In the art world, a rising tide of exhibitions focuses on female artists. Although group and solo art exhibitions by women are nothing new, the trend seems to favor a deeper and more rigorous engagement with female artists’ contributions to historical and contemporary art practice.
The Los Angeles gallery Hauser Wirth & Schimmel drew attention earlier this year with its inaugural exhibition, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016, a visually sumptuous, scholarly survey that recognized innovative achievements by women in a medium typically associated with male artists.
A glance at the 2016-17 art season reveals important female retrospectives nationwide, including Charlotte Moorman at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, Mierle Laderman Ukeles at the Brooklyn Museum, and Agnes Martin on the West Coast at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and across the country at the Guggenheim in New York.
Possibly the boldest entry yet, Women of Abstract Expressionism, unfolds Feb. 18 to May 29, 2017, at the Palm Springs Art Museum. No art movement in history evokes white male machismo more than abstract expressionism; a mere mention of the term conjures images of Jackson Pollock dripping paint onto a prone canvas or Willem de Kooning drinking and womanizing his way through the 1950s New York art scene.
Their dominance of the domain, along with a larger systematic refusal to give equal exposure to women artists, eclipsed the accomplishments of their spouses — Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning — who, in addition to working on their own paintings, were expected to concentrate on their husbands’ careers and general well-being.
Women of Abstract Expressionism, curated by Gwen Chanzit for the Denver Art Museum, includes Krasner and de Kooning, as well as Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jay DeFeo. The exhibition also features the work of seven artists whom many viewers will encounter for the first time: Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Mary Abbott, Perle Fine, Grace Hartigan, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher. The show reveals vivid and deeply committed work that rivals the best showings by their male counterparts.
Elaine de Kooning left New York in 1957 to teach at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Deborah Remington’s Exodus (1960) is a thick impasto painting that builds textured marks around an imposing black center. In Judith Godwin’s Epic (1959), layers of paint obscure one another to create an intriguing suggestion of a scene. Mary Abbott’s All Green (circa 1954) shows a confident handling of color and form, as shades of green coalesce, highlighted by brisk wisps of white. Krasner is well represented by several paintings, including her important work, The Seasons (1957). De Kooning’s Bullfight (1959) evokes the physical energy of a bullfight through aggressive swaths of color.
Chanzit has said she reviewed scores of candidates for this show, and that paring it down to 12 women who would stand for all the others was a difficult task. It was necessary, however, in order to produce a show that gives thoughtful consideration to each artist, providing sufficient examples of individual pieces to impart a sense of the breadth of each artist’s body of work. The exhibition’s substantial catalog continues the discussion with several incisive essays plus an expanded biography section that highlights 30 additional artists, including Bernice Bing, Joan Brown, and Claire Falkenstein.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MCCORMICK GALLERY, CHICAGO
Mary Abbott (above left) almost always painted in dense patterns with thick strokes that referenced nature. Willem de Kooning was influential to her work. Opposite: All Green (circa 1954) by Mary Abbott.
LEFT: PHOTO COURTESY OF DENVER ART MUSEUM/© MARY ABBOTT
“The female pioneers of the abstract expressionist movement were truly marginalized during a period when women artists were almost automatically considered second-rate,” says Elizabeth Armstrong, executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum. “During their lifetime, few of them received recognition anywhere close to that of their male peers. The exhibition of the artists in Women of Abstract Expressionism is long overdue, and provides the chance to experience the power and freshness of their work firsthand.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF DENVER ART MUSEUM/© SONIA GECHTOFF.
Children of Frejus (1959) by Sonia Gechtoff.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SONIA GECHTOFF
With such notable momentum behind all-female group exhibitions, observers in the art world have been debating their merits. Some feel they are a necessary correction to centuries of systemic disregard and erasure, while others feel the best solution is to exhibit the work of female artists alongside that of males, to the point where the term “woman artist” would become unnecessary. Chanzit falls into the former camp. Her introduction to the catalog lays out her goal of expanding the historical definition of abstract expressionism. She notes: “Current market values still undervalue canvases by female painters in comparison to male contemporaries. Projects such as this one provide an essential correction to what is by any measure an unequal accounting of women’s contributions.”
COURTESY DEBORAH REMINGTON CHARITABLE TRUST FOR THE VISUAL ARTS
PHOTO COURTESY OF DENVER ART MUSEUM / COURTESY DEBORAH REMINGTON CHARITABLE TRUST FOR THE VISUAL ARTS
Deborah Remington (above right) painted Apropos or Untitled (1953) before she traveled extensively in Asia, and the work reflects her interest in Japanese sumi-e brush painting.
PHOTO © 2016 HELEN FRANKENTHALER FOUNDATION
PHOTO COURTESY OF HELEN FRANKENTHALER FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
Helen Frankenthaler was renowned for her technique of color-staining unprimed canvases and evoking elements of landscape and figuration, as in Western Dream (1957).