, and points to the exact issue of injustice that taints the whole show: the wispy whorls, fluffy scissor-shaped segments, and chunky clumps of sage green, burnt umber, snapdragon red, and dandelion yellow need no name, yet the presumption that the title should be “prettier,” and the fact that it was changed when the piece went to market, speak volumes.

Textural exploration is another theme that comes through particularly strong in the work of Jay DeFeo and Perle Fine, two artists who play with painting’s more sculptural aspects. The smooth, serpentine curls of Fine’s exceptional Summer I (1958 – 59) and Image d’Hiver (Image of Winter) (1959) are supplemented by patches of aluminum foil that glint like raw diamonds in the canvas’s hand. The sheer mass and intensity of Jay DeFeo’s Incision (1958 – 60)—a stunning, concrete-colored study in just how much oil paint one stretcher can hold—provide a perfect opposite to feathery, jewel-toned swipes of de Kooning’s Bullfight. Stylistic differences aside, these works are thick, carrying their own weight in addition to the immense burden of an outmoded version of art history that seeks to bury them. In the face of the so-called “irascible” machismo, these twelve artists, as well as the thirty others included in the show’s dazzling catalogue, demonstrate that men aren’t the only ones who can rage and roar.

Women of Abstract Expressionism is a conundrum, marking both a departure and a continuation. Though the wall text suggests that the focus here is on artists who are first and foremost “individuals,” the language, layout, and even the show’s title undermine this idea by blatantly reiterating their womanness, discussing them largely as foils to their male counterparts rather than as artists in their own right. And yet, somehow, Women of Abstract Expressionism refuses to be defined by the fact that it is an exhibition of all women artists, but rather is circumscribed by its visual athleticism and ferocious sensuality. It is a gorgeous testament to the variation of mark-making, and the interminable, diverse breadth of the first fully American modern art movement. It is a powerful exhibition, and will suggest to all but the most narrow-minded how many revisions of art history—and not just postwar American art—are “still waiting to be made.” This time around, let’s hope that collectors and curators recognize their folly, and heed the call.

Contributor

Margaret Graham

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