Artist Lee Krasner, the wife of Jackson Pollock (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Complexity on canvas

Women abstract artists step out of the shadows

20th century women artists experimenting in abstraction have taken centre stage in numerous international exhibitions lately, from Guggenheim Bilbao to Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris. The latest is Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1930–1970 at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, which as its title suggests, focuses on the gestural abstraction by women artists before and after the Second World War. 

By taking the central premise that women abstract painters have long been overlooked, the show takes a revisionist approach to art history — in particular, the history of modern painting that defined 20th century art. The exhibition assembles over 150 paintings by 80 international women artists, many of whom have been relegated to the footnotes of art history or overshadowed by their male peers and partners. It brings together household names, from the Americans Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, to more obscure figures outside the traditional canon of “Western” art history: the Peruvian painter Gloria Gómez-Sánchez and the Japanese artist Toko Shinoda amongst others. 

All-women shows remain critical despite lumping artists together by gender

Whether all-women exhibitions such as the Whitechapel Gallery show truly serve to undo the glaring historic omission of women artists remains to be determined. Whilst such exhibitions belatedly provide women artists with a platform, they also tap into the movement of commercialising “women’s art history” — a recent marketable trend that often runs skin deep. As Lee Krasner once exclaimed: “I’m an artist — not a “woman artist”; not an “American artist”. Yet to agree with the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock, who wrote an essay in the exhibition catalogue, all-women shows remain critical despite the problematic lumping together of artists who didn’t want to be defined by their gender. 

Organised by a team of experts in the fields of international art history, including the former director of the gallery Iwona Blazwick and curator Laura Smith, Action, Gesture Paint moves beyond the standard practice of exhibition making, both curatorially and conceptually. Arranged thematically, the show immediately introduces viewers to the pastel-hued soak-stained canvases of Frankenthaler, in her April Mood (1974) before moving back in time, to the bold acrylic smatterings of Korean artist Wook-Kyung Choi. Thankfully, there is no curatorial attempt to emphasise and essentialise any “feminine” quality in the works on display. The show is as eclectic as it is diverse — the ambitious breadth of work proves that these artists cannot be irreducibly categorised as having particularly “female qualities”, whether in approach to colour or gestural abstraction. 

The history of abstract painting has long been tied to a certain kind of male prowess or macho culture, especially with regards to the figurehead of the movement: Jackson Pollock. Immortalised as a cult figure of the movement, Pollock’s work was once described by the critic Clement Greenberg as reflecting the “characteristics that were also marked as having the highest social value in American society: masculinity, heterosexuality, and whiteness”. Thus, the conflation of abstraction and masculinity has always been inextricable from Abstract Expressionism.

Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner — often simply referred to derogatively as “Mrs Jackson Pollock” — has a significant presence in the Whitechapel Gallery show. Her work Bald Eagle (1955) — painted a year before Pollock’s death by an alcohol-induced car crash — reflects her daring experimentations with collage in the 1950s. Loosely inspired by Matisse’s cut-outs and following from her earlier interest in mosaics throughout the 1940s, she constructed her chaotic and rhythmic collages in a converted disused smokehouse on the couple’s farm near East Hampton. In moments of destructive self-doubt, Krasner shredded her collaged canvases before proceeding to repair and reassemble them. Although seemingly abstract, Bald Eagle evokes a narrative: a bird of prey that is torn apart and fragmented. Created in the midst of Pollock’s spiralling alcohol abuse, the tumultuous nature of this work perhaps points to her lived experience. She once said, “Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It is like asking — do I want to live? My answer is yes — and I paint.”

Sobel began painting whilst a suburban housewife and mother of five children

As we move through the exhibition, we are introduced to a third grouping of artists who explored the “self” in their abstract paintings. A prominent artist in this section is Janet Sobel, a Ukrainian-born American artist who was born “Jennie Olechovsky” in 1893 to a Jewish family who narrowly escaped the Russian pogroms. Without any formal artistic training, Sobel began painting in 1937, at which time she was a suburban housewife and mother of five children. By the mid-1940s, she developed a distinctive abstract style, as seen in works such as Illusion of Solidity and the more gestural piece Untitled from 1948. Swirls and sweeping layers of colour offer a sense of drama and dynamism that would leave a lasting impression on Pollock. She is even credited with developing the technique of dripping that would anticipate (and perhaps even directly inspire) Pollock’s famous drip paintings. Sadly, she never attracted the kind of praise that Pollock received. Although admired by Greenberg, the critic would compare and diminish Sobel’s work in relation to Pollock’s, describing it as “primitive” and reflecting that of a “domestic housewife”.

The exhibition continues into groupings of women artists who explored abstraction in relation to music, dance and other forms of performance, ranging from the works of the revolutionary dancer Martha Graham to the “first prominent woman artist in Japan”, Toko Shinoda. Shinoda transformed the medium of calligraphy, pushing it into the realm of painterly abstraction and thus hybridising Eastern and Western styles of modern art. The exhibition ends with artists exploring abstraction through the themes of the outdoor world: the sea, the land and city life. 

In terms of bringing generations of marginalised women artists out of the shadows and onto the centre stage, the Whitechapel Gallery show has certainly contributed significantly to our corrective approach to art history. Although the categorical themes of the exhibition are sometimes tenuous, the curators were right to structure the show without a sense of linear chronology. This would have given the false impression that such women artists were directly following from one another. In reality, these women artists — working across decades and continents — weren’t necessarily in dialogue. Their need to paint and turn to abstraction often resulted from a need to express onto canvas the complexity of their internal worlds or, obversely, to respond to the turmoil of their external realities. Abstraction allowed them to articulate and manifest a kind of freedom. 

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