I am currently reading a biography of Jackson Pollock, who cultivated an image of macho painter extraordinaire, and given the events in the news, I've been thinking about how rarely we talk today of women painters of the 1950s and how history tends to remember men more.
But abstract expressionism wasn't limited to the artwork of men like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning - male painters who made a point of showing that hard-drinking, women-loving men could also be exceptional painters of great creativity. In spite of the January 1951 "Irascibles" picture in Time magazine showing the Abstract Expressionists as a group of male artists (with the one female exception the now largely forgotten Hedda Sterne), the movement also attracted many female members, who developed their own original signature styles and made great contributions to the art scene of the 1950s. While many have today sunk into the same oblivion as Hedda Sterne, a captivating monograph, which accompanied and extended the exhibition at the Denver Art Museum in the summer of 2016, argues that they deserve far greater fame in a convincing and thorough manner. It does this not only through the excellent scholarly essays, but also through the high-quality reproduction of many women artists' paintings, which make the tendency of museums today to focus only on the crowd-pleasing famous canvases at the expense of lesser-known great art appear incredibly short-sighted.
Of course, most people interested in abstract expressionism know about Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. But many more women made substantial contributions to the leading artistic movement in the post-war United States. My favorite part of the book was the section on selected biographies at the end, with each woman painter having one page containing a short bio and either a face shot and a reproduction of her art, or one photograph showing her in her studio. I did wish we had been told more about the sort of life they led, their friendships, struggles and loves, a bit like Notable American Women, which does an outstanding job imparting a lot of information on each woman profiled in only a few tight paragraphs. But this is better than nothing. My favorite painters in the book are Grace Hartigan, Buffie Johnson and Jane Wilson.
The stories of those women's marginalization in the art scene are well documented in the book, in particular in Joan Marter's essay "Missing in Action". By documenting the variety of their styles, their originality and their lasting influence, this survey of the women in the abstract expressionism movement hopefully will (take a first step toward) giv(ing) them the place in history they deserve.