By Marina Press
Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction (on view at the Museum of Modern Art through August 13, 2017) is an exhibition not just about art but also about making space for women in the recent history of art.
Walking through the permanent collection galleries in the MoMA, few women artists are seen. As a matter of fact, in mid-1980s the feminist art group, the Guerrilla Girls, counted the ratio of men to women artists in major museums; MoMA included. (Side note: They were called “weenie counts.”) They concluded that there was a lack of art by women hanging on the walls. Earlier, in 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin wrote the article “Why have there been no great women artists?”, which observed that the art historical canon doesn’t have a great deal of artists from the fairer sex because women were not given the same opportunities as male artists.
Fast forward to after the Second World War, Hans Hofman accepted women into his classes at the Art Students League of New York. Hofmann was one of the most influential artists to abstract expressionists, otherwise known as artists of the New York School, because of his use of expressive colors, bold strokes, and unruly shapes. Some of these artists are included in this exhibition like Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. Now, works by these artists and nearly 50 more are hanging in six large galleries in this groundbreaking exhibition. All the works in this temporary exhibition are in the collection of the MoMA and not on loan. However, while the exhibition focuses on abstract art, some of these works allude to the representational.
The exhibition is divided into five categories of the abstract; gestural, geometric, reductive, fiber and line, and eccentric. These categories divide artists into unified groups based on the formal qualities of their work. The gallery dedicated to gestural abstraction marks the beginning of the exhibition. Here, gestural abstraction is synonymous with abstract expressionism. Usually a movement associated with male painters like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko – this gallery invites us to reevaluate this genre as one that was heralded by women.
The large canvas, Gaea (1966)(see left), by Lee Krasner is undoubtedly the centerpiece of this gallery. It is the quintessence of gestural abstraction. Krasner painted this expressive composition with bright red colors contrasted with dark brown and tan. She aptly titled this painting after the Greek goddess of the Earth. According to the ancient Greeks, the world began with Chaos and from it Gaea was born. She gave birth to the sun, the moon, the gods and the first humans. She made sense of the chaos. Although Krasner chose to participate as an abstract artist she denied that her work was always purely abstract. She painted large gestural movements of her entire body but made sense of the chaos just like Gaea.
Similarly, Joan Mitchell’s painting Ladybug (1957)(see right) resentative of something other than pure abstract form. Mitchell explained that all her work is representative of nature or landscape. Unlike Krasner, Mitchell’s movements were calculated and she did not consider herself an action painter.
Moving into the next gallery we are greeted with carefully executed works; the geometric abstraction of the late 1950s and 1960s. Although geometric abstraction refers primarily to the Latin American art movement called Concrete Art, Ukrainian-born American artist Louise Nevelson’s monumental mixed media work, Big Black (1963), dominates this gallery. As we move closer to this mammoth matte black structure recognizable pieces of furniture and other household objects come into view. Composed of forty cubes lined closely together it resembles a bookshelf. Nevelson utilized found objects on the streets of New York, usually household items or furniture, and nailed them together to form this visually harmonious cacophony. The structure itself is geometric because it forms a grid.
In 1979, Art Historian Rosalind Krauss, wrote the seminal article on the foundation of modernity in art entitled “Grids”. She observed that the grid found its roots in the early abstract paintings by European artists and that it is the backbone and emblem of modernity. Nevelson’s Big Black invokes the notion of the grid more than the others in the geometric abstraction gallery.
Other works like Lygia Pape’s Orange (1955) and Gego’s (née Gertrud Goldschmidt) Eight Squares (1961) are geometric without directly invoking the grid. Both works are composed of a series of squares. Pape’s painting is a composition of nine squares, composed of equal parts orange and white with a black line dividing the two colors. Gego’s Eight Squares is a sculpture that highlights the lines inside a square. The squares in Gego’s sculpture are composed of welded lines, each square overlaps another, forming a dialogue between lines and shape
s. In this case, however, the titles allude to the form of the works which also happens to be its subject matter, or what the work is about.
