Abstract Expressionism is a movement that immediately evokes two things: New York and a select group of well-known male artists. The current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, ‘Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70’, turns this typically narrow understanding of the movement on its head. By presenting a varied and rich contribution that women artists from across the world made to the development of mid-century abstraction, it unapologetically seeks to widen how we imagine this key period in art history.
Regardless of how you believe we should approach or phrase this project of re-defining the canon, the fact that the Whitechapel brings light to it at all is ultimately important for it to be taken more seriously, more widely. However, the risk of such an overtly canon-challenging exhibition is perhaps that it could falsely be understood as single-handedly ‘sorting the problem’, when really the project is definitely less straight-forward than the exhibition might suggest.
The most impressive aspect of the exhibition is the sheer scale and diversity of artists that are on view. The artwork of 81 international women artists is presented across the different gallery spaces according to five thematic groupings. They are not sorted by time period or geography. Hence, one can for instance view the work of the Pakistani artist Nasreen Mohamedi side by side the Italian artist Carol Rama and draw interesting visual connections. Individual context is provided to the artists and the information is certainly interesting and educational, although the repetitive nature of learning about individual artists becomes slightly limiting after one has absorbed the central objective of the exhibition – yes, there are a lot of women artists about which we probably don’t know. Connections between artists of the same region, for example, between the Argentinian artists Marta Minujín and Sarah Grillo aren’t touched on. In this case, some attention towards common struggles and contexts to which Minujín and Grillo were exposed would open up the space for one to consider their unique artistic outputs with more seriousness and interest. Not only might an effort of this kind have enriched and aided a sense of historical importance towards the work presented, but I think it would have also helped the viewer to absorb the information about all of these new artists more easily.
In this vein, although the range of artists is impressive, it made me feel overwhelmed and disorientated, worried that I wasn’t giving attention to them all. The vague thematic categories such as ‘Being, Expression, Empathy’ arguably don’t provide the structure needed confronted with a plethora of new artists. The gallery space also feels crowded with art, which led me to sense, on behalf of the exhibition, an anxiety towards their gaol of demonstrating just how many women artists we have missed. Tightly grouped together, with no space to give the works prolonged attention, I can’t help but think how a Pollock and a Rothko would never be presented like this.
Almost too eager to present the forgotten women artists, without acknowledging how and why we’ve failed to consider them in the past, ignoring the nuanced and overlapping histories that makes them special in their own right, and not elevating them to the viewing standard one expects with great Abstract Expressionist art, I personally left the exhibition feeling like it didn’t manage to instil in art by women the legitimacy it deserves.
To study the contribution of women artists or, for that matter, any figures ignored by history, part of the programme has to make an effort to adopt fresh methodologies. If we blindly reveal something for it to only be re-inserted into the canon surely we’re missing the point. Against the backdrop of the recent launch of Katy Hassel’s award-winning book, The Story of Art Without Men, we need to be transparent about how much individual efforts such as these contribute towards the goal we are ultimately seeking to reach for art history. Clear on this, then please go and be impressed by a sea of great art that you may not have seen before!
Review by Michela Giachino
Since studying History of Art at The University of Oxford Michela has continued to pursue her interests in art and culture. She particularly enjoys considering how contemporary and historical art forms are presented to the wider public through exhibitions and viewings at art institutions. Michela’s favourite mediums include photography, film, painting and drawing, and she is always excited to learn about new art.
Image Credit – Damian Griffiths, Whitechapel Gallery
Read Michela’s latest review here Film Review: Creature – ‘a dynamic fusion of creative forms’- Releases 24 February 2023 – Abundant Art
Tickets and information Action, Gesture, Paint – Whitechapel Gallery
The exhibition features well-known artists associated with the Abstract Expressionism movement, including American artists Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and Helen Frankenthaler(1928 2011), alongside lesser-known figures such as Mozambican-Italian artist Bertina Lopes(1924-2012) and South Korean artist Wook-kyung Choi (1940-1985). More than half of the works have never before been on public display in the UK.