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12 important Women of Abstract Expressionism

The first names that come to mind in Abstract Expressionism—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and the like—may all be men, but women artists also played a crucial role in the internationally-renown movement. It’s time for some long-overdue recognition of other Ab Ex greats.

In preparation for the exhibition, Chanzit cast a wide net, taking a look at the work of over 100 women, about 40 of whom she says would have been a good fit for the final show and are featured in the catalogue. What she found was that artists were important practitioners of Abstract Expressionism—the first internationally-influential American art movement—on both coasts, but that the Bay Area’s female painters were more accepted and given more opportunities than their New York counterparts.

 Elaine de Kooning (1918–1989)

Elaine de Kooning signed her paintings with her initials so that viewers wouldn’t judge her for being a woman. Like Abbott, she was a member of the exclusive “the Club.” De Kooning also worked as an art critic and teacher, and was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1985. She was also married to Willem, who got a bit more of the spotlight.

Judith Godwin (1930–)

Judith Godwin studied under Hofmann, Will Barnet, and Vaclav Vytlacil, creating work inspired by Modern dance. Godwin, who shared a studio with Franz Kline, was influenced by Zen Buddhism, which she was introduced to by her friend, Japanese painter Kenzo Okada. She showed with Stable Gallery and Betty Parsons, and a had a 2010 solo show at Spanierman Modern featured in artnet Magazine at the time.

Joan Marter’s essay, “Missing in Action: Abstract Expressionist Women,” is an excellent starting point as it enumerates some of the many obstacles faced by women in this movement. From sexism among the male artists drinking at the Cedar Bar to the insulting nature of Clement Greenberg’s assessment of art by women as decorative and overly polished, women were embattled by literal and rhetorical boys’ clubs. Women artists were rarely represented by dealers, galleries, or solo shows as their careers were developing, and even when they were, those contributions were overlooked by early historians of Abstract Expressionism. Marter also charts the few exhibition opportunities that were open to women abstractionists in the 1950s including the Ninth Street Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture in 1951 and the annual exhibitions at the Stable Gallery from 1953 to 1957. These early displays featured work by men and women—paintings by Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler hung alongside those by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and others—and the selection committee included Perle Fine, Joan Mitchell, and Elaine de Kooning. These shows offered exposure and leadership opportunities for women artists. They provide evidence of women’s participation as makers and curators in the Abstract Expressionist movement from an early moment, which makes the neglect that such women have suffered ever since all the more egregious.

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