In this exhibition, the category of reductive abstraction highlights works based on the grid and associated with Minimalism. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets (1951) (see left) is an intimate ink drawing of a series of repetitive lines and gestures. Like Kusama, Agnes Martin’s The Tree (1964) is also a series of repetitive and minimal gestures that clearly depicts a grid. While Martin’s repetitive gestures in painting the grid reminded her of the innocence of trees, Kusama’s repetitive gestures reminded her of the hallucinations that plagued her since she was a child. These controlled movements are opposite from the gestural abstraction displayed in the beginning of the exhibition. Furthermore, Anne Truitt’s Sumi Drawings (1966) are a display of the artist’s control over the notoriously soft Sumi ink that she is able to manipulate with the utmost precision.
In the fiber and line gallery, there is nothing abstract about Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Yellow Abakan (1967-68) (see left). There is an undeniable portal aspect of it. Portal is the opposite of phallic in art speak. Abakanowicz goes as far as titling the large hanging work made of the course sisal fiber after herself. But, my reading of the work remains speculative. Although the image of a vagina is obvious to some, the curators of the exhibition maintain the form of the work is abstract. The artist, hailing from the former Soviet Bloc, was inclined to make abstract art from objects like sisal because they were associated more with craft and craft was not censored by the Soviets as much as fine art.
Another extremely portal work is Lee Bontecou’s Untilted (1961) (see right) section entitled eccentric abstraction. Bontecou’s experiments with perspective transcended the picture plane with her massive, three-dimensional mixed media canvases. The grid we so clearly witnessed in the works displayed earlier in the exhibition is now transformed into a warped vortex. Bontecou’s Untitled (1961) beckons each viewer to look inside the dark chasm in the center. The artist often explored matte black colors that challenged perceptions. There is no denying that her work influenced contemporary artist Anish Kapoor, whose work is not included in this exhibition, to create the blackest black color called vantablack in the early 1990s as seen in Untitled (1990).
Many of these women artists have a strong hold on the canon of art history. They have influenced countless artists and intellectually continued the discourse of abstraction. Some artists like those presented in reductive abstraction have mastered formalism. Others, like Abakanowicz have teetered on representational abstraction. Regardless, the dialogue invoked by Making Space is not only about making space for women in art history but also about making the space of a work of art.
All installation views of Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 15-August 13, 2017. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar
Lee Krasner (American, 1908–1984). Gaea. 1966. Oil on canvas, 69″ x 10′ 5 1/2″ (175.3 x 318.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Kay Sage Tanguy Fund, 1977 © 2017 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Joan Mitchell (American, 1925–1992). Ladybug. 1957. Oil on canvas, 6′ 5 7/8″ x 9′ (197.9 x 274 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase, 1961. © Estate of Joan Mitchell
na Abakanowicz (Polish, born 1930). Yellow Abakan. 1967-58. Sisal, 124 x 120 x 60″ (315 x 304.8 x 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. Walter Bareiss, Mrs. Watson K. Blair, Mr. Arthur Cohen, Mr. Don Page, and Anonymous Donor, 1974. © 2017 Magdalena Abakanowicz
Lee Bontecou (American, born 1931). Untitled. 1961. Welded steel, canvas, black fabric, rawhide, copper wire, and soot, 6′ 8 1/4″ x 7′ 5″ x 34 3/4″ (203.6 x 226 x 88 cm).The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Kay Sage Tanguy Fund, 1963. © 2017 Lee Bontecou
Referenced ArticlesNochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness (eds. Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran; New York: Basic, 1971).Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids.” October 9 (Summer 1979): 50-64.
About Marina Press: Marina holds a Master’s Degree in Art History and Museum Studies from the City College of New York (CUNY). She has contributed to art gallery exhibition catalogues that are currently in the collection of notable libraries like the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the Art Institute of Chicago. Marina’s career began at the Neue Galerie New York and she later continued to serve as Associate Director at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery until December 2016. In addition to her expert background in art gallery and museum work, she is fluent in Russian, and conversational in Spanish.