The 11 exhibiting artists and gallerist Gwenolee Zürcher on the show’s opening night (all photos Ela Bittencourt/Hyperallergic)

Since its emergence in 2020, Salon Zürcher: 11 Women of Spirit, commandeered by Gwenolee Zürcher of Zürcher Gallery, has been one of the vibrant offshoots of satellite fairs taking place in the city around the behemoth fairs, Frieze and the Armory Show. A storm broke out before the fifth Salon opening on May 16 at 33 Bleecker Street. But this didn’t deter the crowd gathered at the gallery’s loft-like space. There were no drinks, no thrills, just the energy of gathering around exciting work. Shortly after I arrived, Zürcher posed for a photo with the 11 women presented at this fair. When we slipped into Zürcher’s office in the back to escape the noise, she explained the rationale behind the number 11. “It’s an odd number,” she said, adding she conceived the Salon as nine editions, 11 women each, adding to 99. The last woman will be herself, rounding up to 100 in total. It seemed fitting to keep things so personal for an event that allows Zürcher to give a platform to still relatively underseen accomplished women artists she’s not necessarily representing (though she does represent a few). Indeed, the 18th-century term “femmes d’esprit,” from which the exhibtion takes its name, defined just such a collaborative, informal network of women intellectuals, artists, and saloniers underestimated by their male peers.

Marjorie Welish, “Indecidability of the Sign: Yellow/Black #13” (2021), acrylic on board, diptych, 20 x 32 1/4 inches

We discussed briefly whether the art world is poised for structural changes, starting with acknowledging the many women written out of such movements as Abstract Expressionism. Every time I visit the rehung permanent galleries at the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, and the section where Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and a handful of others command the walls, I wonder how many more women belong in this firmament. Zürcher was optimistic. Some curators, she pointed out, such as Sheen Wagstaff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have attended the Salon, and bought the works for their museum collections. In Paris, where Zürcher also has a gallery, initiatives such as AWARE are changing the art landscape with respect to gender. The Salon Zürcher itself is an art-historical corrective. The majority of women in the fifth edition were born in the 1940s–’60s; they’ve made art for decades, shown in galleries, and some feature in museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Still, as sale prices at major art fairs are bound to make many wannabe collectors swoon, the Salon Zürcher presents art whose prices are decidedly more approachable, with the smallest works on paper starting at $500. 

Joan Mitchell, it turns out, is the Salon and the gallery’s guardian spirit. A friend of Zürcher and her late husband, the art historian Bernard Zürcher, Mitchell encouraged the couple to open a gallery, and to do so in both Paris and New York. In a way, Mitchell’s ghost presided more directly over the fifth edition, with the majority of artists embracing abstraction in some shape or form. At the gallery’s entrance, Marjorie Welish’s diptychs, in primary blue, yellow, and black, orchestrated lively contrasts between improvisation and control — a staying theme in the artist’s work. Welish is a poet as well as painter, and one inevitably thinks of her work as a series of rhymes and enjambments, in her own series, but also with works of constructivist artists she’s written about as a critic such as Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. These works were wonderfully offset by the vibrant geometries in Jennifer Riley’s paintings on the opposite wall. 

Jennifer Riley “Almost All, Folks” (2022), oil on canvas, 44 x 60 inches

Control and improvisation were two themes that ran through this lively show — and, perhaps not surprisingly, the pandemic was an element that altered how the artists thought and went about their work. For Judith Braun, who was represented in the fair with a single work, a quasi-abstract black-and-white, slightly op-art-infused acrylic painting on canvas, titled “Psycho Tears” (2021), the pandemic has been a time of an artistic shift. She had begun working on abstraction sometime in the 1980s to step away from her own figurative painting, but now sensed the need for the body to be more present in her work. The result is rigorous yet subtly sensuous, particularly since the canvas is hung unstretched, allowing for additional ripples and folds at the edges, the fabric itself mirroring the circular forms in Braun’s composition.

Artist Judith Braun with her work, “Psycho Tears” (2021), acrylic on raw unstretched canvas, grommets, 79 x 72 inches

For the abstract painter Margaret Watson, whose two beautiful, gestural oil and acrylic landscapes — titled “Dreamfield” (2021) and “Geranium Acre” (2021) — hung alongside her smaller acrylic Papercut series (2022), the pandemic meant work that was not only scaled down but also less deliberate. Watson, whose own fascinating journey to painting includes taking a pause for some twenty years while she worked as a doctor secretly pining to return — coming into art stores, “just to smell them,” she told me — has now been painting full-time for over two decades. Watson began to work with scissors during the pandemic, sensing that this added a certain distance to her work, perhaps also a sense of freedom. Yet both approaches seem to be governed by color, and by Watson’s great sensitivity to its infinite permutations. Francine Tint, whose dramatic, abstract painting’s vitalist force is perhaps closest in kinship to abstract expressionism and Art Informel, was the artist who immediately made me think of the old boy-scout’s club as the art world’s previously impermeable bastion (and really, who can forget the anecdote, cited in Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, in which Clement Greenberg visits Lee Krasner’s studio to see her latest work and comments on the wall paint instead).

Jennifer Riley, “No More War” (1973), oil on canvas, 20 x 22 inches

For the most part, however, this Salon oozed a confident feminism, seeking its own conceptual ties. For the abstract painter Cair Crawford, feminism seamlessly combines the weave — with its underlying recurrence — with philosophical considerations. Crawford, who earned a doctoral degree in philosophy from Columbia University, in 2006, decades into her artistic practice, thinks of the weave as a tension between being and becoming — a material, dialectical relationship. The pandemic also impacted Crawford. Similarly to numerous artists in the city, she decided to work from home. The paintings left at the studio, many unfinished, were effectively put on hold. The artist’s response was a pandemic notebook, in which she filled pages with daily compositions. Her two paintings in the fair —  both acrylic on unstretched canvas, titled “The Reversals, Untitled 01” and “The Reversals, Untitled 04” (2020-22) —  are then a return to more architectural aesthetics, with paint creating deliberate dynamics of space, layer, saturation, and density, and yet, much like the other artists in the show, allowing for improvisational gestures, such as bleeds of tint. Here, as elsewhere in this Salon Zürcher, the notion of “women of spirit” declared pollination and affinity, and affirmed the supple vitality of abstract art.

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Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.

One reply on “A Spirit of Confident Feminism at Salon Zürcher”

  1. Gwenolee Zurcher is the driving, creative force behind the success of Salon Zurcher.
    Like the process of making art itself, and like many of the artists she shows, she
    moves gracefully between committment and control while remaining open to intuition and improvisation.

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