Abstract Expressionism: The Persistent Women
“The act of painting is for me, as a woman, an act of freedom.”
Heather James Fine Art presents a celebration of some of the most prominent Abstract Expressionist Women. Despite the masculine myths formed around Abstract Expressionism, women were a central component, leading and influencing it.
What is Abstract Expressionism? From the trauma of World War II and within an uncertain present, the movement centered on the emotional or psychological effect of painting. Its adherents created spontaneous brushstrokes or mark-making, placing supremacy on the artist. Abstract Expressionists could further be classified into the Action Painters with their gestural strokes and Color Field artists with their tonal planes. It is for these reasons that the movement was often associated with a heroic and brash masculinity of New York that would lead art to a new level.
But, how much of this is truth, how much was it an effort to propagate American ideals, how much was an unconscious systemic denial of the contributions of women and artists of color? Abstract Expressionism included and was led by women. Moreover, San Francisco and the Bay Area produced a unique school of Abstract Expressionism that developed concurrent to New York, not in response to it.
These artists are important, not just because they are women, but because they pioneered, transformed, and directed the Abstract Expressionist movement. For example, Perle Fine and Mercedes Matter were part of “The Club,” the center of the Abstract Expressionism. Matter even started the New York Studio School which operates to this day. Second and third generation artists including Grace Hartigan and Judith Godwin expanded the visual vocabulary and creative possibilities.
Why is this important? By not challenging received knowledge, we would have lost a large chunk of history and of art. We get a fuller and more complex picture that allows us to understand ourselves and a wider swath of work to enjoy. In particular, with the Abstract Expressionists, the erasure of the women allowed for a singular vision of masculine America. By re-introducing women, we can fully enjoy both the radical nature but also the historical use of Abstract Expressionism, the development of its style and its influences and impact. Myth transforms to something closer to reality.
Elaine de Kooning
De Kooning was a central figure of the Abstract Expressionists. She participated in the pivotal 9th Street Show in 1951 and she was a member of “The Club”. Known for her lightning quick painting style, de Kooning was said to have “the fastest brush in town”.
The exhibition covers the breadth of de Kooning’s ability from portraiture to pure abstraction. It was this ability that made her stand out amongst her peers, both men and women.
The child of Russian immigrants, Fine studied under Hans Hofmann and joined the American Abstract Artists, a group founded by Josef Albers.
Fine was one of the first women to be invited as a member of “The Club” and was shown in the landmark Ninth Street Show in 1951. Despite her prominence and acclaim, Fine’s legacy has only recently re-emerged. In disregarding important players like Fine, we receive a diminished history. As Fine declared, “I know I was as good as anybody else.”
Part of the third generation of Abstract Expressionists, Godwin studied under Hans Hofmann in New York. The city proved pivotal for her.
In New York, Godwin befriended Martha Graham. Graham’s performances influenced the painter to incorporate dynamic gestures and movements in her work. She also embraced Zen living which guided her painting. As Godwin noted, “I take truth, an intimate emotion, a question, an answer – and paint it.”
Hartigan found acclaim by fusing abstraction and figuration and for her noted sense of color. In 1954, Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, instructed the purchase of one of her works, becoming the first of the ‘second-generation’ accepted into any museum collection.
By 1952, Hartigan absorbed figuration into painting by including familiar images. Often considered a precursor to Pop Art, Hartigan deepens our understanding of the intersection of Pop, abstraction, and painting.
Matter was both the first woman admitted to “The Club” of Abstract Expressionists and a founding member of the American Abstract Artists. Matter’s work defies easy categorization. Her energetic brushstrokes coalesce into careful studies of still lifes. What appears to be off-the-cuff, Matter spent months or years on a drawing or painting.
Her commitment to studio practice would bring about one of her lasting legacies, founding the New York Studio School which would produce artistic luminaries including Christopher Wool.
Yvonne Thomas’s career contains all of the hallmarks of the Abstract Expressionists. She attended Cooper Union where she studied under Buckminster Fuller. In 1948, Patricia Matta, wife of surrealist Roberto Matta, introduced Thomas to “Subjects of the Artist”, a cooperative art school run by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, and David Hare. It was this introduction that shifted Thomas’s trajectory.
Befriending artists including Elaine de Kooning and Philip Guston, Thomas fully embraced Abstract Expressionism. She would show in the landmark 9th Street Show in 1951 as well as all five of the “New York Painting and Sculpture Annuals” of the 1950s.
To dive into more of the legacies of some of these artists, visit the pages for our exhibitions, “Elaine and Willem de Kooning: Painting in the Light” and “Mercedes Matter: A Miraculous Quality”.