Art Talk: “Women of Abstract Expressionism” and Gender Equality


So, this post will be half an Art Talk and half a review. As I said in a previous post, I visited the Denver Art Museum this past weekend and saw a bunch of new exhibits there. The main reason I made the pilgrimage down to Denver was to see the highly praised “Women of Abstract Expressionism” exhibition. So let’s start there.

The exhibition features works by several women artists working during the mid-twentieth century on both the East and West coasts. These artists were major players in the Abstract Expressionism movement, although they often went unnoticed or were quietly hidden away behind the shadow of the more famous, male Abstract Expressionists. Most notably, this exhibit featured Lee Krasner (wife of Jackson Pollock), Elaine de Kooning (wife of Willem de Kooning), and many others.

Before entering the exhibit, viewers are met with the names and photos of each artist featured in the show. Visitors walk through the glass doors and are taken through each artist, beginning with a short biography and a few quotes from the artist. Each artist has at least three paintings on display, and some have additional early pieces and sketches. The exhibit was a bit confusing in terms of flow, although it doesn’t really matter which way you go in terms of history. I just found myself going backwards somehow, seeing the paintings before reading about the artist.

Hudson River Day Line by Joan Mitchell.

But the work more than makes up for this. Each artist has her own style, some varying in their own styles as well. Viewers are immersed in the vibrant color, undulating shapes and kinetic energy that makes up the collective, iconic image of Abstract Expressionism. And, yet again, I was nearly brought to tears. I don’t know what it is about these paintings, but they just move me in ways that I can’t explain. One of the last times I visited the DAM was to see the “Modern Masters” exhibition, which featured modern artists working in every movement from Impressionism to Pop Art, including a large chunk of Abstract Expressionists. It was the first time I saw a lot of my favorite artists in person, including Mark Rothko. And I had to wipe away tears right there in the middle of the exhibition hall.

Seriously, I can’t explain it.

While I didn’t quite get to the sniffing-and-tissues level, I was on the verge of tears standing in front of Elaine de Kooning’s Bullfight. This is the featured image for the exhibition for most of the marketing material. It features vibrant slashes of yellows, reds, purples and blacks and creates this swirling mass of energy reminiscent of the bullfights de Kooning visited. It is quite large and you can easily get lost in it.

Bullfight by Elaine de Kooning.

This was by far my favorite piece of the exhibit, along with Joan Mitchell’s light, swirling works, and Sonia Gechtoff’s luscious abstractions.

Gechtoff’s Children of Frejus, is an abstract work that portrays the artist’s emotional response to a story about a failed dam that resulted in the deaths of many children. Knowing this, the piece took on such a deep, haunting feeling that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even after I left the museum.

Children of Frejus by Sonia Gechtoff.

The exhibit also features a short original film with interviews of some of the artists talking about high-points in their career, as well as the challenges that faced, and continue to confront, women artists. During this time, and even before then, women artists struggled to have their work shown in galleries across the world. The art of a woman artist was often considered simply a hobby — something they did during their down time from familial responsibilities, and not to be seriously considered as fine art worthy of respect.

It was years before even a single woman artist had her work featured in a major museum, not to mention having a solo exhibition there. Cue the Guerilla Girls. The Guerilla Girls are a group of anonymous, feminist woman artists who use their work to protest gender and racial inequality in the art world. You may know them as the woman who wear gorilla masks when being photographed or videotaped, as they wish to remain anonymous in their fight. The Guerilla Girls are also known for their protest against the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibitions in which there are often great disparities between the number of male artists versus the number of female artists featured. And the problem continues, as you can read in this article from The New York Times Magazine.

The Guerilla Girls with one their pieces protesting gender inequality at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Granted, museums are getting better about featuring woman artists, as is evidenced by “Women of Abstract Expressionism” at the DAM. They had also featured a great number of woman artists in the “Modern Masters” exhibit as well.

Yet, there are still a huge number of contemporary woman artists who are creating amazing work and doing amazing things with their work, and who are continually going unnoticed. We need more protestations from patrons, asking for more work by woman in major museums. The men are great, but the women are just as great, if not better, in my opinion. Our current thoughts have simply been colored by a history of gender degredation. And with a female president potentially on the horizon, it’s time for this to stop, especially in the world of art.

I would definitely recommend going to see this exhibit as soon as possible. It is so moving and empowering and is incredibly important for people to know and understand. “Women of Abstract Expressionism” is on display at the DAM through September 25 and is included in your general admission. It will then travel to the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC in October, and to the Palm Springs Art Museum in California in February, according to the DAM’s website.

What did you think of “Women of Abstract Expressionism?” Do you feel there is gender inequality in the fine art world? How can women artists fight this today? Let’s talk.




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