The paradigm of the “overlooked female artist” is both a cliché and a truth. We all know the art market is unceasingly hungry, and previously sidelined women artists are the perfect food. But that doesn’t change the fact that countless female artists have been ignored, forgotten, and stepped on, that movements defined by their male stars have entire other histories still in need of writing.
Exhibitions are a way to begin that process, and next spring, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) will mount one. The title — Women of Abstract Expressionism — says it all: this is a show devoted to the women artists involved with the famously macho movement, and it is the first of its kind. Highlighting better-known names — Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell — alongside lesser-known ones — Sonia Gechtoff, Perle Fine — the exhibition will encompass 12 women’s work, “focus[ing] on the expressive freedom of direct gesture and process at the core of abstract expressionism, while revealing inward reverie and painterly expression,” according to the description. It will also include a new video exploring these women’s lives — the particulars as well as the broader (sexist) cultural conditions of the 1950s — through their own testimony and that of their children.
Although it’s still more than eight months away, Women of Abstract Expressionism promises to be groundbreaking. I eagerly emailed with the exhibition’s organizer, Gwen Chanzit, who serves as curator of modern and contemporary art and of the Herbert Bayer Collection & Archive at DAM, to ask her a few questions in anticipation.
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Jillian Steinhauer: This is an exhibition that seems long overdue. Can you tell me a bit about the process of developing it — how long it’s been in the works, when you first had the idea for it, whether you encountered any resistance in realizing it?
Gwen Chanzit: I first began thinking about this topic in 2008, when I saw Action/Abstraction at the Jewish Museum in New York and wondered about some of the “outlier” artists who still sit at the fringes of Abstract Expressionism’s history. On the plane returning to Denver, I kept coming back to some female Abstract Expressionists whose paintings challenge the predominantly male-centric definition of the movement. Frankly, I was surprised no major museum exhibition had yet been mounted. Responses to the exhibition have been positive. Museum colleagues have responded favorably and have been generous with key loans.
JS: Relatedly, are there precedents that you looked at in organizing this show — either previous exhibitions of women in Abstract Expressionism or similar undertakings for different groups? (The Sackler Center’s Seductive Subversion comes to mind.)
GC: Yes, the first was Action/Abstraction. I also went to see Brooklyn’s Seductive Subversion about women Pop artists and saw LACMA’s consideration of Surrealist women artists in the exhibition In Wonderland. I thought: why has similar consideration not been given to the women of Abstract Expressionism?
JS: Why did you decide to show just the work of the women, rather than their work alongside the men’s? (I was on a panel not too long ago about whether there’s still value in holding all-women exhibitions, so this has been on my mind!)
GC: Wouldn’t it be great if we were beyond thinking in terms of gender? Most would agree that we’ve come a long way, and it’s easy to say that it was long ago — in the late ’40s and the ’50s — when there was such enormous gender bias. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that our own basic textbooks eschewed the work of female artists. With few exceptions, current market values still undervalue canvases by female painters of this movement in comparison to their male contemporaries. Projects like this one provide an essential correction to this unevenness.
Beyond space limitations (these paintings are large!) and the fact that there have been major Abstract Expressionist exhibitions in recent years, an exhibition like this one enables us to highlight some of the special qualities found in these works.
I hope to see the time when the canon will have expanded beyond the handful of artists (predominantly male) who have previously defined Abstract Expressionism. Then we can show works by male and female painters of this movement side by side and appreciate the distinct qualities of all these individuals.
JS: The press release says that the women in the Bay Area “were on a more equal footing with their male counterparts than those working in New York.” Can you elaborate a bit on this and the difference in gender bias between the two scenes?
GC: In the Bay Area there was more freedom; it may be that there were more acceptances of individuals in the West. The experimental galleries Six and King Ubu were collaborative ventures where men and women worked on equal footing. Sonia Gechtoff tells that when she moved to New York, she was surprised and disappointed to find that despite her success in San Francisco, as a woman she wasn’t taken as seriously.
JS: I’m wondering why more of these women aren’t well-known. Did they have success during their time that was then eclipsed by the writing of history, or were they not fully acknowledged in their time?
GC: Most were not fully acknowledged in their time. Though many showed in exhibitions along with men, this was a time when societal opportunities for women were limited. It’s not so surprising that Abstract Expressionism, like other movements, has largely been defined by male painters; yet in this case, their male-ness, their heroic machismo spirit, has become a defining characteristic of the expansive gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism. But process and experimentation with materials weren’t exclusive to men; they are also evident in paintings by women. Many female painters also responded to personal triggers in their own firsthand experience; some abstractions might even be thought of as interior, emotional gesture. This exhibition endeavors to expand what we know of the movement to include canvases by women of Abstract Expressionism that express compelling points of view by individuals who were individual in every sense.
Women of Abstract Expressionism will open at the Denver Art Museum (100 W 14th Ave Parkway, Denver) on June 12, 2016.