Action, Gesture, Paint: So macho? Here’s kaleidoscopic proof that abstraction was anything but
At the opening of Whitechapel Gallery’s Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-1970 is a 4m-long canvas. Helen Frankenthaler’s April Mood (1974) is a riot of pure colour: a large, pale-blue block in the middle melts into purples, pinks, and oranges whilst brush-marks of green and dark blue sit on top. Its scale is enough to stop any gallery-goer in their tracks.
Frankenthaler was one of the second-generation Abstract Expressionists – a movement that begun in the 1940s New York, and was made famous by a small group of artists including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. The movement is often remembered as unmistakably masculine, with its distinctive focus on large, macho canvases and “action painting”. In its earliest years, female artists were far from welcome – a critic told Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, that one of her paintings was “so good you would not believe it was done by a woman”. This masculine element was paired with an unlikely strain of American nationalism: the CIA’s involvement with promoting the artists has long been the subject of rumour and debate.
But, as this kaleidoscopically varied exhibition reveals, this period of abstraction was far from limited to a small group of American men. With more than 150 paintings, the exhibition shows the work of 80 female artists from across the world – from the Palestinian artist Maliheh Afnan’s calligraphic canvases, to the Polish artist Franciszka Themerson’s expressive works on paper (made, like Pollock’s canvases, by pouring paint from a height).
From the Americans, there are works by Lee Krasner (including her 1955 symbolic collage, Bald Eagle), Elaine de Kooning, and Sonia Gechtoff (whose pair of dark canvasses, The Queen and The Map, are a terrifying exhibition highlight). And from Britain, there are early canvases by Gillian Ayres, and bold, tactile collage-like works by the St Ives artist Sandra Blow.
The show is not limited to the English-speaking world: Korean artist Wook-kyung Choi’s bright, colourful canvasses sit alongside tangible, near-apocalyptic mixed-media works by the Peruvian artist Gloria Gómez-Sánchez.
The exhibition includes many women whose work has never been shown before in the UK, and proposes a shared, global heritage of female abstraction. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and the show is successful in drawing attention to many women who have unjustly faded into obscurity. But, in including so many artists, there’s the unmistakable sense that some of their individual context is lost.
Are these artists only linked by their gender, or a shared conception of abstraction? It’s a question that isn’t answered by the exhibition, but the sheer variety – from colour field paintings, to smaller watercolours, architectural works, and near-figurative canvasses – certainly opens up a far wider, and more exciting, definition of post-war abstract art.
From Feb 9-May 7. Tickets: 020 7522 7888; email@example.com