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Action, Gesture, Paint : Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70

Updated: May 11

written by Ruthie Collins

Untitled, Wook-kyung Choi, 1960s, acrylic on canvas

It’s little known that so much of what we’ve been led to believe about modern art, is a lie. That women could not make great art, evidenced in their omission from art schools and art history. That artistic brilliance was intrinsically linked to male genius – evidenced in works like the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, that emerged, an explosive force of stark originality, as part of Abstract Expressionism, the first US art movement to influence the world, in the late 1940s.

Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70, travels from Whitechapel Gallery (closes May 7 th 2023), to Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, France, in June. Presenting 150 works by 80 women artists, it brilliantly explores gestural abstraction as a movement unmasked. ‘It’s not often that a show makes me cry, but then it’s not often that a show reveals the degree to which we’ve been duped,’ wrote art critic Sarah Kent responding to the sheer scale of talent that has been hidden by an art world skewed to elevate the status of men.

If paintings embody events, these paintings that redefined the canvas as ‘an arena in which to act’ (Harold Rosenberg) embodied the emergence of US machismo as a force that would save humanity from itself. A supremacist narrative that was as glamorously seductive, as it was fiction. Personified by a group that artist Lee Krasner identified as men only – commenting, ‘with relation to the group, if you are going to call them a group, there was not room for a woman’.

What was brutally true, during that time, was a backdrop of worldwide fascism, conflict and social change. We face similar brutal tensions today, simmering through the infrastructure of our world. To a backdrop of war, divide and rising inequality – the vibrance created by these women offers up a wonderful elixir, to feelings of powerlessness.

Women like US Ukrainian artist Janet Sobel, whose drip paintings inspired Jackson Pollock when seen in New York, accompanied by art critic Clement Greenberg in 1946, now known to have labelled her at the time, as not just ‘primitive’ – but, with the reductive slur, ‘a housewife’. Was Pollock brave enough to publicly cite her influence, as he became known, as “Jack The Dripper” ? No.

Janet Sobel Untitled c.1948 Mixed media on canvas board, 76.2 x 50.8cm Courtesy The Christian Levett Collection

The appropriation of women as muses, to men, is of course not unique to Abstract Expressionism. But the way that women were utilised in this movement, tells us a lot about gender inequality today.

‘This had two outcomes: first, that the men appropriated imagery of women as their muses to help them access their own unconscious and emphasise their potent masculinity, and secondly, that the work of women was discounted and discredited as more passive, or the unimportant pastime of a housewife,’ curator Laura Smith points out.

Taking a stand against narratives which distort the value of women’s labour and intellect is not just about redistributing power in contemporary art, but attacks gender inequality at its core.

Fanny Sanin, Oil No 4, 1968

For a shimmering moment, in Abstract, Gesture, Paint, women’s value remains undisfigured – felt instead as shining, brilliant and known. Works in the show are by artists from all corners of the globe: from the Middle East, seen through the visceral work of Asma Fayoumi, a key figure in Syrian Abstraction, exiled Palestinian artist Maliheh Afnan; to Columbian artist Fanny Sanin and South Korean Wook-kyung Choi, to name but a few.

April Mood, Helen Frankenthaler

The first painting on show, sets the tone – April Mood, by Helen Frankenthaler, expansive and unmissable. Large scale works by Sarah Grilo share street influenced poetic marks; where’s Elaine de Kooning’s canvases (signed EDK to avoid her paintings being ‘labelled feminine in a traditionally masculine movement’) dance with colour. Abstraction becomes reexperienced as less pedestal to phallo-centric US art machismo – more joyous wave of blissful female ‘jouissance’. A vibrant tour de force of colour and expression – ‘kaleidoscopically varied’ (The Telegraph).

Elaine de Kooning | Untitled, 1950 Oil on paper on canvas, 35.2 x 27.9 cm | Abstraction #3, 1959 Oil on canvas, 236 x 198 cm | The Bull, 1959 Acrylic and collage on Masonite, 76.2 x 88.9 c

Experiencing the world with a less distorted distribution of power, even if briefly, feels transformative. How might the world be different, if our creative heritage as women was not so hidden, dismissed and subjected to centuries of oppression?

This modern-day mapping of once hidden matriarchal heritage, was also deftly explored by curator Laura Smith in another major touring show ‘Virginia Woolf: an Exhibition inspired by her writings’. It emerges as a thematic strand throughout Abstract, Gesture, Paint, too – seen in work by artists such as Buffie Johnson, for whom pre-historic representations of the Great Goddess were a huge inspiration.

In the face of oppression and lies that have devalued women for centuries, such a blazing, effusive challenge to a hegemony, embodies a sense of hope, strength and positive change. ‘Instead of thinking about the American male artist as the innovator and all those who have been ‘overlooked’ as his disciples ‘we must grasp the truth that side-by-side, women and men, from all continents, in international and local dialogues co-created modern art,’ write Laura Smith and Griselda Pollock in the book accompanying the exhibition.

Sarah Grilo | Black Wall, 1967 Oil on canvas, 139 x 141 cm | Ni Un Día Más [Not even one more day], 1966 Oil on canvas, diptych 192 x 320 cm

If it feels overwhelming, it’s because it is. In a world where one women or girl is murdered every 11 minutes, spaces like this feel contrastingly riling, or liberating – depending on how much you feel corrective curatorial measures in the face of gender inequality, are a good thing.

This is a show that is perhaps best not experienced as something just to be seen, but to be experienced as a form of action.

As experiential change. Not just through the sheer joy found in the brilliance of the works on show, but in the actions that happen when we are exposed to freedom, embodied resistance in the face of oppression – actions that invite a shift of power. Long may these works continue to shine.

Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70 moves to Fondation Vincent

Van Gogh, Arles, France, 3 June–22 October 2023

Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Germany, 2 December 2023–3 March 2024

Hyperlink - Action, Gesture, Paint - Whitechapel Gallery :
Buy the catalogue :
Hyperlink - Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings | Ruthie Collins :

More about Ruthie Collins :

Ruthie Collins is a cross-arts writer based in Norwich and Cambridge, the UK. She’s curated a range of socially inclusive feminist arts projects and arts festivals funded by Arts Council England, as well as co-commissioned work with Cambridge Women of the World Festival. She’s published as a feature writer, columnist and her writing and work has been commissioned by a range of authorities and institutions.

Find her here

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