Art Review

Review: Women of Abstract Expressionism Breaks New Ground at the Denver Art Museum

This is shaping up to be the year of the woman — and not just because Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic nomination for president, although that is clearly a big deal. No, I’m talking about the art world, where an increased emphasis on the accomplishments of women artists is leading to a re-evaluation of their role in the visual arts.

Although the trend is occurring across the country, Denver is at the center of things with the just-opened Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum. This groundbreaking show, the first of its kind at a major museum, is the brainchild of the DAM’s modern-art curator, Gwen Chanzit, who says the idea first came to her in 2008, while she was on a plane heading back to Denver after visiting New York.

During that trip, Chanzit had taken in Action Abstraction at the Jewish Museum, an exhibit that looked at the abstract-expressionist movement. The show featured the work of some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, ones for whom no first name is necessary: Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, etc. But there were also artists in the mix who were less well known, and this led to Chanzit’s epiphany in the sky: She realized that all of the artists with whom she was so familiar from art history were white men, while those whom she knew little about were men of color or women. Clearly, racism and sexism had played a role in the reason that some of these artists had gotten their places in the canon, while others had not. Didn’t women deserve their due with a show, too?

She presented the concept to DAM director Christoph Heinrich, who loved it — and the race was on. Chanzit cast a wide net and came up with more than 100 artists who would qualify for such a show. That list was cut to around forty artists who are discussed in the catalogue, with twelve of those showcased in the exhibit. Chanzit came up with this tight list so that each artist could be given a solo of sorts, offering a coherent look at their signature styles. These dozen solos span the entire set of galleries on the enormous fourth level of the Hamilton Building.

Though the defining theme of the exhibit is the rediscovery of forgotten women artists, it’s important to note that about a third of them are actually already famous. Three were married to artists who were more renowned than they — Helen Frankenthaler to Robert Motherwell, Elaine de Kooning to Willem de Kooning, and Lee Krasner to Jackson Pollock. The fourth, Joan Mitchell, gained recognition on her own. While there are many surprising strengths among the other eight artists featured here, these four are the exhibition’s stars.

Let’s start with Frankenthaler. Her most important contribution to abstract painting is her technical breakthrough, which was widely influential: staining raw canvas with thinned-out pigments, creating veil-like passages of paint. Although the technique is flatter than flat — the colors are literally embedded in the fibers of the canvas — Frankenthaler was able to produce an unexpectedly atmospheric effect. The show includes two masterpieces of this type: the super-famous “Jacob’s Ladder” and the closely related if essentially unknown “Western Dream.” (Chanzit has used the show as a vehicle for acquiring things, having already succeeded in getting eight works added to the museum’s permanent collection, and she’d like to score a ninth in the form of “Western Dream.”)

The de Kooning section is somewhat of a surprise, since Elaine de Kooning isn’t typically considered to be an abstract expressionist at all, having found her greatest success as a portraitist who embraced figurative abstraction. But Chanzit uncovered a clutch of pieces that qualify, including the billboard-sized “Bullfight” (which is one of the pieces the DAM acquired). Also interesting are two paintings, both smeary depictions of husband Willem, that bridge the gap between abstract expressionism and her classic figural abstraction.

An interesting quote from Krasner, posted on the wall, notes that she was an artist before, during and after her relationship with Pollock, and that’s an important point, as she’s been so thoroughly overshadowed by him. Her portion of the show is one of its highlights. There are several magnificent Krasners here, none more magnificent than her acknowledged masterpiece, “The Seasons,” which measures an astounding seventeen feet long. Using arcing lines that record her arm movements, she densely populates the composition with abstract shapes evocative of nature and even the figure. All of this is done in an extremely limited palette of rose tones, creams and greens. The piece is a heart-stopper.

The Mitchells are also very strong, showing off the artist’s skills with manipulating staccato brushwork and displaying her incredible ability to conjure brilliant color combinations. Stylistically, Mitchell’s work is in the mainstream of action painting. In the stunning “Cercando un Ago,” you can almost imagine her slashing at the canvas with her paint-laden brushes. But despite the free-for-all mark-making, as well as her obvious instinctual approach to composition, the whole thing comes together with a perfect sense of balance.

Though not as famous as the first four, Grace Hartigan is included in many art-history books. As with de Kooning, what is regarded as her most important work is not abstract expressionist, but abstracted representational scenes. The Hartigan paintings featured here are on the way to those, and in many of them you can see the structural elements that will become loose renderings of objects in later paintings. Even amid this stiff competition, the Hartigan area is one of the strongest in the show.

Although this period — the mid-twentieth century — is a favorite of mine, I barely knew the work of most of the other artists, and I’d never heard of a couple of them, including Judith Godwin, the only artist to attend the opening. At that event, Godwin related her experiences with the sexism that dominated the art world at the time she was working, and said she felt excluded from many things simply owing to her sex. She also pointed out that Frankenthaler, de Kooning and Krasner had an "in” with the galleries and critics, owing to their successful husbands. Among the Godwins here is “Epic,” a gorgeous two-panel work with bold black forms set against a modulated white ground.

Godwin is one of three living artists in the show. The others are Mary Abbott and Sonia Gechtoff; the DAM was lucky enough to recently acquire a sensational Abbott action painting, “All Green,” as well as a large and important Gechtoff, “The Beginning.”

The remaining artists are Perle Fine, Deborah Remington, Jay DeFeo and Ethel Schwabacher. Although each is represented by intriguing pieces, Schwabacher’s paintings stand out. Her style, with its jagged shapes and color combinations, is clearly related to that of Clyfford Still, yet her paintings look nothing like his, with the resonance between their respective oeuvres existing only in the mind’s eye.

And right now, this superlative show has my head spinning. The chance to see Frankenthaler’s “Jacob’s Ladder” together with Krasner’s “The Seasons” is enough of a draw that Chanzit could have left the rest of the space empty — but instead, she lined the other walls with fifty paintings good enough to hang alongside them. 

Women of Abstract Expressionism, through September 25 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000,
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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia