Art

‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’ Challenges the Canon But Is Only the Beginning

Some of the larger-than-life images of the female Abstract Expressionists at the Denver Museum of Art show. (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Some of the larger-than-life images of the female Abstract Expressionists at the Denver Art Museum show. (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

DENVER — The story goes like this. It is 1950. Virginia-born painter Judith Godwin learns that dancer and choreographer Martha Graham will be in the region and all Godwin can think about is her desire for Graham to perform in Staunton at the all women’s school she attended, Mary Baldwin College. The artist presents the idea to her college and is quickly tasked with organizing the performance and hosting the iconic Graham. By 1953, Godwin is in New York, standing backstage, and entranced as Graham makes her way across the stage to kiss this young painter. Godwin has been gifted her muse.

Godwin is my lodestar for unpacking this exhibition. Godwin’s relationship with Graham recurs throughout the widely anticipated Denver Art Museum show Women of Abstract Expressionism, which opened after much hype in June and closes September 25. The dancer punctuates the titles of Godwin’s works and the anecdotes relayed by the exhibition’s curator Gwen Chanzit in the catalogue’s introductory essay. “While music and dance are arts traditionally associated with feminine interests, Godwin’s expressive tribute to Graham is anything but traditional.” In Godwin’s words, “I can see her gestures in everything I do.” The inclusion of three wonderful paintings by Godwin provides a compass for navigating this curatorial project. They are a direct challenge to the rigid criteria for Abstract Expressionist painting that demands artists override the personal in search of the transcendent through abstraction and gesture.

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

“Woman” (1954) from Godwin’s extensive portfolio of oil paintings is hung across from her very large diptych, “Epic” (1959) that belongs to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. Godwin’s “Woman” demonstrates a keen intellectual bent, an engagement with cubism, and a partial surrender to the expressive forces that define Abstract Expressionism. She paints this 68 x 52 inch canvas in the studio, referencing a live model, just after having attended the Art Student League in New York, and the Hans Hoffman Schools in New York and in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She was by then well acquainted with the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Kenzo Okada.

Godwin's "Martha Graham — Lamentation" (1956)
Godwin’s “Martha Graham — Lamentation” (1956) (click to enlarge)

Godwin considers and integrates prevailing discussions in painting about scale, working large, and acknowledging moving and multiple focal points.  Her treatment of the canvas expresses an attachment to and an individualized and articulated departure from cubism. This is quite a different approach from a very well known work on view, Grace Hartigan’s “The King is Dead” (1950) that belongs to the Snite Museum of Art, at the University of Notre Dame. Hartigan playfully alludes, through titling more than composition or form, to her rejection of the masters, specifically Picasso. Godwin, like Hartigan, is immersed in and aware of discussions about the supremacy of the canvas. They are reacting to the importance of all-over painting and the possibility of addressing the canvas beyond its edges. Godwin engages in this discourse with an innovative touch. Her palette harkens to forces earthly with ochre, browns, yellow, hints of blue and plays with white, relying on black integrated and applied in ways to suggest the underlying tension between the natural and artificial. The title itself, Woman, leaves little room for ambiguity. It could be asserted, that she has engaged with her peer Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman. Her approach is distinguished from de Kooning, perhaps in part through the different way she addresses drawing, but what reads most prominently is the result, an interrogation of the concept of artifice. Godwin bisects and bifurcates the plane with contrasting white drips of paint that defy gravity, recalling and organizing Pollock’s drips. She goes further and employs a series of black hatch-work marks, directing and moving the eye in an orchestration across the canvas that effectively allows the figure to operate as a shadow, ever-present, formative, essential, though paradoxically seemingly secondary.

Two paintings by Judith Godwin, (left) "Martha Graham — Lamentation" (1956) and "Epic" (1959)
Two paintings by Judith Godwin, (left) “Martha Graham — Lamentation” (1956) and “Epic” (1959)

Godwin’s work strips bare the central tension that underlies this show as it is meant to operate as an art historical corrective. While her work was exhibited alongside the major players of Abstract Expressionism, at the time it was not woven into that discourse through art writing or major museum exhibitions. In the context of this exhibition, Godwin’s paintings are a red herring that has the possibility of alerting viewers to the problem of art historical categories. When we recall the work of the most notorious artists tagged as Abstract Expressionists, the likes of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, Godwin presents something different.  But what creates this difference, is it the reference to cubism or possibly the audible echo of the figure? The inclusion of her work has the potential to open a rich discussion, a critical engagement with the definition and concept of Abstract Expressionism. The inclusion of Godwin elicits questions about criteria and what it is that defines work within this category? Were the critics, gallerists, and curators looking only for work that pushes hard to abstract forms to the limit, where pure feeling and emotion are the primary forces defining this category of painting? Or does the term reflect a system that organized and managed a group of artists?

