CULTURE & ARTS

The Women Of Abstract Expressionism: 12 Artists History Should Not Forget

We all know Jackson, Mark and Willem. But what about Helen, Joan and Elaine?
Clockwise from top left: Sonia Gechtoff in studio ca. 1961-62 (Image courtesy Sonia Gechtoff), Mary Abbott in studi
Clockwise from top left: Sonia Gechtoff in studio ca. 1961-62 (Image courtesy Sonia Gechtoff), Mary Abbott in studio ca. 1949–50 (Courtesy McCormick Gallery, Chicago), Perle Fine in studio in 1959, Judith Godwin in 1977 (Courtesy Judith Godwin), Deborah Remington (Courtesy Deborah Remington Charitable Trust for the Visual Arts), Helen Frankenthaler in 1956.

Thumb through an art history textbook until you reach the Abstract Expressionism chapter. Read aloud the names of artists you encounter first. Jackson Pollock, of course. Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning soon after. Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline and Philip Guston after that. Notice a pattern?

They're all men.

It's a tired claim -- that art history systematically forgets the women who took part in it -- but it's also true. Some books recognize the other de Kooning -- Elaine, and the great Helen Frankenthaler. But for the most part, the annals of Ab-Ex art are filled with Roberts and Peters and even a Clyfford or two. According to recorded history, the painters experimenting with spontaneous, automatic or subconscious creativity were almost exclusively (white) male.

Yet a closer look at the canvases of the 1940s and '50s tells a different story, one adopted as the premise of the Denver Art Museum's "Women of Abstract Expressionism" show. On view through September, the exhibition is naming a different set of artists, including Joan Mitchell, Mary Abbott, Deborah Remington and Judith Godwin. These are -- among many other still-ignored women artists and artists of color notably absent from this list -- the ladies who dabbled in action painting, color fields and all the anti-figurative magic in between.

"For millennia, women have been creators and innovators of artistic expression," Christoph Heinrich, director of the DAM, explained in a press statement. "Few women have found their way into the accounts of art history, and not until the 20th century have they received some of the credit that is long overdue. We are delighted to be the first U.S. museum to tell these stories of the most prolific female Abstract Expressionists."

In honor of the show, here are examples of work by each of the 12 women on view at DAM now. If you can't make it to Denver (or the exhibition's two other tour stops at the Mint Museum in North Carolina and the Palm Springs Art Museum in California) you can take in a digital preview here.

Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989)

Elaine de Kooning, "Bullfight," 1959
Elaine de Kooning, "Bullfight," 1959

Elaine de Kooning (born in Brooklyn) created portraits in the 1940s as a way of inserting herself "into the contemporary debate on abstraction versus representational painting," the DAM writes in a biography of de Kooning, included in the exhibition's catalogue. Many of those portraits depicted male "authorities" on postwar painting like Frank O'Hara and Harold Rosenberg. 

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

Joan Mitchell, "Hudson River Day Line," 1955
Joan Mitchell, "Hudson River Day Line," 1955

"I paint from a distance. I decide what I am going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled. I don't close my eyes and hope for the best." -- Joan Mitchell, born in Chicago, Illinois.

Mary Abbott (1921-)

Mary Abbott, "All Green," 1954
Mary Abbott, "All Green," 1954

A friendship between Abbott (born in New York City) and poet Barbara Guest inspired a series of "poetry paintings," in which Guest would recite a phrase and Abbott would respond in paint, or vice versa, in a cycle of collaboration.

Deborah Remington (1930-2010)

Deborah Remington, "Apropos" or "Untitled," 1953
Deborah Remington, "Apropos" or "Untitled," 1953

Deborah Remington (born in Haddonfield, New Jersey) co-founded the Six Gallery in 1954 with five men. The San Francisco space will go down in history as the venue in which Allen Ginsberg first publicly read his poem "Howl."

Judith Godwin (1930-)

Judith Godwin, "Epic," 1959
Judith Godwin, "Epic," 1959

An association between Judith Godwin (born in Suffolk, Virginia) and Japanese painter Kenzo Okada resulted in the former's interest in Zen Buddhism and the teachings of D.T. Suzuki.

Lee Krasner (1908-1984)

Lee Krasner, "The Seasons," 1957
Lee Krasner, "The Seasons," 1957

In 1937, Hans Hoffman told Lee Krasner (born in Brooklyn) that one of her studies "is so good you would not know that it was done by a woman." She is still one of the few female artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art, held six months after her death.

Ethel Schwabacher (1903-1984)

Ethel Schwabacher, Antigone I, 1958
Ethel Schwabacher, Antigone I, 1958

According to the DAM, Ethel Schwabacher (born in New York City) explored psychological aspects of the landscape, creativity and maternity in her paintings -- topics that were informed by her own relationship to psychoanalysis.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Helen Frankenthaler, "Western Dream," 1957
Helen Frankenthaler, "Western Dream," 1957

In 1952, Helen Frankenthaler (born in New York City) painted a piece called "Mountains and Sea" by pouring a mixture of thinned house paint and enamel from coffee cans directly onto a canvas, a method that later became known as her staining technique.

Perle Fine (1905-1988)

Perle Fine, "Summer I," 1985-1989
Perle Fine, "Summer I," 1985-1989

According to DAM, "non-objectivity was a central pursuit" in the art of Perle Fine (born in Boston), influenced by a desire to achieve a pure expression of color.

Grace Hartigan (1922-2008)

Grace Hartigan, "New York City Rhapsody," 1960
Grace Hartigan, "New York City Rhapsody," 1960

Grace Hartigan (born in Newark, New Jersey) was the only woman included in the 1956 exhibition "Twelve Americans," on view at the Museum of Modern Art.

Jay DeFeo (1929-1989)

Jay DeFeo, "Untitled Everest," 1955
Jay DeFeo, "Untitled Everest," 1955

According to the DAM's catalogue, Jay DeFeo's artworks were associated with Abstract Expressionism as well as with Surrealism and spirituality. From the 1950s through the 1960s, she (born in Hanover, New Hampshire) painted and drew large-scale works on canvas built from multiple layers of mixed media.

Sonia Gechtoff (1926-)

Sonia Getchoff, "The Beginning," 1960
Sonia Getchoff, "The Beginning," 1960

The DAM writes that Sonia Gechtoff (born in Philadelphia) credits her early success in San Francisco to its "open environment for women, compared to misogynistic attitudes in New York."

To see how women artists of color are reclaiming spaces in the contemporary art scene, check out our past coverage here.

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