Interviews

Sexism and the Canon: Three Female Artists Reflect on ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’

Works by Joan Mitchell (left) and Lee Krasner (right)
Works by Joan Mitchell (left) and Lee Krasner (right) in ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’ at the Denver Art Museum (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

DENVER — The paintings in Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum are rich with emotion, monumental in scale, and totally original. The exhibition presents more than 50 paintings by 12 artists, some of whom are rarely discussed as contributors to the Abstract Expressionist movement. Like any ‘first,’ the first comprehensive show on these women artists raises as many questions as it answers. Most important of these is the question of whether a reengagement with these artists changes the reading of the movement. With fresh eyes on major works, how will contemporary artists react? Hyperallergic sat down with three Denver-based artists — Trine Bumiller, Sandra Fettingis, and Ashley Eliza Williams — to gauge the impact of the show and whether the reception of women producers today has evolved since the 1950s.

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Kealey Boyd: Can you briefly give an account of your artistic training and what you’re currently working on?

Trine Bumiller: At Rhode Island School of Design I started out as an illustration major. Due to department staffing issues I moved into printmaking. I studied etching and drawing in Rome. After an internship and graduation, I went to work for Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Neo-Expressionism was really popular at the time, but I was at an Abstract Expressionist gallery. Because of that I started making really messy, thick, and abstract paintings.

Sandra Fettingis: I trained as a photographer at Art Center in Pasadena and Columbia College in Chicago, finishing in Chicago. I grew up with two artist parents, very traditional artists. My father is a watercolorist and paints portraits; my mother makes charcoal and pencil botanicals. I grew up thinking I had to be a representational artist. Photography allowed me to capture and represent life as is. I was shooting creative portraits, creating sets for my models. Eventually I realized I was more interested in the set design and slowly I took away the model. I moved to creating sculpture and set design. Taught myself. Becoming more and more abstract every year. Now I paint murals and sculptural instillations.

Ashley Eliza Williams: I earned my undergraduate degree at University of Virginia in art history, fine art, and creative writing. I painted portraits and the figure. Over time I became more abstract. I became more interested in intellectual landscapes or mental landscapes. I went to University of Colorado Boulder for graduate school, bringing me to the mountains. Now I think about human imagination and the landscape, and how the actual landscape becoming smaller can limit our imagination.

Works by Helen Frankenthaler
Works by Helen Frankenthaler in ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’ (click to enlarge)

KB: As students, did you encounter any of the 12 women featured in Women of Abstract Expressionism show?

AEW: I only remember when studying art history in college, Abstract Expressionism was the first time women were mentioned. That was really exciting.

TB: Once I moved to New York City, I was exposed to Joan Mitchell and Elaine de Kooning.

KB: What impression did the exhibition make on you? Any surprises?

AEW: Helen Frankenthaler was fearless by staining a raw canvas, leaving no room for mistakes. Her work is … kind of gross in regard to her process and really muddy colors.

SF: Joan Mitchell is raw and graffiti-like.

TB: Mitchell feels like pre-Cy Twombly. In one moment, her work feels very European, like a Monet influence, a water quality. Each Mitchell painting is an encyclopedia of techniques. Perle Fine feels new, like her paintings could be made today and be fresh. Mary Abbott’s lines are effervescent.

KB: Did you relate to any artist’s work specifically? Did you see any visual language that you use?

Judith Godwin's "Woman" (1954) (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Judith Godwin’s “Woman” (1954) (click to enlarge)

SF: There were moments, like Judith Godwin’s “Woman” (1954), where the work felt very controlled. There would be a repetitive line and then loose elements. It’s more gridded and structured, which I identify with.

AEW: I am interested in the idea of distilling the landscape to its purest form. I first saw that idea in Frankenthaler and then I saw it everywhere. It is really exciting how that idea could be emotional. In my career I have looked back to the Abstract Expressionist artists to find emotion I thought was missing from contemporary works that were so … clean.

TB: The confidence of the work. To leave a line hanging, the bare canvas, the color choices, shows me an unexpected strength.

KB: Grace Hartigan said “I’m a process artist.” As creators yourselves, were there any surprises about the production choices these artists made? Anything you may try in your practice?

TB: I was struck by Frankenthaler walking or sitting on the canvas. Perle Fine used a platform structure to sit above the canvas. Their process was physical.

AEW: It makes me want to work on a larger scale. (TB and SF agree.)

SF: The first encounter we had in the show was Jay DeFeo’s “Incision” (1958–61). I was unaware there was anyone out there, or a female, that was doing that, especially at that time. It feels like a sculpture. That piece is hardcore. I want that depth in my work, a sculptural element.

Works by Jay Defeo in 'Women of Abstract Expressionism'
Works by Jay Defeo in ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’ (click to enlarge)

KB: In an interview with Hyperallergic in 2015, the show’s curator, Gwen Chanzit, said: “Most [women] were not fully acknowledged in their time. … It’s not so surprising that Abstract Expressionism, like other movements, has largely been defined by male painters.” Do you see trends in art today defined by their male participants? Is there an art form today that is read as macho?

SF: Street art. It can be illegal, the artist carries all the physical materials. There is a possibility of being arrested. Males are more likely to go into that art form.

Elaine de Kooning's "Bullfight" (1959), which was acquired by the Denver Museum of Art.
Elaine de Kooning’s “Bullfight” (1959), which was acquired by the Denver Art Museum. (click to enlarge)

TB: The persona is one of a badass. Like those male Abstract Expressionists, the risk demands the label of being macho. I would add to that really big public art as fitting that description as well. Permanent art. There is an ego to making really big art and putting it out in public. In regard to public art commissions in Denver, the first for me was at the convention center. I didn’t even think about the fact that I was the only woman commissioned for the convention center until the city made public the cost of each work. What I was paid for my work was one- fifth of the male artists. Did they pick me because I was a woman!? Did they pick me for a good deal?! It feels like (in a deep voice), “if you want a big piece of public art you need a big man to make it.”

KB: In the exhibition catalogue, the art critic Irving Sandler writes: “I once asked Grace Hartigan if a male artist ever told her she painted as well as a man. She said, ‘not twice.’” Do you encounter gendered critiques by professionals in the field — press, peers, or others?

AW: I’ve encountered some male artists that read a feminist agenda in any work by a woman artist. Even mine! Always referencing the body and psychology.

TB: In New York, I made paintings with sprouts, meaning vertical lines with bulbs at the end. A male artist asked me about why I made such phallic work. It didn’t occur to me, but it didn’t bother me that it was interpreted that way. But then I was embarrassed that I didn’t see it that way.

SF: I’ve had people say my work is ‘fun.’ That waters down what I try to do. I don’t feel like that would be said to a male artist. Makes me ill. I’m not sure why someone would say that. My shapes are really hard, and I use a lot of black.

TB: I heard my work was beautiful, but used it in a negative way.

Work by Grace Hartigan in 'Women of Abstract Expressionism'
Work by Grace Hartigan in ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’

KB: Did the show have a personal impact on your own creative process?

SF: It helps me have more confidence in my work. It gives my work weight.

TB: It’s validation. No revolution happens overnight. It takes these little moments to chip away at the big block. Like a woman nominated for president, backlash about violence against women — these are all moments. It’s a good thing.

AEW: It’s amazing what these artists were able to accomplish in that time, that environment. It makes me feel lucky to be creating art now. It makes me excited to discover more about these women and their peers.

KB: What is at stake in this show? What is its argument?

TB: It is not about a hierarchy. It is about broadening the gaze. It can also be about people of color and where is that story here?

Mary Abbott's "Oisin's Dream" (1952)
Mary Abbott’s “Oisin’s Dream” (1952) (click to enlarge)

SF: It’s nice to see more than one painting per artist, and see some breadth of work. There is not a token representation, but an exhaustive effort. In art history you see the same artists in your lifetime. We learn through repetition and by having this show, and it being repeated and discussed, these names and their work may sink into our consciousness. Rewriting history through repetition.

TB: And having the real paintings out there in public. No one was aware at the opening the size of the actual works, how grand and physical. If you only see them in the book, or as a black-and-white image, or only one by a woman artist, it changes how you read it.

AEW: What people get upset about is the rewriting of history. But that is not the case here at all. It’s presenting these works and their creators as worthy of more study. I also think there is an element of storytelling happening in popular culture; finding ways to bring people back from the dead and telling their story from their point of view. It’s also about the power of art to tell stories, and it is really exciting. It makes me think about what story am I telling with my art.

A Krasner (right) with a Frankenthaler (middle left).
A Krasner (right) with a Frankenthaler (middle left) in ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’

Women of Abstract Expressionism continues at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, Colorado) through September 25. Trine Bumiller and Sandra Fittings are featured in Colorado Women in Abstraction at the Center for Visual Art (965 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, Colorado) through October 1. Ashley Eliza Williams will have a solo show at Goodwin Fine Art (1255 Delaware Street, Denver, Colorado) in November.

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