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Mint Highlights Women of Abstract Expressionism

by Phillip Larrimore

October 26, 2016

Artwork: (Above) "Early Morning Garden," Perl Fine (1957—Oil paint and collage on canvas, 44 x 36), Collection Art Enterprises, Ltd., Chicago. Courtesy McCormick Gallery, Chicago. © A.E. Artworks, LLC.;  (below) "Untitled," Lee Bul (Korean, 1964- ), 2005, crystal and glass beads, nickel-chrome wire, 63 x 40½ x 43, Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, OH), Purchased with funds given by Doctor and Mrs. Edward A. Kern in honor of Rhoda L. and Roger, M. Berkowitz, 2005.98. Photo Credit: Photography Inc.

The elephant—or Guerrilla Girl—in the room as far as the two fine shows now up at the Mint Museum is concerned is that an entire gender is still treated as a minority. Both shows, Fired Up: Contemporary Glass by Women Artists from the Toledo Museum of Art” (through Feb. 26, 2017) and Women of Abstract Expressionism (through Jan. 22, 2017, and sponsored by Wells Fargo), are part of the museum's 80th Anniversary "Year of the Woman" celebration, and both underscore how far we have come and how much farther we need to go in regards to the work of women artists. Based on their merits, these works  do not need to be defended as being as good as the work of any male, which is an absurdity, but an absurdity which has been institutionalized until recently, and which remains in effect to a large degree even now.

Abstract Expressionism was the first visual art movement to originate on U.S. shores. It coincided with the emergence of free jazz and the frantic rearrangements of the European borders by the victors of World War II. Immersiveness was its beau ideal, as in the Water Lilies of Monet, and gesture was its means. Largeness of scale was a means to immersiveness, and behind this was an existential concern for the sublime—it aimed to induce the viewer into something of the vertigo of looking into a chasm. 

This gesture-based large scale painting coincided with, and was partially responsible for, the shift of the center of the art world marketplace from Paris to New York.  How much this was due to artistic merit and how much was due to post-war economics—a shift in the gravity of finance—will always be debated. The scope of gesture and the size of the paintings also made the act of painting itself agonistic, like boxing.

At the time, few of the painters now exhibited in Women of Abstract Expressionism wanted to be designated as women artists. This would be to handicap oneself with minor status from the get-go. Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, in particular, fought to be taken on the same terms as the men, which made them the one woman on their gallerist’s roster. This probably had something of the mixed pleasure of getting to play poker with the guys. None of the painters in this show was a commercial failure, though each was eclipsed (Mitchell and Frankenthaler excepted) by the rapid-fire sequence of Pop art, Minimalism and Conceptualism from the 1960s on, as were many of their male coevals.

To view this show, then, is to see a history (or herstory) of Abstract Expressionism without Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, et al., except by proxy, as the husbands of the wives on the wall. It is not quite as revelatory as discovering the Latin American novel, for instance, but it is a very satisfying nevertheless. There are some real masterpieces in the show—by which I mean works which could be returned to time and again and which would continue to yield additional meaning. The Joan Mitchells seem to me to be in this category, as do the paintings of Jay DeFeo, which are so heavily impastoed that they had to be hung with a crane. DeFeo’s “incision“ is at least 10 inches thick in places, and looks like a relief map from an unknown planet. It could easily repay the study required of a statue by Giacometti or a Rembrandt etching. It seems to be made of the sediment of deep thought. The  Joan Mitchells reconcile American Abstract expressionism with French Impressionist painting without falling into imitation. Her brushstroke is as recognizable as Monet’s or Delacroix’s, and her sense of plentitude, of joi de vivre, is in direct contrast to much of the angst-ridden painting of the time.

Lee Krasner, too, has always seemed to me to be a more considerable painter than she has been given credit for. The black and white paintings which Krasner painted in the wee hours of the night while suffering from insomnia—color eluded her at those hours—would seem to me to be able to hold their own next to a black and white Franz Kline, though considerably smaller. 

Some paintings in this show are epigonic, but these are comparatively few. Most of these paintings achieve monumentality, or the immersive shimmer, or the glint of the fin in the water, or the still moment which is the justification of art. But by the early 1960s  there were simply too many practitioners of gestural abstraction; the field had become crowded and it had become predictable. And it has taken 60 years, the re-emergence of feminism, and a group of lesser known painters to see it afresh.

Fired Up: Contemporary Glass by Women from the Toledo Museum of Art illustrates the difference between the present day and the 1950s, when most of the work in Women of Abstract Expressionism was done.  We are now in the most unrelentingly various period of art history, as the work here attests.  Furthermore, the material of glass proves to be as expressive in range as photography or painting. The Studio Glass Movement has roots in Toledo, where it was first attempted with portable high temperature kilns instead of foundries in the 1960s.  There is a great deal of work with dauntless flights of virtuosity in this show. All has been made by heating glass to solar temperatures; all the work is by women, and this both matters and doesn’t matter. What the show proves is that a genre held to be craftsmanly and minor can become a vehicle of poetry and even monumental scale. I particularly admired the sea creature-like relief work of Lee Bul and the pyramid of incremental shards of glass, like an architectural structure becoming mineral, of Josepha Gasch-Muche. But there are  few works in this show which would not repay study. Like the paintings in Women of Abstract Expressionism, they demonstrate what women can do when the threshold of permission is crossed within and without, which is to make work which is deeply and widely human.

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Tags: abstract expressionism, painting, glassware, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Jay DeFeo, Mint Museum,

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