Women of Abstract Expressionism

TO REVISE OR REVOLT? That’s often the question when reviewing the Western canon’s historic gender troubles. A recent spate of exhibitions and books seeks to rectify the situation—or at least recover women’s place—via the opposite extreme of including only female artists. Even the arrangement of the work in the Abstract Expressionism room at the new Whitney Museum of American Art (New York) now privileges women. And yet curator Gwen F. Chanzit’s claim, in the introduction to this Denver Art Museum exhibition catalogue, that “art histories . . . continue the gender bias” doesn’t feel like much of a stretch, particularly with AbEx, a movement whose mythos was centered on its male heroes, an image of virility that was sent around the world as an ambassador of postwar American power.

But what if we tried to think in less binary gender terms, led by the work in this catalogue? After all, Jackson Pollock’s paintings can have a supreme elegance, and Joan Mitchell’s canvases, which rival all the boys’ in size, can be bold and a little overwhelming in their fearless, synesthetic energy (take, for instance, Evenings on Seventy-Third Street, 1956-57). Grace Hartigan’s Portrait of W, 1951-52, is seven feet of chalky, Jungian presence. And the reworking by Michael West (née Corinne Michelle West) of an early student canvas to create the oil-enamel-and-sand, apocalyptic nuclear fallout of Dagger of Light, 1951—its many-layered surface hanging like a terrible cloud—suggests that women were interested in locating more than just beauty in the landscape. The catalogue’s essays aren’t groundbreaking but do, in broad strokes, color in AbEx’s background and geographic, critical, and political blindspots, though race is not discussed much. Joan Marter’s wonderfully titled “Missing in Action” highlights the efforts of more-established women artists to include other women in influential annual shows (i.e., women weren’t all backstabbing one another to get ahead); Susan Landauer brings important attention to overlooked West Coast AbEx; Ellen G. Landau provides a terrific study of Elaine de Kooning’s portraiture (the artist’s erotic sketches of her husband are a revelation).

The book has plenty of its own mythmaking snapshots of artists glamorously occupying studios and summer cottages—but it’s refreshing to see women taking hold of the brushes and the camera’s gaze. One 1957 photo that I’ll never tire of shows Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Hartigan laughing together at an opening, further upending the trope of the brooding male as echt artist. No matter the trio’s complicated friendship (Mitchell famously criticized Frankenthaler’s relations with critic Clement Greenberg), this image is a distillation of painting prowess and joy, one in happy contradistinction to the notorious 1951 “Irascibles” Life portrait of fifteen AbEx artists in which Hedda Sterne is the lone woman.

Joan Mitchell, Evenings on Seventy-Third Street, 1956–57, oil on canvas, 75 × 84". Courtesy McClain Gallery