Women’s abstract art ‘re‑discovered’

Dave Kellaway reviews Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70 at Whitechapel Gallery London until 7 May 2023.


Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70 Whitechapel Gallery

When you walk into this exhibit, your eyes are met by this huge rectangular picture of light and colour evoking Spring by Helen Frankenthaler. On the cold day with pouring rain when we visited, this picture really lifted the soul. With abstract art, you are not required to search for a story, a reference to some person or event, or consult some book to decipher a symbol. You just have to let yourself react to the vibrancy or lack thereof of the colours and the unique forms and composition of this picture. There are no rules of course, and abstraction can refer to certain universal human symbols, gestures, or a particular calligraphy, but the links are looser. We have to focus on the creativity that the work possesses in itself.

Abstract painting by Helen Frankenthaler (1928 to 2011) USA April Mood 1974
Helen Frankenthaler (1928 to 2011) USA April Mood 1974

Unlike more representational art, there is probably scope for a wider range of individual responses. For example, some people can imagine a lake, a coast, or a seascape in this picture, or just dwell on the materiality of its lines, colours and forms without linking it to anything outside the painting. In fact, it can be an obstacle to really engaging with abstract art to try and look for representation and external links to the picture itself. Often in exhibitions, you are distracted from really looking at the pictures by having to check the guide or read through the captions provided by the gallery. Here, you could just let yourself wander around and be stunned by the huge variety of abstract paintings.

One myth you often hear repeated by the tabloid press when confronted by a piece of art is that this ‘meaningless’ rubbish could have been done by one of our young children. Notwithstanding the artistic talent of our children, once you see these pictures up close, you can see how much work and planning goes into them. There are extraordinary patterns and the juxtaposition or merging of colours that reflect long and dedicated work. Look at the incredible intricacy of the next picture by the Danish artist, Fonnesbech-Sandberg. Even pictures done quickly as a performance or ‘automatically’ and randomly require some thought and preparation.

Socialists who want to build a new society based on freedom and creativity like both form and content experimentation. One of the indicators of the bureaucratic “Stalinisation” of Russia was the way it championed crude socialist realism and repressed the early experimentation in art forms of the first years of the revolution. The bureaucrats saw art as something to be controlled and used as simplistic propaganda. They distrusted artists who, through their work, encouraged a critical way of looking at the world.

Abstract Painting by Elna Fonnesbech-Sandberg (1892-1994) Denmark.  Myriader 1959
Elna Fonnesbech-Sandberg (1892-1994) Denmark.  Myriader 1959

If you read the classic history of art books, you could easily get the impression that the Abstract Expressionist movement that became so influential following the Second World War was just a New York-based movement and that nearly all its artists were male. This show at the Whitechapel shows how wrong this narrative is. Here we can enjoy the works of over eighty women artists from many countries across the world.

In fact, as Katy Hessel points out in her History of Art without Men (2022 Hutchinsen/Heinnmann), Jackson Pollock was almost certainly influenced by a woman painter named Janet Sobel, who developed a similar technique before him. His wife, Lee Krasner, was also key in introducing him to the emerging New York art world and later promoting and managing his estate. More people have heard of Jackson Pollock than Lee Krasner or Janet Sobel, both of whom have paintings in this show. The world-renowned drip painter was even immortalised by actor Ed Harris in Pollock, a film made in 2000.

Mary Gabriel has written a big book, Ninth Street Women (Back Bay, 2019), examining in great detail the unrecognised contribution of Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler to the Abstract Expressionism movement. All these artists have pictures in this exhibition.

Book Cover for Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

The curators rather arbitrarily, in my opinion, divide up the works into categories that often overlap. Material, process, and time features works where the painter experiments with the paint so that it is layered or ‘takes on life of its own through splashes, dribbles, and stains’ (from the exhibition handout). Found materials such as mud, sand, resin, or sawdust are added to the picture. Then we have Myth, Symbol, and Ritual, which do tend to reference the paintings back to abstract symbols or signs that exist in some or all eras of human history. Here is an example:

Abstract painting, group of four by Franciska Themerson (1907, Poland – 1988 UK) and called Calligrame I, VIII, XIII and X
Franciska Themerson (1907, Poland – 1988 UK) Calligrame I, VIII, XIII and X

This next painting shows how the movement was international in its scope. You can see the heat and vibrancy of Latin America’s colours:

Abstract painting by Fanny Sanin b.1938 Colombia, lives and works in US, and called Oil no.4, 1968
Fanny Sanin b.1938 Colombia, lives and works in US, Oil no.4, 1968

These artists were living in a period of great change: massive urban reconstruction and the new post-war industrial revolution, along with the threat of nuclear war and the cold war. This painting captures the lines and movement of the dynamic urban environment.

Abstract painting by Maria Helena Viera da Silva, (1908 Portugal -1992, France) and this one is called Untitled, 1955
Maria Helena Viera da Silva, (1908 Portugal -1992, France) Untitled, 1955

Another category defined by the curators was “Being, Expression and Empathy” which again I think could apply to most of the other works in the show. This picture by a Chinese artist, with its shimmering yellows and greens, certainly triggers an emotional response. For me, it reflects the hopes (yellows) and regrets (darker greens) of when we reminisce. But of course you can make of it what you like; it just stood out from the other pictures for me.

Abstract painting by Chinyee (b 1929 China, lives and works in US) this one is called Reminiscence, 1984
Chinyee (b 1929 China, lives and works in US) Reminiscence, 1984

In this review, we can only pick out the works that stopped us in our tracks and made us look longer. I am sure everyone would come up with a different selection. The next picture is by a Lebanese artist and is one of the less abstract works in the show.

Nadia Saikali (Lebanese, permanently moved to France in 1979) Moonrise 1969

This exhibition continues the positive trend we have seen in the last few years of showcasing women painters that have been hidden or neglected in the mainstream history of art. Long may it continue.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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