Women of Abstract Expressionism

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Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning: The most recognizable names of post-war abstract painting are male. In recent years, curators have expanded that perspective to include their talented wives Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, along with other women artists of the period who have been overlooked.

For the first time, the paintings of such women have been brought together as an exhibition: Women of Abstract Expressionism. Organized by Gwen Chanzit of the Denver Art Museum, the show includes 50 substantial paintings by a dozen artists. Not only does it shed new light on the work of these women, it includes artists from Northern California with those living in New York City and Long Island where the Ab X movement was centered.

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Elaine de Kooning, “Bullfight,”1959
Oil paint on canvas: 77 5/8 x 130 1/4 in.
Denver Art Museum
© Estate of Elaine de Kooning

Abstract Expressionist paintings of the mid-20th century are monumental in scale and covered in gestures and drips of random color to defy associations with realism. The hard-drinking, womanizing artists known for their impassioned work left little room for recognition of women involved in similar styles. The women themselves were caught in the dual obligations of taking care of their husbands or families while devoting themselves seriously to their own art, a dual challenge that still plagues women.

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Helen Frankenthaler, “Western Dream,” 1957
Oil paint on unsized, unprimed canvas; 70 x 86 inches
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York
© 2016 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photograph by Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian Gallery

This came to my mind while looking at some of the ambitious and expansive paintings achieved by these women. The show brings to mind the well-known quote about Ginger Rodgers that she did all the same dancing as Fred Astaire but backwards and in high heels.

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Lee Krasner, “Untitled,” 1942
Oil paint on linen; 21 x 27 in.
Collection of the University Art Museum, California State University Long Beach
© 2016 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Krasner’s paintings show the way that she would paint sweeping arabesques of color using her whole arm, not just her wrist. There are seven strong works by Krasner, one of the best known here due to her marriage to Pollock, so we get a sense of her progress from the early 1940s to early 1960s. This is true for all of the artists in the show: four paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, the earliest indebted to the style of Pollock, the last being evidence of the breakthrough to her own style in Western Style (1957). Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell are also well represented.

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Jay DeFeo, “Incision,” 1958–1961
Oil paint and string canvas mounted on board; 118 x 55 5/8 x 9 3/8 in.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
© 2016 The Jay DeFeo Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The exhibition is inclined towards generosity by awarding attention to artists who may be less familiar: Perle Fine, Judith Godwin, Mary Abbott or Ethel Schwabacher not to mention the three artists from the Bay Area: Jay DeFeo, Sonia Gechtoff, and Deborah Remington, whose "Apropos" (1953), is awash in bold areas of scarlet defined by serpentine areas of green and black.

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Deborah Remington, “Apropos or Untitled,” 1953
Oil paint on canvas; 39 x 51 in.
Denver Art Museum
Courtesy of the Deborah Remington Charitable Trust for the Visual Arts

The reason to see the show, however, is not due to the fact that the paintings are by women. Instead, this long awaited show proves that the women were good. It continues through May 28. 

If you are heading to Palm Springs and have not yet visited the installation of Desert X, there are some sites that should not be missed. Heading east on I-10, take the exit to Whitewater to see Sherin Guergis’ secular temple constructed of sandbags covered in mud. Referring to the pigeon towers of Egypt, the site specific sculpture offers an example of what Desert X can provide: an impetus to discover areas that might be off the beaten track. The sculpture is located at the base of chalky white cliffs and at the head of a hiking trail. The area is operated by a non-profit nature conservancy. A visit there draws our attention to the vulnerability of such open space and encapsulates the fact of Desert X as an opportunity to experience the unexpected, not just see works of art as a market commodities or historically determined facts.

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Doug Aitken, "Mirage," 2017
Photo by David Philp

That is true as well for Doug Aitken’s "Mirage," (2017) a tract-style house built of mirrors and situated in the new development of Desert Palisades. Aitken spent two years considering how to build the house in a location that reflects not only the undeveloped scrub and sand of the surrounding desert but the grid of residences and businesses sprawling across the valley. The narrative of real estate in Southern California smacks into the non-narrative of nature and pre-history. Dirt from the desert covers the floor of the house blurring the separation of the material and the atmospheric. Whether standing inside or outside, from certain vantage points the house seems to disappear as implied by its title: "Mirage."

It can be visited at specific times 3:30pm to sunset. During full moons throughout the summer, "Mirage" will be open to the public until midnight. Hours vary and it is best to consult the website: dougaitkenmirage.com. While Desert X remains on view through April 30, Mirage will continue until October.