I won’t be getting to Denver to see the exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism, curated by Gwen F. Chanzit, and chances are I won’t be getting to Charlotte or Palm Springs to see its subsequent iterations; with luck, I just might make it to London where the show will end its tour in the summer of 2017. So I’m glad I’ve got the catalogue at least. This is a necessary show and publication — though also just a stopgap until something more comprehensive comes along. We think the canon of American art of the 1940s and ‘50s is set in stone, but we’ve got a lot of looking still to do. The exhibition itself includes works by a dozen East and West Coast artists whose work I know well (Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell), ones whose names I’ve come across periodically over the years without ever learning much about them (Sonia Gechtoff, Ethel Schwabacher), and a few who are completely new to me (Mary Abbott, Judith Godwin). The catalogue includes essays (by Joan Marter, Ellen G. Landau, Susan Landauer, and Robert Hobbs, as well as an interview with Irving Sandler and an introduction by the curator) that are in themselves excellent but only begin to cover the territory. Better still, there are images and a bit of biographical information about many more artists than those in the show, and these include some of the ones I’d be most curious about. Of course, reproductions can be misleading, but the works of Michael West (born Corinne Michelle West, 1908-1991) in particular look terrific — gutsy, physical, and yet hauntingly self-erasing. The single reproduced painting by Vivian Springford (1914-2003) makes me want to see more, too. There’s a 1941 canvas by California sculptor Claire Falkenstein that could easily have been captioned as having been painted this year by Amy Sillman — how fresh is that? And what about West Coast Asian-Americans Bernice Bing (1936-1998) and Emiko Nakano (1925-1990)? This book left me hungry for more illustrations and much more biographical data about these artists, who accomplished what they could against great odds. It left me a bit melancholy, too. Without some concerted effort today, these artists are still all too likely, for the most part, to sink back into the obscurity they fought against as hard as they could. By chance, just after reading this catalogue, I came across a letter to the editor in the London Review of Books responding to a review of a book on Grace Hartigan, one of the anointed “Women of Abstract Expressionism.” The letter writer, one David Hass of northwest London, notes that the reviewer’s rundown of women painters in New York in the 1950s omits a certain Dorothy Heller, who, according to Hass (I wonder what his source is), was once named by Clement Greenberg as “the finest woman painter in America,” adding that she exhibited with the Tibor de Nagy, Poindexter, and Betty Parsons Galleries. Heller goes unmentioned in Women of Abstract Expressionism. It seems there’s more research to be done.

Women of Abstract Expressionism, ed. by Joan Marter (2016) is published by the Denver Art Museum in association with Yale University Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso, 2016) and a collection...

6 replies on “Reader’s Diary: ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’”

  1. Check Thomas McCormick Gallery in Chicago for more Mary Abbot. He shows her work regularly.

  2. Overheard at art supply store:
    Artist 1: “We need more women artists!”
    Artist 2: “We need more women that buy art.”

      1. Guessing on Etsy-type art selling platforms that most buyers are women, since most artists on Etsy are women. But then the average sale on Etsy is around $20.
        Bottom line….we need more people buying more art.

  3. Re: Dorothy Heller. Heller made art continuously from the 1940s to the 1990s. I didn’t know early enough about the Denver exhibition so that I could have brought Dorothy Heller’s works to the curator’s attention. Her husband, Joseph Grunig (now deceased) photographed and catalogued almost all the approximately 350 of her paintings (out of perhaps 500?) that remained in her Greenwich Village studio after her death in November 2003. Hundreds of works on paper remain to be catalogued. Grunig and I mounted an exhibition of 32 selected 50s and 60s abstract expressionist paintings by Dorothy Heller at the Center for Architecture gallery in NYC in November 2013. We distributed information re the exhibit to numerous museums, galleries, and the media, and advertised it in art magazines. Grunig had developed a website for her artworks: http://www.DorothyHellerArtworks.com . Admirers of her work, Walter Wickiser, and I have been trying to bring attention to and develop a market for her work; we hope that will eventually help sustain a foundation to preserve, exhibit, and ensure the place in art history her work deserves.

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