William Bryan Rooney
You are in an art gallery, taking in all the intricacies of a certain painting, when you overhear someone say: “My 4-year old could do that.”
It’s that kind of broad-stroke dismissal that many women painters in the 1940s and 1950s experienced in the art world.
Although many women had thriving art careers at that time, they were never taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Today, the exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism, at the Palm Springs Art Museum through May 28, shows just how influential the works of these artists was and is.
The exhibit contains more than 50 major paintings by 12 artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 20th century, an era recognized as the first fully American modern-art movement. Curated by Gwen Chanzit of the Denver Art Museum, it’s the only exhibition to present works by these artists together.
Chanzit told artnet News, “Except for a very small number of scholars who have spent their lives working in this field, there will be people you haven’t heard of (in this exhibit).”
In preparation for the exhibition, Chanzit looked at the work of more than 100 women, about 40 of whom she says would have been a good fit for the final show. “This is not about pushing a feminist agenda; it’s about taking another look,” Chanzit added.
Artists included in this exhibit are from opposite sides of the spectrum—the New York and San Francisco art scenes. They were all expressing the struggle between self-expression and the unconscious in their work, and were inspired by personal experience, expressed despite the exclusion they faced.
Mary Lee Abbott, a direct ancestor of John Adams, formed a friendship with Willem de Kooning, who was a major influence in her artistic development. She later joined the infamous “Downtown Group,” founded by a group of artists who lived in lower Manhattan.
Jay DeFeo dealt with abstract expressionism, surrealism and spirituality and became a pivotal figure in the historic San Francisco community of artists, poets and jazz musicians.
Elaine de Kooning, an editorial associate for Art News magazine and wife of Willem de Kooning, signed her artworks with her initials instead of her full name to avoid her paintings being labeled as “feminine” or having them confused with her husband’s work.
Perle Fine was one of the few female painters invited to join the 8th Street Artists’ Club by Willem de Kooning (yes, there is a pattern here) and later in her career specialized in bas-relief paintings and grids.
Helen Frankenthaler was inspired by the works of Jackson Pollock and then developed her own revolutionary technique of stain painting. She is also known for introducing a newer generation to a form of abstract painting that came to be known as Color Field.
Sonia Gechtoff is a social realist painter who credits her early success to other female artists her mother managed in San Francisco art galleries.
Judith Godwin was inspired by the modern dance movement, expressed by her broad, corporeal gestures, arcs and angles in her work.
Grace Hartigan, a close friend of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, is known for a series of gestural abstractions. When once asked if a male artist ever told her she painted like a man, Hartigan replied, “Not twice.”
Lee Krasner worked with the Public Works of Art Project and in the mural division of the Federal Art Project/Works Progress Administration during the mid-1930s. She was married to Jackson Pollock and is one of the few female artists to have had a retrospective show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “I’m always going to be Mrs. Jackson Pollock—that’s a matter of fact—but I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock,” she said.
Joan Mitchell, a member of the “second generation” of American abstract expressionists, formed friendships with poet Frank O’Hara and Grace Hartigan and referred to her own work as “very violent and angry.”
Deborah Remington belonged to the Beat scene in San Francisco and was the only female founder of the Six Gallery, where Allen Ginsberg first read his incendiary Howl in public.
Ethel Schwabacher’s paintings were influenced by psychoanalysis and Freudian theory, and reveal the influence of Gorky and Surrealism in her work.
This exhibit displays the influences of this movement, from Tolstoy (Gechtoff), to Rimbaud (Krasner) to modern-dance innovator Martha Graham (Goodwin). “The King Is Dead” by Hartigan is about Pablo Picasso and strives to make a larger point. The works by Helen Frankenthaler range from showing the influence of Pollock to her own breakthrough in Western Style in her later works.
Krasner’s “Cornucopia” was inspired by nature and expressed by the arabesques that come from the physical movement of her whole arm, not just the hands and wrist. Jay Defeo’s “Incision” contains waves of oil paint that feel as if one could climb onto the composition—as if it were a force of nature. Remington’s “Apropos” displays bold areas of scarlet intertwined with serpentine areas of green and black.
Walking around these paintings, ranging from the large canvases to smaller scale statements, is like walking through a garden in a dreamscape. Do not miss this show.
Women of Abstract Expressionism is on display through Sunday, May 28, at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday through Tuesday; and noon to 9 p.m., Thursday and Friday. Admission is $12.50, with discounts and various free days. For more information, call 760-322-4800, or visit www.psmuseum.org.