Ab Expression: First Impressions

"Epic", Judith Godwin (Detail)
“Epic”, Judith Godwin (Detail)

I took a preliminary stroll through “Women of Abstract Expressionism”, the new and ground-breaking show of “under reported and undervalued” artists from the NYC and SF art scenes of the 40’s-60’s.I wanted to leave all pronounciness at the door, and let the show simply wash over me.

After an initial wide-eyed cruise through the show to take in the lay of the land, the groupings of multiple and various works by each artist, the rich colors, broad or frenzied strokes and gooped-on paint so characteristic of Ab Ex, I began to entertain myself with more ancillary aspects of the show, as outlined in the title cards.

There are 12 artists in the show, most of them now dead. I will not speculate on the role the omnipresent cigarettes dangling from their lips in contemporary photos may have played in this.

Frankenthaler, Krasner, Mitchell and DeKooning have, honestly, long been heavyweights, at least among the cognoscenti. Undervalued, perhaps (out of my league), but certainly not as under reported as several others that I, at least, have never heard of. This provides its own sort of pleasure, as the “bucket list” aspect of the viewing, the anticipated “wow” of seeing the male superstars of Ab Ex is washed away, and a freshness of first impressions takes its place.

A Joy DeFeo in blacks, grays and distressed whites is now on my bucket list for destination viewing in future visits. Mary Abbott shows a diversity of ideas; Pearl Fine’s use of non-traditional materials in painting anticipates Anselm Kiefer’s.

The design of the show, with its generous samplings of each artist, gives perspective. The artists’ own words and work defeats any lingering temptation to typecast along gender lines. For example, it’s hard to miss a large signature Krasner piece at the entrance in defiantly “pretty” pinks; and another later in the show which is awash in a lucsious magenta paired with a spring green. Yet a superficial impulse to judge these in terms of “feminine” qualities is quickly defeated by two nearby stunners executed in a potent, slashing brown/black, their insomniac beiges,drips and spatters palpably all her own, despite the famous “action” of her husband’s multi-million dollar canvasses. Krasner must have known by then that she was fated to become recognized primarily as Jackson Pollack’s wife. In this grouping, we can detect irony, resistance, anxiety and disappointment. And the ever present cigarettes in the photos perhaps speak to a jaded resignation, as they were wont to do in movies of the period.

Similarly, Elaine DeKooning shows an explosively chromatic “Bullfight”, which must certainly be related in many minds to her husband Willem’s work. But across the way are two portraits (of Willem) that in their measured flowing gesture and dark contemplative atmospherics of tone and color, must also qualify as two of the most unique in the show.

The exception that perhaps proves the rule is found in the opening vistas of the show, in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, whose soft pastel colors and abstract, misty riverine washes suggest flowery effusions and vulva-like redoubts in direct lineage to the delicate, so-designated cunts and petals of Georgia O’Keefe. But as the show notes steadfastly maintain, they primarily attest to her innovative and influential discovery of a staining process which spawned an entire movement, color field painting. So the scholarship behind the show is strong, and revelatory, and clearly not afraid to address the inevitable gender issues head-on and straightforwardly.

Nor is Krasner the only artist to allude, if only subconsciously, to the gender gap and its connotations. In a time when Freudian interpretation was still very influential, Judith Godwin, in “Epic”, situates a vaguely erectile swath of black and purple in a field of warming whites. Positive and negative space, good and evil, figure and ground, hidden grotto or towering monument, they are in a state of eternal flux in this show stopping canvas. And so might have Godwin’s ambivalence about her station in the art world expressed itself as well. But for the most part, the women of Ab Ex did their jobs for years despite the iniquities of the art market.

One interesting title card revelation: the testimonial evidence that San Francisco, as an American art scene outlier, was not afflicted with the sexist repressions of the well-monied NY city scene. This is a perspective especially appropriate to a place like Denver, where almost every artist, male or female, is “undervalued and under reported.” It speaks to the balance and thoughtfulness of the show’s curation, by DAM’s Dr. Gwen Chanzit.

Several of the works, by the way, are now in the collection of the DAM itself. This show is not a hasty band wagon leaping-on, a middle American museum calling desperately for attention. The museum clearly intended to find a niche for itself in this area for a while now and will continue to make this type of inquiry in the future. A previously installed, but related exhibition on the level below provides context for this show in a brief but well balanced look at Ab Ex as a whole. You shouldn’t miss it, because it supplies sketches and smaller works by some of the artists in the feature show.

There is much to be said for solitary and spontaneous wanderings through a show like this. It allows one to “listen” to what the show has to say. This show, though it attempts to set the historical record straight, also gives ear to these artists, as artists. I suspect that this show will become one of the more significant conversation starters in Denver- and the nation’s- cultural history.

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