"Women of Abstract Expressionism" is a major event for the Denver Art Museum: A single exhibit that attempts to influence the way we think about art history in the United States.
No century was more American than the 20th, and no aesthetic movement more identified with homegrown talent than abstract expressionism, the post-World War II style that freed painters to attack their canvases with unrestrained emotional intensity. The unbound method of art-making took the art world by storm and made legends such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell.
Lesser-known are the talented female painters of the era, who toiled with comparable passion, yet relatively little critical or commercial notice — names such as Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Deborah Remington and Ethel Schwabacher, all of whom are included in "Women of Abstract Expressionism," which opens Sunday at DAM.
Photo by Lee Stalsworth, provided by the Denver Art Museum.
Photo provided by Denver Art Museum
Photo provided by Denver Art Museum
Were these famous painters the creative equal to their male counterparts? Did they have talents and points of view that deserved wider notice? Were they simply the victims of gender bias?
The exhibit hopes to make a strong case that, at the very least, they were unfairly overlooked, and it gives them the opportunity for wider recognition.
The exhibit was assembled by DAM curator of modern art Gwen Chanzit. We asked her to answer a few questions about how the show came about.
Q: Is this the first major exhibit grouping together female artists of the abstract expressionist movement? If so, how can that be?
A: Yes, it is the first. In fact, the most surprising thing for me in organizing this exhibition is that it had never been done before. There have been recent exhibitions on female surrealists, pop artists and even impressionists, but not on the women of abstract expressionism.
Q: Did you know about all of these painters when you set out to build the show? There are widely recognized artists in the mix, such as Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. But other names are unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, and I'm curious to know if there were surprises for you as well.
A: Part of the pleasure in building the exhibition has been to discover important artists who have received little attention. Every artist in the show is represented by first-quality paintings, yet some artists have not yet gotten their due. These artists were in the same social and artistic circles; they studied in the same classes and exhibited in major exhibitions such as the "Ninth Street Show" and the "Stable Gallery Annuals," but several have been completely left out of textbook histories of abstract expressionism. I doubt there are many visitors who will know the work of all 12 of these artists, and I hope this exhibition will be as exciting for them as these discoveries have been for me.
Q: I'm wondering if there is a link between gender and expressionism that can be inferred by this show. If you didn't know the artists who created these works, would you suspect they were female? Perhaps because of subject matter or mark making or color choices? Or is the question unanswerable?
A: While I can't say for sure how others will respond to the paintings or what they will infer, I do think there is something special about many works in this exhibition. As I studied work after work, I began to see certain thematic ties that characterize many of the paintings in the exhibition. These paintings are personal responses to particular experiences, places and people, to the seasons, to works of literature, dance or poetry. In fact, there are very few "untitled" works in the exhibition. These artists were not shy about letting us in on what they respond to, as in Elaine De Kooning's "Bullfight" or Lee Krasner's "The Seasons."
Q: This show addresses the fact that female painters did not get the credit they deserved at the height of the abstract expressionist movement. Was it simply a matter of gender bias?
A: We need to remember that these artists came of age in a very different time than we are in today. Yes, there was gender discrimination (there is Hans Hofmann's famous comment to Lee Krasner: "This is so good you would not know it was done by a woman.") But beyond this, it's good to remember that art historians also have discriminated: The standard "History of Art," by Horst Janson, the tome used in university art history surveys for so many years, didn't include any female artists until 1986!
Q: There seems to have been two challenges here: first identifying the painters then locating and borrowing the work. Was it hard to put this exhibit together? That is to say, if the work was overlooked, was the collecting and cataloging incomplete as well?
A: After surveying over 100 artists who were active in the 1940s and 1950s, it was a great challenge to limit the exhibition to 12 who stand in for the many. Over 40 artists are profiled in the catalog biography section, each with a full page. We received great response from collectors, both private and institutional, and in many cases they were delighted to see recognition of the artists they believed in. And in many cases, collectors were happy to share information with us.
Q: Your advance materials talk about female painters being more accepted on the West Coast than in New York. Why do you think that happened?
A: It's hard to say for sure, but I think it was a much freer society in general, with fewer entrenched social and artistic structures on the West Coast. This was the time of the Beat generation and some of-the-moment galleries were very open to experimentation by both men and women. In fact, the Six Gallery, founded by five men and Deborah Remington (an artist in our show), hosted Allen Ginsberg's first public reading of "Howl." Female artists in the Bay Area said they felt no gender bias of the kind the women experienced in New York.
Q: What is DAM's own record on collecting work by female artists of the mid-20th century?
A: The DAM has always tried to collect the highest-quality work possible, without regard to gender or race. Because the modern and contemporary department was only founded in 1978, there has been a lot of catching up to do and we are particularly grateful to collectors who have generously helped us in this area. In fact, since I began this exhibition project, we have acquired eight new works and three promised gifts that now join our other abstract expressionist holdings — all by abstract expressionist women. Some of these new acquisitions are on view in our third-floor Chambers/Grant Gallery, in an exhibition, "Abstract Expressionism from the Denver Art Museum," which will remain on view even after "Women of Abstract Expressionism" leaves to tour at other venues.
Q: If there were a few artists or works in this show that you wanted people to especially notice, what would they be? I'm not asking you to pick favorites — obviously, all of the paintings are interesting to you. But if there were, say, two, that would really help people understand the value of this show, what would they be?
A: Because of the extraordinary generosity of lenders, we are able to include some of the best-known works anywhere, such as the Museum of Modern Art's "Jacob's Ladder" by Helen Frankenthaler and the Whitney Museum of American Art's "The Seasons" by Lee Krasner that had occupied the most prominent location in the "new" Whitney's installation. Jay DeFeo's "Incision," from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is another well-known masterwork. As much as we value these iconic canvases, it is especially gratifying to see that works by lesser-known artists hold up really well alongside them.
"Women of Abstract Expressionism" opens Sunday, June 12, and continues through Sept. 25. Denver Art Museum, 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock. Free with museum admission. $10 for Colorado residents. 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.
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