Asked if a male artist ever told her she painted like a man, Grace Hartigan replied, “Not twice.” “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” an unprecedented exhibition on view at the Denver Art Museum, celebrates Hartigan’s distinctive achievements and those of her colleagues, wrestling once again with inimical art-historical tar babies—sexual politics, canonicity, and generational amnesia.
The show features 51 paintings by 12 artists active in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s: Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher. “We researched more than 100 artists preparing for the show,” Denver Art Museum curator Gwen Chanzit explained. “Most of them were drawn briefly to direct gesture painting but moved on and became successful with other forms of expression. Nevertheless, we identified an amazing group of professionals engaged in avant-garde circles in the two major centers of Abstract Expressionist production in the 1950s.”
For Chanzit, expressionistic gesture painting represents the “heart” of Abstract Expressionism, and numbers are on her side. By the end of the 1950s artists who regarded themselves as advancing the revolution initiated by Willem de Kooning’s brushy abstractions and figure paintings were at work in cities throughout the United States. With very few exceptions, the confident, exuberant, high-keyed painterly abstractions in the Denver exhibition not only conform to the ideals and visual pleasures of this widely practiced genre, but also, in the case of Krasner, Frankenthaler, Mitchell, and Hartigan, represent an apex of achievement for the movement’s second generation.
Essays in the exhibition’s comprehensive catalogue acknowledge the early career success of most of the New York painters in the exhibition; in San Francisco, artists such as Deborah Remington and Jay DeFeo became leaders within the city’s avant-garde. Since none of these artists came to be regarded as canonical Abstract Expressionists, their absence demands art history’s attention. Sexism obviously played a role, but so did a growing consensus among New York artists and critics that gesture painting had become an academic dead end by the end of the 1950s. (Who remembers Ernest Briggs or Edward Dugmore, prominent male gesture painters of the period?)
The invasion of so-called “neo-Dadaists”—Allan Kaprow, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns—was already well under way by 1958, prefacing critiques of high modernism that would inspire obituaries for painting itself during the next decade. It could be argued that the women of Abstract Expressionism were slammed more heavily by the cultural shifts that Arthur Danto identified as “the end of art” than by misogyny. None of these speculations, however, will detract from the exhibition’s serious pleasures. It’s a revelatory time capsule, and the museum deserves a hurrah for opening it up.
The exhibition travels to the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October and to the Palm Springs Art Museum in California in February 2017.