Restoring the ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’

A well-designed, absorbing effort to restore women artists to their proper place in the history of the movement.

One of the remarkable advantages of modern life is the almost unlimited access the internet can provide to thousands of years of human art history. In fact, Googling Elaine de Kooning’s Bullfight can produce a dozen relevant image results, and over 4,000 overall results. But upon closer inspection, one thing becomes apparent: each of the image results varies starkly in appearance from the others. From bleached to heavy to shadowed, the results make the viewer wonder exactly which represents de Kooning’s work most accurately.

Despite the advantages of access the internet provides, it’s only in a carefully prepared catalogue like Women of Abstract Expressionism that many of us will have the opportunity to view these works in an accurate representation. A book like this helps filter out the clutter of too much information, train the eye, and expand the reader’s appreciation for these works.

Women of Abstract Expressionism also addresses another limitation of viewing these works remotely: many of the paintings by these Abstract Expressionists are enormous. Joan Mitchell’s four-panel Edrita Fried, for example, is 25 feet wide. While the book itself must limit the artwork to the confines of its own 10″ x 12″ size, many of the paintings are presented in wide, full-page format that allow for some appreciation for their grandeur. The book itself is also companion to the Denver Art Museum’s exhibit (through 25 September), where the works can collectively be viewed in person.

In addition to the catalogue of the exhibit, the book provides four essays and one interview that expound upon the history and contributions of women to the art form. In an arena most popularly associated with their male contemporaries (and partners) like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, and Robert Motherwell, this book intends to restore the women within to the prominence they deserve. In fact, it’s fitting that the book begins with an essay titled “Missing in Action”, as it intends to correct that very absence. From the stories of neglected artists, the book’s contributors do well to pull a catalogue of women painters from history’s oversight.

Of course, it’s exaggeration to suggest that artists like Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, or Lee Krasner (to name a few) toiled in utter obscurity or remain unknown today. These women and others are well-known and celebrated painters in their own right, but as the first essay reminds us, “Current market values still undervalue canvasses by female painters in comparison to male contemporaries. Projects such as this one provide an essential correction to what is by any measure an unequal accounting of women’s contributions.”

Joan Marter writes of Michael West’s late-’40s anxiety over the prospect of global annihilation as seen in such paintings as Nihilism. When Marter describes West’s technique as “carefully layered surfaces … obliterated by a seemingly random application of thin washes that wipe out portions of the composition”, it’s hard not to see this also as a metaphor for the degree to which these women’s contributions to the movement were themselves at risk of being washed away.

The second essay, “Biographies and Bodies”, largely focuses on the relationship of the so-called king and queen of the movement Willem and Elaine de Kooning. Willem’s “Women” paintings are certainly well-known and some of his most recognizable works, but as the second contributor explains, Elaine’s “private depictions of Bill … put to lie the belief that” women can never appropriate the signature male gaze. Whereas the male painters of the movement imbued their work (and by some definitions the movement) with inflections of aggressiveness and masculinity, women found ways of expression outside of this understanding and ways to work within it on their own terms.

If the focus given the New York School in the first two essays abounds with examples of male bias in the movement, the third essay, “The Advantages of Obscurity”, shows how the San Francisco abstract expressionists managed to escape some of the gender bias even if simply from the fact that they were all working in comparative anonymity. The absence of competition for jobs and other such advantages provided fewer reasons for men to dismiss their female counterparts’ work. While perhaps none of the San Francisco school’s members reached the fame of, say, Jackson Pollack, the obscurity of their West Coast studios provided room for women to operate on more equal footing with their male counterparts.

The essay is packed full of female West Coast artists who’ve received far less attention than they deserve and whose work represents a commitment to painting for its own sake. From this narrative, Jay DeFeo emerges as the most obvious example of a woman whose diligent attachment to the West Coast paid dividends, as The Rose (1958-66) remains one of the movement’s most immediately-identifiable pieces. Weighing nearly a ton, it’s The Rose that perhaps suffers most from the handicap of remote viewing.

The catalogue itself is extensive, vivid, and largely composed of full page (and sometimes two-page) representations of the paintings that provide plenty of space to appreciate and study each work. Each artist discussed within also receives her own brief biography at the end of the book (along with a chronology of major events), concluding the well-designed effort to restore women artists to their proper place in the history of the movement.

In the final interview with art historian Irving Sandler, he recounts a conversation with Grace Hartigan in which he once asked her if a male artist had ever told her she painted as well as a man. Her response, “Not twice.” Marter, the essayists, and those responsible for curating this collection have done an excellent job doing just that.

RATING 8 / 10
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