The painting, “Martha Graham — Lamentation” (1956), completes the set of three that occupies, just as with the other eleven artists, Godwin’s semi-private area within the larger exhibition. From the onset, at the exhibition entrance, it is explicit that this is an exhibition of 12 accomplished artists. A procession of larger than life portraits depicts the exhibited artists, twelve out of scores who were working at the time. The importance of persona is made resoundingly clear. Upon entering the exhibition, this approach is extended and elaborated through a sequence of spaces dedicated to each of the artists. This is a stunning display of connoisseurship.

Works by Joan Mitchell (left) and Lee Krasner (right)
Works by Joan Mitchell (left) and Lee Krasner (right)

But how productive is this strategy when attempting to revise the canon?

Abstract Expressionism, the quintessential all-American art movement, is a framework that in many ways recalls the corporate business model. The movement was built on the successful working of an intricate system of commercial galleries and museum directors working internationally, and contentious, mission-oriented art writing in service to the development of a very alluring brand of artist and artwork. This new American art offered a counterpoint to prevailing European art of the 1930s, providing a spiritual and intuitive reaction to early twentieth century conceptions of the heroic modern man that dominated philosophy, psychology, and social realist art.

The question that looms over this exhibition is why, when so many artists were working and exhibiting, as demonstrated in the catalogue, do less than a dozen artists roll off the tongue? The male artists that immediately come to mind include: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottleib, and Robert Motherwell. The Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition offers a counter weight to this list. Of the exhibited artists, six are already very well known: Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Jay DeFeo; three are recognizable: Deborah Remington, Sonia Gechtoff, and Perle Fine; we know Ethel Schwabacher from her writing about Arshile Gorky; and two are welcome additions: Judith Godwin and Mary Abbott. Abbott, Godwin, and Gechtoff are still alive.

Perle Fine’s "Early Moring Garden" (1957) and "Image d’Hiver" (1959)
Perle Fine’s “Image d’Hiver” (Image of Winter) (1959)

All in all, viewers of the Abstract Expressionist show are provided an exposure to mesmerizing and transformative painting with but a few exceptions. Specifically, the inelegant use of foil in Perle Fine’s “Early Morning Garden” (1957) and “Image d’Hiver” (Image of Winter) (1959), and the unresolved quality of Mary Abbott’s “Oisin’s Dream” (1952). The diversity of approaches and range of concerns is motivation enough to investigate the validity of the accepted history of the Abstract Expressionist category of art making. While this does not happen within the context of this exhibition or the catalogue, viewers are provided the opportunity to formulate questions about why these artists were marginalized over the decades.

Detail of Mary Abbott’s "Oisin’s Dream" (1952) (click to enlarge)
Detail of Mary Abbott’s “Imrie” (1953) (click to enlarge)

Critics, gallery owners, and museum directors were able to frame and circulate a specific approach to paintings on an international stage. With the end of World War II, the United States assumes a new role as a global player in the emerging Cold War climate. Soldiers, returning from the war, have access to education through the G.I. Bill, including the art schools. At this time, Clyfford Still is developing his approach to the figure moving towards abstraction while teaching in San Francisco at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute). Still had a powerful influence on many of the artists included in this show, particularly those who had been on the West Coast, such as Sonia Gechtoff and Deborah Remington. But by the 1950s, Still and many of his students have moved to the East Coast where the market and discourse were more robust. This new approach to painting has already found its voice in the writing of Robert Coates who coins the now art historical term Abstract Expressionism in the frequently cited 1946 New Yorker exhibition review of work by Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning.

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

Uptown and downtown, New York galleries launch annual exhibitions of abstract and expressionist painters. Downtown on Tenth Avenue, Eleanor Ward runs The Stable Gallery showing new painting. Betty Parsons opens her uptown gallery at 15 East Fifty-Seventh Street in 1946 with the financial help of Saul Steinberg, Hans Hoffman, and Hedda Sterne, an artist strikingly absent in the DAM show. This is a notable exclusion in the context of a revisionist exhibition. Sterne would offer a visual cue to direct viewers to consider the institutional systems that overtime built and propagated the movement.

By 1947, the movement’s chief articulators, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, had begun to debate the qualities and merits of abstraction versus the gestural and performative in painting. Eight years ago, a brilliant collaboration at New York’s Jewish Museum revealed the complexities of this period to the Women of Abstract Expressionism curator Gwen Chanzit.

Perle Fine, "Painting No. 10" (1950)
Perle Fine, “Painting No. 10” (1950)

Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art 1940–1976 was conceived by Norman L. Kleebatt at the Jewish Museum, in consultation with Maurice Berger, senior fellow at The Vera List Center for Art & Politics at the New School and Senior Research Scholar of the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Douglas Dreishpoon, then chief curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; and Charlotte Eyerman, who was then curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. This trans-institutional team was able to engage with the positions and impact of the critics Greenberg and Rosenberg on this art historical moment, making a striking contribution to scholarship and our understanding of the period by taking up these critical debates in exhibition format.

