Above – Painting by Lee Krasner, titled The Seasons, oil and house paint on canvas, approx. 92″x 203″ 1957 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
Yesterday we attended a member preview of the highly acclaimed Denver Art Museum show titled WOMEN OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM. These brave and innovative women of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s are my heroes, having charted the direction I would later choose to follow with my art. I did not make that phenomenal association until years later, because the emphasis and the credit was placed upon male artists.
As a dedicated student of fine art in the 60’s at the U of Colorado, Boulder I found myself artistically immersed and influenced during historically volatile times on a campus known for its politically active student body and its cutting-edge art department, among other fine attributes. By the 60’s the world was rapidly changing, across the board, on all fronts, from religion to civil rights to politics to art, music and literature…
I was inside the momentous flux, historically, geographically, and creatively, in one of the right places to be at just the right time. The art world was evolving at an especially stunning pace; morphing; reinventing; branching off into new vocabularies of expression as art is expected to do when worldly conventions are spinning and older ideas are challenged. Those cutting-edge professors were learning and absorbing right along with students….we were all in it together, but few influential women artists were ever acknowledged or mentioned. If you were a young female artist of that time, that was the elephant in every studio and classroom. The world of art was dominated by men. I was one of less than a handful of women in the expressionistic painting classes where this stimulating, intoxicating new artistic action was happening.
I was vaguely aware of names like Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner (the wife of Jackson Pollock), Elaine De Kooning (wife of William), Judith Godwin, Ethel Schwabacher and the others included in this current show. These women were already painting their hearts out in NYC and SF, often sharing studio space with their prominent husbands. In the words of Lee Krasner, “I was always going to be Mrs. Jackson Pollock – that’s a matter of fact – but I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”
Fresh approaches, bold brush stroke gestures and odd new vocabularies of expression ran rampant in these womens’ art, if one cared to look. Helen Frankenthaler said it best: “One of the first rules is NO rules.” In the words of the museum, “While individual expression is key, several themes recur in works by the women artists seen in this show. These include responses to place, the seasons, time of day, meaningful events, and literature, dance or music. These paintings are almost always quite abstract, even when referencing something real. The true subject is never the thing, but the painterly expression itself.”
Quoting now from the Curator of Modern Art, Gwen F. Chanzit, Ph. D at this Denver show:
“…they helped forge the first fully American modern art movement. While there is no one prescribed style, Abstract Expressionist canvases are known for loose brushwork all-over composition, an emphasis on surface rather than depth, and a grand sense of scale. Artists experimented with process and materials to free themselves from previous conventions.”
My love for mixed media and collage art found its origin with the experimentation of these women and the larger abstract movement to which they belonged. Bits of string, tin foil and various papers chosen for their texture or pattern can be found, worked with paint, on the canvases of this show. If I ever needed validation, and that need is by definition part of being an abstract artist, I found it in the work of these women. For them abstract expressionism was risky and unheard of; for me it is the norm. The art of these women has been underreported and undervalued, although they participated alongside men – even husbands! – in studios, art clubs, exhibitions and shows.
The art displayed in this show is so alive with the joy of painting free that it almost brings tears to your eyes. The powerful colors, the textures and the wide open gestures and brushstrokes are screaming freedom – from conventional traditional style and conformity. Seeing it all was a lesson, loud and clear, in being brave, in being a risk-taker, in being unrestrained and fully expressive as an artist. These women were gutsy broads!
If any of you have potential artists in your family or circle of friends, especially girls, remember that women of astounding talent were often ignored, brushed off, undervalued and cast aside as irrelevant. It still happens…..but less consistently.
Thanks to the Denver Art Museum for allowing photos to be taken, and for the quotes I have used here.
Jo Ann Brown-Scott – new novel titled A CANARY FLIES THE CANYON, about the life of a young woman who finds her life’s passion in art
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