February 18-May 28 2017
Of all the latter-day modern movements, American Abstract Expressionism has the most imposing reputation as a macho endeavor, a romantic, Nietzschean exploration of “male-hood” which gains strength from authenticity and vice versa. Historically, though, there were women, many women, active as Abstract Expressionists, and in the circles that supported the artistic ideology, both in New York and in the San Francisco Bay Area (the two prime loci of Ab Ex activity). They suffered twice as women, from the sexist biases of society in general, and from the male chauvinism of the majority of their peers. Given that both these notions were long ago discredited, it’s something of a surprise that Women of Abstract Expressionism didn’t come along two decades earlier. But with all the remaining – and, worse, reviving – anti-female bias, the survey’s appearance now makes a newly pointed argument. Everything the boys could do the girls could do just as well.
And occasionally better. The exhibition has been chosen with such care that it flatters almost all its participants, finding them at the tops of their games and making them look, however fairly, as good as Guston or Pollock. Thus, Mary Abbott, whom I’d known only from passable smaller works here and there, shows to great advantage with at least two masterful large canvases; and Sonia Gechtoff’s forceful paintings, done with a minimized but glowing palette, make the case I always suspected was there to make for a really distinctive talent. Better-known painters such as Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell are also represented by some of their best work, including an early pre-stain canvas by the former and an exquisite study in Turneresque gray by the latter.
Women of Abstract Expressionism gives some deference to its better-known participants: Lee Krasner seems to have (deservedly) a big chunk of real estate (at least in the Palm Springs installation), and Mitchell, Frankenthaler and the more recondite Grace Hartigan are everything they’re cracked up to be. Only Elaine de Kooning seems oddly short-changed, her formal and subjective range reduced to her signature moves (full-length portraits, an abstract bullfight). There’s more to “E de K” than that. On the other hand, the survey argues for some truly gifted, and important, ladies who deserve recognition, such as Perle Fine, Jay de Feo and Deborah Remington – artists whose later careers were as forceful and fruitful as their Ab Ex years, and who gave hints of what was to come in their eccentric, poetic ventures into the gestural that look as fresh here as they did the day they left their respective studios.