The clash of visions for a new American art allowed for a variety of artists to occupy and battle for position in the emerging artscape of New York. Greenberg took a crystalline and aggressive stand for the transference of the art center from Paris to New York by arguing for artists he could describe as being wedded to a purity of material and matter. He mapped a trajectory through criticism that located this so-called new art within an articulated lineage via modernism. He was committed to work he believed was anchored by objectivity and the acknowledgment of the truth of materiality. Rosenberg saw a different path to the manifestation of this new art movement. He was driven to express in philosophical terms the work of a group of artists, with keen attention paid to the performance of the artist’s understanding of their own state of being through the act of painting. His stakes were in an inquiry driven by existential questions. The most fascinating aspect of these critics’ work, is that for the most part they were committed to the same artists, and they both appear to have neglected to address, in fact to have ignored, women artists and artists of color.

Works by Helen Frankenthaler
Works by Helen Frankenthaler

The curator of the Women of Abstract Expressionism in public talks and the artist Judith Godwin in the context of an interview conducted by Hrag Vartanian made very clear the importance of the Cedar Tavern as a site for meeting among artists and critics. This inherently macho setting informed the movement and imposed an implicit bias in terms of access. Godwin would go to the Tavern, see all the artists, including those women who were married to prominent male artists, the most celebrated examples being Elaine de Kooning (married to Willem de Kooning) and Lee Krasner (married to Jackson Pollock). Helen Frankenthaler had at one time been romantically involved with Clement Greenberg and later married Robert Motherwell. These historical notes are not inserted to diminish the place of these women artists, but rather bring attention to conditions that may in part explain the marginalization and eventual exclusion of artist like Godwin who served no obvious function to the males that dominated the mainstream commercial New York art world.

Further reducing the presence of women in this social setting, artists who shouldered the domestic responsibilities of childrearing were unable to visit these social spaces where deals were struck or devote their complete attention to their artwork. In her public talks, curator Chanzit pointed to these factors and described a number of examples of women artists who destroyed their work once it had become clear to them that they were not enmeshed in criticism or exhibitions.

Sonia Gechtoff, "Anna Karenina" (1955) (click to enlarge)
Sonia Gechtoff, “Anna Karenina” (1955) (click to enlarge)

The devastatingly male-centered attitude of the time is communicated through the exhibition catalogue editor Joan Marter’s interview with art historian Irving Sandler, author of The Triumph of American Painting (1970). He is unequivocal in his position that these women artists are not in the same league as the men, although he acknowledges that Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaller and Elaine de Kooning are good artists. He does not use language to validate his position, but he simply regurgitates the opinions of the period’s leading proponents. Furthermore, Marter does not raise questions about the writing of Serge Guilbaut who in the book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983), discredited Sandler’s 1970 tome for ignoring the political ramifications of Abstract Expressionism as a pawn in a cultural Cold War. This inclusion is at first read highly perplexing, because of the regressive attitude Sandler conveys. But, perhaps, this interview provides a window into the sentiments and attitude of that period. This interview reveals this art historian’s disinterest in analysis or a critical inquiry.

Works by Grace Hartigan, including "The King Is Dead" (1951) (far right)
Works by Grace Hartigan, including “The King Is Dead” (1951) (far right)

The breadth of the intricate system that propagated these artists is exemplified when art dealer Samuel Kootz engages critics Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro to jury “New Talent 1950,” at his Madison Avenue Gallery, positioning Kootz at the forefront of promoting the Abstract Expressionists. All the while, Alfred J. Barr at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is preparing to lead the charge on a global scale, exporting The New American Painting (1956) to the Tate in London and ensuring their representation at the 1959 documenta II in Kassel, Germany. These are but a few of the touch points and spokes that make up this interconnected, fiercely ambitious, and fortuitous cultural and commercial apparatus.

There are other shows opening that address and revisit this period with the ambition of exploring the historical record, such as Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. But in the Denver Art Museum iteration of the story, audiences have been afforded a unique opportunity to enjoy and contemplate the work of 12 exceptional women artists. Viewers are pushed to mull over what it is to belong to a movement. What conditions are necessary to forge an art history? By design a movement requires a criteria that is exclusionary. We wonder about the landmines that might be triggered by articulating the political, financial, and social mechanisms that organize the history of this period that launched America as a prominent cultural force?

Lee Krasner, "Gothic Frieze" (1950)
Lee Krasner, “Gothic Frieze” (1950)

The job of contextualizing this work and expanding upon the lists of artists in the catalogue is now in the hands of upcoming art historians and curators. I would love to read a feminist account that employs the techniques and theories that now inform art historical writing. A feminist account will necessitate the inclusion of multiple, interrelated interviews, the construction and activation of an archive that fractures and amplifies the historical record from that time to provide more information and context about the artists, patrons, dealers, museum directors, and critics. A feminist approach to this historical period, if done carefully, has the possibility of being able to unravel the existing categorization of Abstract Expressionism, and propose a more revealing set of criteria and categories for historicizing the post-war art world in the United States. The torch has been lit and is ready to be grasped by another curator.

Women of Abstract Expressionism continues at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Civic Center, Denver, Colorado) until September 25.

You can also listen to Hyperallergic’s podcast on the exhibition here.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version did not include Sonia Gechtoff as among the Abstract Expressionist artists who are still alive. Gechtoff is currently living in Manhattan, NY.

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