Sometime early on in the nearly seven decades since its inception, Abstract Expressionism solidified itself in the American imagination as the product of certain romanticized, tough-but-tortured masculine artist personae. It’s no secret that women artists have been largely ignored in art history, though over the last few decades there have been pushes to amend this. Yet this characterization of Abstract Expressionism has led to a particularly selective — and stubbornly persistent — memory of the movement.
Denver Art Museum’s new show, “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” aims to change that, not least of all by being the first show devoted solely to female Abstract Expressionist painters. “The most surprising thing for me in organizing this exhibition is that it had not been done before,” says curator Gwen Chanzit. “There have been recent exhibitions on female Surrealists, Pop artists, and even Impressionists, but not on the women of Abstract Expressionism.”
DAM’s curator of modern art and a professor at the University of Denver, Chanzit was initially not interested in doing a “woman’s” show, and had set out to research artists from the period who were generally under-appreciated — and also happened to be women. “This year and last, exhibitions on women artists seem to be au courant, but that may just be part of the art world’s catching up,” she explains. A go-to volume in university art history surveys, Horst Janson’s History of Art, did not include any female artists until 1986, Chanzit points out. “Projects like this one provide an essential correction to this unevenness.”
To begin researching artists on which there has been little written, Chanzit honed in on painters who were active in the 1940s and 1950s in either New York and San Francisco. She came up with hundreds of names. Ultimately, 12 have work in the show, including Jay DeFeo, Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell. In order to highlight others Chanzit felt were deserving of attention, she chose 28 additional women and included one-page biographies, portraits, and, when possible, images of their work in the catalogue.
“A single exhibition is just a moment in time,” says Chanzit. However, “the legacy will be [establishing] a permanent collection of important works by Abstract Expressionist women painters. These will join works in the collection by artists such as Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston. To date, the DAM has added eight works by female Abstract Expressionists, along with three promised gifts. We hope to add to these numbers.”