Life & Culture

Women of colour: The paint-slinging abstract expressionists forgotten by art history

All-female show Action, Gesture, Paint features artists 'disappeared' by critics


This painting is so good you’d never know it was by a woman,” declared artist and lecturer Hans Hofmann of a 1937 canvas by his pupil, the abstract expressionist Lee Krasner.

Given that it was an action painting, what he really meant was that the vogue for throwing paint onto the floor, dripping it down a canvas or simply pouring, leaking or staining colour onto surfaces as artists started doing in response to the turbulent times was presumed to be the province of macho men like Jackson Pollock, Krasner’s future husband.

That literally dozens of women were chucking paint around well enough to be exhibited, if not properly acknowledged, during their lifetime, has been a dirty secret which the Whitechapel Gallery is about to reveal with its new all-female blockbuster show Action, Gesture, Paint.

Its curators are still fighting against the tide — art historian Griselda Pollock, who has written an article for the catalogue, was shocked to find only one woman featured in a recent show of mid-20th century American painting and sculpture at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and none at all in a major history of abstract expressionism published in 1970.

Yet when she decided to study abstract art she found “many, many artist-women everywhere being sidelined by critics at the same time they were getting to exhibit their work in museums….they were being ‘disappeared’ from art history.”

The Whitechapel is aiming to put that right by showcasing more than 80 women artists from every corner of the globe — and a fifth of them are Jewish. They include Lea Nikel, a superstar of the Israeli art scene whose work has never been shown in the UK before, according to the gallery. “I am so excited to be including her because the works are incredible — so joyful, touching and intuitive,” says curator Laura Smith.

Born in Ukraine in 1918 and an early migrant to Palestine with her family two years later, Nikel is one of many female artists who struggled in her forties to find time for art while bringing up children. Overlooked at the start of her career in Israel, she was later showered with every national painting prize and also represented Israel at the Venice Biennale.

Unlike many of her contemporaries who managed to make art while juggling domestic obligations, Nikel had to get away to find time and space to paint. She separated from her husband in 1946 and left her daughter with relatives in Israel, where she felt stifled, finding her mojo by spending the 1950s in Paris.

After returning as an exhibiting artist known for her vibrant blocks of colour, she got fed up with the lack of attention she was receiving and decamped after the Yom Kippur War to New York, where she was much more warmly received.

She returned four years later and was exhibited frequently, painting right up to her death in 2005, when the Tel Aviv Museum of Art paid tribute to her efforts with a major retrospective.

Nikel and Krasner, whose Bald Eagle, returning to the Whitechapel nearly 60 years after her retrospective there, is a highlight of the show, were just two among dozens of women artists who endured years being dissed by male critics.

Pollock, the king of action painting, may have married Krasner, but it was Ukrainian-born Janet Sobel whose drip painting first caught his eye. Influential critic Clement Greenberg dismissed her as a “primitive” and a “housewife” when viewing her work with Pollock, though he later acknowledged her as a forerunner of the movement.

Considering how rude Greenberg was about female abstract expressionists, it’s amazing he got one for a wife — Helen Frankenthaler, who gave her colour field paintings a misty, feminine edge by thinning with turpentine. Even so she did not escape the critical eye of her spouse, however:

“Is it finished? Is it a complete picture?” he quizzed her, looking at the blank areas of unpainted canvas in Mountains And Sea, considered one of the most important paintings of Frankenthaler’s career.

“So few women are remembered as part of the story,” says Smith, whose research threw up more than 200 talented female abstract expressionists working all over the world. “Many were shown and collected during their lifetime, but forgotten after their deaths; their works were never brought out of the museum store-rooms and they disappeared from the consciousness.”

Not surprising, perhaps, for a mid-century art scene described by The New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins as “aggressively male, hard-drinking and heterosexual”, although these macho expressionists were being championed by two women — gallerists Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons, prominent star-makers in the New York art scene of the 1940s (Perle Fine, one of the artists in the Whitechapel show, also ran a gallery in the city in the 40s before getting a subsidy from a male gallerist, which freed her to paint full-time).

This was a time when most married women were stay-at-home housewives, and those who did manage to make art were not getting it taken seriously.

“It’s quite clear that I didn’t fit in… I was not accepted,” complained Krasner, who went through a period of such self-doubt after an exhibition presenting her only as the wife of a famous artist that she tore up all the work she had made for the show.

Happily, she saw some value in the scraps, and began making collages with them, as seen in Bald Eagle.

Canadian-born Miriam Schapiro just got on with making art, revelling in the physicality of action painting.

“In the 50s the canvas was a stage, painting was a gestural motion…substitutes for the physical act of dancing,” she noted in one of her unpublished journals, while Pat Passlof actually got mentored by one of the greatest of the male abstract expressionists, Willem de Kooning. He was clearly one of the good guys, also championing Fine and Polish-born Janice Biala, one of the few women associated with the New York School.

Sonia Gechtoff was a rare bird who gained national recognition as early as 1954, when she was actually exhibited alongside de Kooning and Pollock in a Guggenheim show.
Given the rise of the movement during troubled times, it’s not surprising that many expat artists were preoccupied with reflecting the trauma of being displaced by war and fleeing oppression.

They include Franciszka Themerson, who found refuge in London after escaping Poland, then occupied Paris. Erna Rosenstein, a Ukrainian refugee, remained in Poland after the war, even though she had witnessed the trauma of seeing her parents murdered there in a forest through which they were all trying to escape.

Despite her own sombre and brooding post-war abstracts, Lilly Fenichel seems to have had an easier time after fleeing Nazi Vienna.

Reunited with her parents in Hollywood after the war as LA’s art scene was emerging, she studied at the California School of Fine Arts, and got to mingle with the “boys club” of famous LA artists including Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses and Rudi Gernreich.

She knocked the socks off California’s superstar Jewish architect Frank Gehry, who described her as “sexy, seductive, extraordinarily talented and one of the smartest women I have ever known”.

Fayga Ostrower also escaped Nazi persecution in the Americas; at the first whiff of it her family left Poland and emigrated to Brazil, which she represented twice at the Venice Biennale. Abstract Expressionism was not all about pure paint — while Themerson sculpted plaster into some of her paintings, Britain’s Sandra Blow often incorporated sand, concrete and, like Krasner, elements of collage in her own canvasses.

New York-born Martha Edelheit, raised by kosher, Yiddish-speaking grandparents from Romania, made reliefs from jagged planes of paint that hang on the wall like flat sculptures.
“The work we are showing is very expressive of her anger and angst about the times,” says Smith, who considers it another highlight of the show.

Now living on a farm in Sweden in her nineties, specialising in erotic, figurative art and fascinated by the influence of tattooists, Edelheit is a prime example of a woman who has made her presence felt in the kinds of areas once considered exclusively male, just like the abstract expressionists who were a little too far ahead of their time.

Like them, she remains under-known but is being rediscovered in her old age by a younger, less misogynist generation of art enthusiasts.

‘Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery until May 7

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