Juana Francés, “No.8” (1958), mixed media on canvas (all photos Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

LONDON — In 2016–17, the Royal Academy mounted a blockbuster Abstract Expressionism show featuring many of the heavy hitters long recognized by art history: Pollock, Rothko, Still, de Kooning, etc. With that show in recent memory, the Whitechapel Gallery’s Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70 is a pointed challenge to the definition of Abstract Expressionism — read: White, male, American artists — long accepted in the art historical canon. It gathers 150 works by 80 women artists, stuffed wall to ceiling in its galleries. The exhibition was shaped by a curatorial advisory board, and its catalogue features an essay by eminent feminist art historian Griselda Pollock. Threaded throughout its captions are allusions to sexist injustices experienced by women artists. For instance, American artist Martha Edelheit says: “It didn’t really occur to me that I could be an artist. All the artists in the museums were men.” Clearly all of these measures suggest the scale of the omission of women artists that the show seeks to rectify.

The curators flirt with the idea of rewriting the canon. The show’s opening caption describes how Abstract Expressionism “is often thought to have been centred in New York, where it was defined mainly by the work of white male artists. However this new style of painting was a global phenomenon, shaped as much by local and political contexts as by international exchange and dialogue.” Such wording (“is often thought”) implies that the show, informed by these local and international contexts, is the “real” Abstract Expressionism. 

That it thereafter drops the term Abstract Expressionism (though the show includes AbEx artists like Lee Krasner and Grace Hartigan), and instead refers interchangeably to “gestural abstraction,” “painterly abstraction,” and “gestural painting,” indicates the difficulty of the task the curators have set for themselves in outlining the collective commonality they are trying to define. Compounding the issue is the global breadth of the artists, and that many of them bring in strands of other artistic movements and geopolitical concerns based on their personal experiences. Argentinan Sarah Grilo was a member of the Grupo de Artistas Modernos, which explored geometric abstraction in 1950s Buenos Aires; Spaniard Juana Francés was involved with the 1950s movement Art Informel, then the El Paso group, which the label says “represented the culmination of Abstract Expressionism in Spain”; Japanese Tomie Ohtake experienced displacement to Brazil following the Pacific War; Pole Franciszka Themerson was an “avante-garde” artist creating “bi-abstract pictures” in London after emigrating in 1940. These are just four of the 80 voices represented. By seeking to demonstrate a commonality of artistic practice the display unfortunately downplays these lived experiences and artistic educations.

Elaine de Kooning, “Abstraction #3” (1959), oil on canvas

The exhibition is sectioned into five weighty yet intangible themes: “Material, Process, Time”; “Myth, Symbol, Ritual”; “Being, Expression, Empathy”; “Performance, Gesture, Rhythm”; and a section devoted to performance and video art that delves more explicitly into feminist concerns, “Action, Gesture, Performance: Feminism, the Body and Abstractionism.” The show’s curatorial strength is its consistent focus on the physical, technical modes of mark-making in defining “gestural abstraction,” and how this mode of painting is a rejection of representation, form, and pattern, and thereby a tool for “personal expression.” We are invited to consider how non-figuration may communicate vast ranges of intangible human feeling and thought, and the response these images conjure in their viewers.

The show constantly draws attention to painterly techniques characterized by bold, often large-scale mark-making, brilliant, convention-defying color, and inventive use of unusual or experimental materials. We see in Argentinian artist Marta Minujín the use of found debris, including sand, chalk, or carpenter’s glue, to articulate her work’s surface area with a gritty texture that rewards in-person viewing as opposed to photographic reproduction. In Italian artist Carol Rama’s “Si geme, si fal del Bop” (1968), astonishingly, real dolls eyes stare at us, precariously glued to the support. In this sense, these artists’ enormous impact on art history, which the show is trying to communicate, becomes clear.

Thankfully, the focus on technical application of materials is the opening section, and this should remain strongly in the mind because all of the subsequent themes can be applied to each of the show’s 150 works; these divisions are practically superfluous. Instead of trying to select highlights in each section, it is more rewarding to disregard the curatorial clutter and simply “experience” the pieces in their muchness, a spirit of viewing very much in keeping with the more “automatic” element of their creation, where the artist strives to let the unconscious mind dictate the mark-making.

Martha Edelheit, “Sacrifical Portrait” (1958), oil, metal, wood and canvas

In pushing against the received canon of male artists, however, the exhibition risks reinforcing gender-based essentialism. In her catalogue essay, Griselda Pollock writes: 

Modern art itself was, however, always co-created by women and men of many ethnicities, religions, sexualities, nationalities and classes, often working side by side in both competitive and collaborative contexts of a shared sense of the drive to create a “new” art and to form supportive communities for creating art in its modern forms.

In the sense of historical integrity, Pollock demonstrates that single-sex shows are inherently problematic. She also recognizes that — regardless of attempts to unite by artistic commonality — the overarching factor in artist selection is simply gender: 

Corrective shows may be trapped, however, in a paradox. Obliged to re-include artist-women by all-women shows, we may ironically confirm a two-tier system. Exhibitions titled “Abstract Expressionism” (with a few women among many men) have been challenged by shows of “Women in Abstract Expressionism” (with only women and no men). Reversing exclusivity, we again isolate artists as women, gender forming a common identity that masks many significant differences — historical, geopolitical, sexual, ethnic, social — between women. 

The curators are clearly well aware of these issues. Their decision to press ahead regardless betrays the real urgency to redress the long-held male bias on art history, and to make up for lost exposure over the years. Indeed, the sheer number of artists displayed suggests that the curators aimed to give as many lesser-known female artists as possible this overdue exposure. In this context, criticism regarding male exclusion and historical integrity is a much less pressing point, especially when the abundance of powerful works, and the show overall, more than stand up on their own as important examples of abstractionism around the globe, and of the breadth of women abstractionists who have yet to be studied in depth. 

Installation view of Helen Frankenthaler, “April Mood” (1974), acrylic on canvas

Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70 continues at the Whitechapel Gallery (77–82 Whitechapel High St., London, England) through May 7. The exhibition was organized by Whitechapel Gallery along with a curatorial advisory board including Iwona Blazwick, Margaux Bonopera, Bice Curiger, Christian Levett, Erin Li, Julia Marchand, Joan Marter, Laura Rehme, Agustin Perez Rubio, Elizabeth Smith, Laura Smith, Candy Stobbs, and Christina Vegh.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...