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There is much to celebrate about the exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism curated by Gwen Chanzit for the Denver Art Museum (DAM), and indeed the mood of the show was decidedly exuberant in its design and content. From the breathtaking views of Helen Frankenthaler’s towering Jacobs Ladder (1957), Lee Krasner’s ebullient The Seasons (1957), or Elaine de Kooning’s explosive Bullfight (1959) to the reading room lined with archival photographs of laughing artists reveling in their 1950s studios, there was an air of excitement conjured throughout. This feeling was matched in the critical reception for the exhibition which has received much national acclaim for paying overdue attention to the presence of women in a movement long understood to be inherently masculinist. Yet, feminist art historians have reason to be cautious about the real effects of such revisionist exhibitions. They remain necessary because the structures of oppression based on gender, race, and sexuality persist in the art world and elsewhere despite the occasional redress. Once the exhibitions are over, those structures often remain unchanged. Thus the curatorial premises behind the exhibition deserve some close examination even while the granting of major visibility to such impressive artists and artworks is laudable. Women-only exhibitions have experienced something of a resurgence after an initial wave in the 1970s under the pressure of feminist movements of that decade, a fact observed by Hilarie M. Sheets (“Female Artists are [Finally] Getting Their Turn,” New York Times [March 29, 2016]). We might debate whether such shows meet the needs of an art market hungry for new commodities or whether curators are truly seeking social reform. Certainly, there can be no legitimate excuse in the future for major institutions or publishers to exclude women from surveys of the period now that their presence has been so firmly established, thanks to exhibitions like Chanzit’s.
There were two possible entrances to the exhibition at DAM, but the more striking was the one marked by a series of pyramidal forms lining the approach like sentries. Each pyramid was devoted to one of the heroines of the exhibition and contained a historical photograph and a detail of one of her characteristic works from the show. Focusing on the particular identities of each artist foreshadowed the format of the exhibition which was organized around the individual style and artistic accomplishment of each of the twelve artists included: Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, De Kooning, Perle Fine, Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher. Small galleries were carved out and devoted to individual oeuvres, a format that was logically reinforced by text panels that relied heavily on primary sources including quotations from the artists. The exhibition designers deftly navigated the notorious challenges of the irregular diagonal planes of the Hamilton Building, designed by Daniel Libeskind, by constructing the galleries with temporary interior walls that suited the hanging of paintings but remained in dialogue with the angles of the architecture. The result was a dynamic yet comfortable space through which viewers could meander as they either drew their own inferences about relationships between works by scanning the whole or stayed cozily embedded within the smaller-scaled galleries devoted to each artist’s works.
Chanzit immediately set the exhibition’s tone by asserting in an introductory wall text that the artists’ “authentic expressions belong front and center in the accounts of Abstract Expressionism” and that “they helped forge the first fully American Modern Art movement.” Several conditions are taken at face value here, namely the solidity of the borders of this “American” modern art movement, as well as the firm borders of the authentic self—the artist as subject. The exhibition also trucks in the triumphal tone of some of its critical champions, including Irving Sandler, whose contribution to the catalogue consists of a troubling 2013 interview with Joan Marter. In it, Marter, who edited the publication, asks several pointed questions about how and why women received less recognition in the period. Sandler dances between acknowledging the strength and presence of artists like De Kooning and Mitchell, yet repeats different versions of the refrain, “I really hate to say this, but there didn’t seem to be women of the stature of, say, Mark Rothko, Bill de Kooning, Jackson Pollock” (69). If this interview is meant to stand in for how “art historians” neglected women’s participation, it is certainly effective. Other aspects of the exhibition were clearly indebted to the careful revisionist scholarship of art historians such as Ann Eden Gibson and, indeed, Marter herself, whose contributions go back at least twenty years (even if that heritage was not made explicit to the casual observer).
