A call to spring and nature rising in the heart of the wintry city, Helen Frankenthaler’s “April Mood”, a glorious, watery extravaganza of stain-drenched pinks, oranges and blues, hovers over the opening wall of the Whitechapel Gallery’s exuberant new exhibition Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-1970. The show concludes on a grand note, with Joan Mitchell’s operatic color tangles and brilliant diffused light in “Rufus’ Rock” and “Untitled”, richly allusive yet taut compositions that play wild and free with landscape elements as evocations of emotion and memory.
Between these masterpieces, 80 artists fill in the picture of how women around the world from the 1940s to the 1970s embraced non-figurative painting as gestures of liberation and self-expression.
Only seven years, but a sea change in cultural sensibility, separate this ambitious exhibition from the Royal Academy’s colossal 2016 show Abstract Expressionism, which focused almost entirely on the big boys Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko et al, and dedicated the movement as built on explosive American macho energy. Part of current impulses to rewrite established art historical narratives, the Whitechapel draws and extends this reading in terms of gender and, impressively, geography.
The series is exciting. In South Korea, Wook-kyung Choi saturates her canvases with swaying, splintered oranges, scarlets, and ochres, a riotous dazzle of green and blue stripes interspersed with dazzling white impasto—abstract marks at their most vibrant and seemingly improvisatory, held within a just -ordered framework.
Training in Rome, Behjat Sadr absorbed European influences art informal in addition to printing Persian tapestries and Islamic architecture, returning to Tehran to paint elegant constructions dominated by sweeping curves, usually black, sometimes illuminated with shimmering primary shades, representing natural elements – tree trunks, forests, comets – and always, in the flowing liquid paint, referring to the black gold of oil.
Argentinian Noemí Di Benedetto’s stretched canvases with rough texture are stitched like wounds. Shadowy figures, reminders of exile, emerge in Palestinian Maliheh Afnan’s dark landscapes “Mindscape” and “Concours”. In “Open Game” and “Promenade” Ida Barbarigo translates Venice’s winding channels and reflections into opal curls, fluttering white stripes against sky-like backgrounds.
Throughout, a sense of fragility, urgency and excitement emerges during sociopolitical upheaval, in different global contexts. Barbarigo recalled an excitement that wandered through deserted Venice in 1945: “I felt this openness and was nourished by it . . . see light on things, colors, gray details. . . ecstatic vagabonding.”
At the same time, as the war in Japan ended catastrophically, Toko Shinoda added thick bold black lines, gestural splashes and blurred passages to her refined ink paintings, fusing Asian calligraphy with modern abstraction. “The air of freedom after the war suddenly nurtured in me the seed of a desire to visually express the shape of my heart. I was suddenly emancipated. . . my brush moved like an outpouring,” she wrote.
On the other side of the world, Michael West (née Corinne Michelle West) also recorded the end of the war: “A great parade of tanks and guns roars under my 5th Avenue window — the noise is deafening, hysterical . . . this glorious roar — this beautiful abstract scene of people along the curb. . . is the new poetry, the new art.” A light smudge seeps over dense layers of enamel and sand in her “Nihilism”, which alludes to nuclear holocaust, but also creation arising from destruction. The rhythmic marks record the reach of West’s body as she painted; the entire surface is animated in a way that embodies Harold Rosenberg’s definition of American abstraction: “an arena in which to act”.
With many competing large, noisy canvases, group abstract shows are difficult to orchestrate, but this one is beautifully scaled down, with an excellent small room midway, allowing us to slow down and modestly sized paintings to breathe. Here Asma Fayoumi’s “Requiem for a City”, fragmented maroon and black architectural forms interspersed with cobalt and silver shards shine, like a moonlit ruin; it was painted in Damascus after Israeli-Syrian clashes in 1967.
Opposite are delicate canvases covered in splattered pigment and looping lines, like the vibrant pink-turquoise “Illusion of Solidity” by Janet Sobel (née Jennie Olechovsky), a Brooklyn grandmother when she began painting in the early 1940s. She anticipated Pollock’s overall drip effects by several years, although the stronger comparison is to folk decorative styles from Sobel’s native Ukraine. Critic Clement Greenberg called Sobel “primitive” and “a housewife”.
However, there are under-the-radar New Yorkers here as tough and full of bravado as the men. Lee Krasner’s robust-voluptuous arcs and coils build wonderful compositions of controlled chaos – “Bald Eagle”, “Feathering”. Less well known, the sharply drawn strokes in Judith Godwin’s “Black Pagoda” and “Black Cross” have an architectural power and depth reminiscent of that of her friend Franz Kline, but a dynamic, lighter quality inspired by the physical movements of another friend, dancer Martha Graham. And Mary Abbott’s undulating warm-toned chords in “Purple Crossover” and the effervescent liquid flow of the towering vertical of “Mahogany Road” are as sensuous-robust yet graceful as the paintings of her once beloved de Kooning – and the influence was not not yet. one direction; they were experimenting with large abstracted landscapes around the same time.
Krasner gradually gained acclaim, but the others, who also belonged to Greenwich Village’s ab-ex circles in the 1940s-50s, faded into obscurity several decades before their deaths – Abbott was 98 years old in 2019; Godwin in 2021. A shift occurred just before their deaths when interviewers sought them out as the last living links to the movement’s heyday; each spoke with little bitterness of the prejudice they faced as female painters in mid-century New York.
The market remains insanely unbalanced: Abbott’s wonderful “Mahogany Road” sold for just $16,250 in 2019. This is the more extraordinary because, of all genres, abstraction is gender neutral. “I am an artist, not a female artist, not an American artist,” Krasner insisted.
So why a women-only show? To fundamentally redress inequality and build a nuanced understanding. The selection could have been tighter: the artists included are of unequal stature – some will enter the canon, others are forgettable, few have sustained the evolving careers to warrant retrospectives like Krasner’s at the Barbican in 2019 and Mitchell Mitchell ‘s currently at Paris’s Fondation Louis Vuitton. But most had the courage to make art out of the maelstrom of their own experience: Krasner’s favorite line from Rimbaud, “I ended up finding sacred the disorder of my mind”, could speak for the majority.
This exhibition is full of feeling and is a landmark, celebrating so many women who have found their own voices and expanded the world scene of abstract expressionism. As Frankenthaler wrote, “If it’s beautiful and it works, hooray!”
Offered from February 9 to May 7, whitechapelgallery.orgthen at Fondation Vincent van Gogh, Arles, and Kunsthalle, Bielefeld