The Women of Abstract Expressionism
By Lorraine Heitzman
Through May 28th
The current show at the Palm Springs Art Museum examines the famously testosterone fueled abstract expressionist movement through the lens of a dozen women painters working from the late 1940’s through the 1950’s. First conceived by the Denver Art Museum, this important exhibition calls attention to the contributions of twelve artists and in the process redresses the lack of female representation in our male-centric art world. Some of these painters are well known by the public either through their own merits or through their relationships to more famous male painters and art critics (and sometimes, partners). A few experienced acclaim and recognition during the fifties without much attention later, while others’ profiles have risen in recent years. Here is a rare opportunity to see the achievements of these women together and take comfort in the fact that their days of obscurity are likely numbered. This show provides insight and a valuable perspective into an American art movement that flourished alongside many other mid-century design innovations in architecture, furniture and fashion and has found a perfect venue in Palm Springs. A new generation of painters, especially those whose work references the exuberance of abstract expressionism should find this show of particular interest.
The list of artists begins with Lee Krasner and includes: Mary Abbott, Judith Godwin, Jay Defeo, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning, Sonia Gechtoff, Perle Fine, Ethel Schwabacher, and Deborah Remington.
Seen together, the paintings exude a confidant, animated energy filled with the movement’s prototypical romanticism. Generally speaking these works are colorful, active, and ambitious in both scale and scope. True to the parameters of abstract expressionist painting, you will find a lot of gestural paint strokes and thickly applied paint, usually favoring line over shape, but each artist represented here is more than a token of the movement, and worthy of inclusion.
Of those with whom we are well acquainted, New York artists Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell each demonstrate the breadth of styles under the umbrella of abstract expressionism. Frankenthaler, best known for her ethereal stain paintings, a technique introduced by Arshile Gorky and to a lesser extent, Jackson Pollack, has two such paintings here but additionally has other paintings with much more heavily textured paint. The later are surprisingly graphic with delineated, self-contained colored shapes and have a cartoonish quality, really the antithesis of her stained canvases. Krasner, who worked for the WPA and studied with Hans Hoffmann, was a known artist in her own right before marrying Jackson Pollack. Her work varies widely stylistically, ranging from dense all-over compositions of geometric marks to furious, organic scribbling. Krasner’s evident passion is the common denominator to her work and like Frankenthaler and Mitchell enjoyed a long career. No less passionate but more subtle is the work of Joan Mitchell. After graduate school in Chicago, Mitchell moved to New York City and began working abstractly. She became established during the 1950s before moving to France for many years, but still remains associated with the New York Abstract Expressionists. Her emotional responses to nature were consistently acclaimed and today a foundation bearing her name supports artists as well as sustaining her legacy.
Of the other artists, Grace Hartigan has some very wonderful, muscular painting in this exhibition but ironically later gained success with work that incorporated figurative elements into her compositions. For this sin, she was criticized by the likes of Clement Greenberg, the critic who earlier had championed her abstract work. Likewise, Elaine de Kooning surprises with non-figurative work that is dense with saturated color. Widely respected for her portraits and her work as a prolific art writer, de Kooning also navigated abstract expressionism while embroiled and overshadowed by her husband William de Kooning’s celebrity.
Among the painters that may be new discoveries to some, Ethel Schwabacher, Sonia Gechtoff and Mary Abbott are revelations and Judith Godwin, Jay Defeo, Perle Fine and Deborah Remington also make meaningful contributions to complete the show.
Less than 100 miles from Los Angeles, The Women of Abstract Expressionism warrants a trip to the Palm Springs Art Museum and if you go soon, you can also see the outdoor installations of Desert X in the surrounding desert communities.