Chanzit’s exhibition is a productive contribution to recent efforts to integrate West Coast artists into accounts of modern movements, as there were some notable works by artists working in the Bay Area. This also made sense since that Bay Area community included Clyfford Still, whose collection and archive resides next door to DAM. References to Still were appropriately muted, however, so as not to overshadow the daring contributions of DeFeo, Gechtoff, and Remington, whose canvases were prominently displayed near the exhibition’s main entrance. DeFeo’s Incision (1958–61) and Gechtoff’s The Beginning (1960) both seemed to risk a complete dissolution of form and structure more than anything else in the exhibition and thus departed strongly from the gridded Cubist structure that underlies Krasner’s Gothic Frieze (1950). The West Coast artists’ risk-taking was attributed to the freedom that came from working in relative isolation from the art market, as well as the backdrop of the San Francisco Beat culture, a notion elaborated in the exhibition catalogue by Susan Landauer.
An all-women show such as this invites and even requires that we consider these artworks in terms of gendered frameworks, but do those frameworks impact anything beyond the question of equal access to a sustaining market? There were several points made in the exhibition texts about the artists’ relationships to male painters, but refreshingly that did not happen as much as one might expect, and there was no attempt to make direct comparisons with artworks by male artists. There were also few explicit attempts to identify overtly feminine or even feminist themes within the works’ content, though it was pointed out repeatedly that nature is a frequent inspiration for the artists’ subjects. This is true of much of Abstract Expressionism—Hans Hofmann had taught that “nature is the source of all inspiration”—but the tone of some wall texts seemed dangerously close to suggesting a link between such content and the artists’ gender. Robert Hobbs approached this suggestion through a feminist lens in his catalogue essay, “Krasner, Mitchell, and Frankenthaler: Nature as Metonym.” Through a theoretical discussion of metaphor vs. metonymy, he attempted to recuperate the metonymic as a “highly poetic trope” that is just as important as metaphor (60). This argument seemed to affirm the women artists’ work as inherently figurative, and so while it was likely intended to expand a consideration of Abstract Expressionist methods, Hobbs’s point ultimately remained bogged down in the problem of gender as an intractable binary. It is a frustrating conundrum that results from maintaining that system of gender, especially when other models exist in the wake of recent discourses around gender fluidity.
It is this conundrum that probably lead most viewers to simply abandon a deep feminist analysis of this show on all but the most basic level, and to simply enjoy the sheer magnitude, lushness, and energy of the paintings. Works such as Krasner’s aforementioned The Seasons or Cornucopia (1958) exhibit the swirling, fluid arcs of pink and green that the artist risked after shedding Pollock’s domineering influence. Krasner’s collages made of her repurposed canvases were also displayed as if to give image to the idea of rejecting frustrations of the past and building something new. Fine’s collages were also represented with shimmering, metallic works like Image d’Hiver (1959) and Early Morning (1957) which combined gritty black and gray pigment with sand and paper.
Ultimately, a hopeful narrative emerged about artists who recovered a sense of agency despite the weight of history, as when Hartigan seemed to wipe away Cubism’s legacy with her multicolored, all-over canvas brushed with thick marks that she called The King Is Dead (1950). Having vanquished the king (Pablo Picasso, of course), her gallery is hung with intensely red-hued canvases and a large, turbulent work entitled The Massacre (1952) that hung opposite The King Is Dead. Hartigan’s Massacre is a send-up of Massacre at Chios, an 1824 work by Eugène Delacroix, who represents, like Picasso, another member of the art-historical monarchy dethroned by Hartigan. Waving verticals roughly correspond to the color palette and composition of Delacroix’s original, but Hartigan’s wildly energetic forms seem to arrive closer to the essence of such unrestrained violence. Hartigan responded to hallowed motifs of civilizations—power, tragedy, injustice—through raw painterly marks and counted on viewers’ powers of empathy to understand the emotion conveyed on a visceral level. This is the successful manifestation of Abstract Expressionism’s aims—to convey universal emotions through a striving toward universal forms. Viewers take Hartigan’s marks as indexes of the artist’s inner feelings and imagine that they can connect with those feelings because they experience them visually, on a level beyond the verbal. Certainly, this Abstract Expressionist idea has been thoroughly deconstructed, but when one is afforded access to these forms and feelings again from an entirely fresh perspective of noncanonical artworks, the reasons for Abstract Expressionism’s success come alive once again.
Associate Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, Department of Art, Metropolitan State University of Denver
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