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Saturday, December 21, 2019

Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at Fenimore Art Museum

A view of the installation of Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at the Fenimore
all photos provided by Fenimore Art Museum
Heroines of Abstract Expressionism, the current feature show on view through Dec. 31 at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, is representative of a recent art-world trend, whereby collectors (rather than curators) initiate major museum shows. It makes sense - with art prices soaring, it's often the collectors who are better able than the museums to bear the cost of assembling a body of work significant enough to draw attention. So, the two camps increasingly work hand in hand to reach the art-savvy public. A harbinger of this trend was the aptly named Sensation, which presented the private collection of Charles Saatchi at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1997, to great acclaim and controversy.

While much more sober than sensational, HerAbEx is still a revelatory gem. Created by Southampton collectors Rick Friedman and Cindy Lou Wakefield, who drew from a broader swath of modern American artists in their collection, it puts the focus on 19 women members of the mid-century movement that rewrote the history of modern art. It's a striking and intimate gathering, totaling 34 drawings, paintings, and sculptures, and is accompanied by a fine, slim catalog with several essays and good color reproductions of all the work in the show.

Lee Krasner - September Twenty-Third
ink, crayon and collage on lithographic paper 
Among the 19, there are names that range from the widely celebrated to the largely overlooked. Most of us already know about Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Grace Hartigan, and Dorothy Dehner - all of whom had significant recognition in their lifetimes. But what about Mary Abbott, Perle Fine, and Charlotte Park? These, and others, were new to me here.

A few motifs emerged as I wandered and relaxed in the comfortable upstairs gallery that holds all but one of the pieces (the other, shown here at left, being placed just outside the entrance). Most of the two-dimensional work is on paper (only six pieces are oil on canvas), and all of the work is relatively small in scale (that is, relative to the monumental scale of much of the AbEx masters' output). These limits can be explained by the seriously prohibitive purchase prices of larger works by such noted artists, but also suggests that the women in this group may have worked smaller overall than the men, possibly due to scarcer resources and, almost certainly, more human-scaled egos.

Elaine de Kooning - Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall
acrylic and collage on paper mounted on canvas
It's also worth noting that a large portion of these artists are Jewish - not surprising, considering the time (immediately post-WWII), the place (primarily New York City and Long Island), and a similar demographic among the men of the movement. Additionally, many studied under or were directly influenced by the same people, in particular Hans Hofmann.

A poignant sub-theme of the show is the marital status of these women artists - many were married to major art-world figures (including painters, sculptors, and critics), whose shadows would have been difficult to escape (the solution frequently being divorce). That includes de Kooning (married to Willem, divorced in 1957), Frankenthaler (associated for five years with Clement Greenberg, then married to Robert Motherwell and divorced in 1971), Park (married to James Brooks), Dehner (married to David Smith, divorced in 1951), and Krasner (married to Jackson Pollock until his death in 1956). Some of the label copy in the show (all of it succinct and nicely readable) makes references to those conditions and how gender affected these artists' careers, a sad commentary on their time in contrast to today.

Perle Fine - Untitiled, oil on paper mounted on board
It struck me that quite a few works in the show are not truly abstract, instead plainly representing figures and landscapes - and even including two recognizable portraits. One prominently featured painting (which collector Friedman cites as the start of it all for him and Wakefield) appears abstract at first, with slashing strokes of bold color and calligraphic black marks - only to reveal itself as a direct interpretation of an early cave painting depicting a bull. Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall (shown above, at right) is one of six pieces by Elaine de Kooning included in the show. There are also four by Krasner and three each by Dehner and Nevelson, while the rest of the included artists are represented by just one or two pieces.

Though de Kooning is clearly intended to be the star of the show (and her best works here support that), Krasner was the revelation for me, and her Earth No. 7, a gouache on paper, emerged as my top pick. Other favorites include a luscious pink acrylic on paper by Frankenthaler (seen in the image below), a marvelous untitled bronze by Dehner that felt like a three-dimensional Motherwell painting (also seen in the image below), and a brooding maelstrom of black ink by Joan Mitchell. Those four works alone are well worth the trip to Cooperstown.

I also particularly liked a trio of paintings that evoke the brash, calligraphic style of Franz Kline: A captivating double-sided oil on paper by Michael West (she changed her name from Corinne Michelle West at the suggestion of Arshile Gorky) and an oil by Perle Fine (shown above, at left).

Overall, Heroines of Abstract Expressionism provides a great opportunity to see work by many worthy artists in a worthy setting, and for curious folks who haven't yet come to appreciate abstraction, it offers a window into that world. The show is meant to travel, but an agenda hasn't yet been set.

From left, works by Helen Frankenthaler, Dorothy Dehner, Louise Nevelson, and Mercedes Matter are seen in Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at the Fenimore.

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