I have a vested interest in finding whether essential differences exist between the art of women and that of men. A woman, I’ve been doing, appreciating, thinking about art all my life. Questions assail me as I approach the MOMA exhibition Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction. Is their work different from their male counterparts? If it is different, in what way? Is their art worse, justifying the relative obscurity they have been left in? Is there a unifying quality to the work, or is the collection of individualities more defining than the elusive gender?
One word comes up to qualify the exhibition as I hit a dead end after seven rooms, and it is quantitative: small. It is not the work that is small, on the contrary, the pieces are large, bold, daring, strong. Unsurprisingly, a large Joan Mitchell piece entitled Ladybug, classic abstract expressionism, occupies a whole wall, with its free gesturing and bright colors: nothing too ladylike here. A smaller wall displays Trojan Gates, an oil and enamel painting by Helen Frankenthaler, its lyrical style a delight for the eye and the soul. Coming upon a Yayoi Kusama dotty work is like running into an old childhood friend at a networking event. Agnes Martin’s Tree commands attention with its rhythmic regality, exuding calm and spirituality. Even if you wanted to ignore Louise Nevelson’s work, it would not let you. A monumental sculpture featuring her typical display of wooden objects painted black, every piece looks familiar: fragments of banisters, of chairs, of awnings. The construction does not support anything. Its display invites the viewer in, then bars the way, offers but does not yield. The overall composition put together with boldness and elegance gives an impression of the artist’s confidence in her ability to communicate, if not in the world.
The exhibition qualifies as small because it is showing less than 100 works. Talking about numbers, the upcoming Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends will show over 250 works. The de Kooning retrospective had nearly 200. Abstract Expressionist New York spread on a whole floor in 2011, with two additional galleries showing prints and drawings. More numbers? The Helen Frankenthaler 1989 retrospective had 40 works. According to the May 2015 edition of Art News, MOMA’s solo exhibitions featured 20% women artists between 2007 and 2014. Just counting.
Each artist is represented by one or two works, a few more for series or smaller pieces, which all belong to MOMA. In terms of a unifying quality, this question can not be answered as this overall excellent collection does not present a comprehensive panorama. If it is impossible to find a unifying quality, does the work communicate femininity? I hold on tight to the hope that if present, this expression of gender does not reinforce common female stereotypes. I expect the art to touch on the body, as physicality has played such an important role historically for women. It does, maybe not as much as expected, but that is fine by me. There is sensuality, or at least corporeality in the one Lee Krasner painting on show, Gaea. Its warm colors. associated traditionally with womanliness, impress me with a feeling of loneliness and melancholy, but maybe I read what is not there because of her personal history. Generally, the sculptures on show tend to speak more to the body, and to sexuality, particularly those of Bourgeois.
One room is dedicated to design, and that’s definitely depressing. Women who didn’t dare, women who listened to their teachers or to their parents: “chose design over art, it’s safer, it’s more appropriate”. While an outlet for creativity, this activity demands more modesty, a quality often absent from male art work, because objects are of use to other human beings, bringing commodity and pleasure vs the higher planes of pure abstract work. Still, I ponder as I look at a blue armchair, – I omitted to write down the designer’s name, what it is doing in an exhibition dedicated to women and abstraction. But without the design room, we’d be down to six.
The textile work also feels like it is to be expected in a woman’s art show, but it clearly subverts the form to produce a new artistic language. The vivid sculpture Little River Wall Hanging by Lenore Tawney looks like it could work as a hammock, while calling to the human shape. This combination hints at various indigenous cultures where textiles indeed offer an avenue for self expression outside Western categories of arts and crafts. Another spectacular sculpture, Untitled, by Ruth Asawa, suggests the female form or a series of vessels (milk? embryos?), the transparency of the work revealing both its exterior and interior curves.
Stereotypes of femininity are fully shattered by the Latin American artists present. Their work is more intellectual and purely abstract than their North American counterparts, no expressionism nor affectivity to be found here, but rather European influence. A number of these women originally from northern Europe fled the war, taking with them their Germanic culture and sensitivity. In fact, the work is a reminder of how much the postwar period was influenced by the repercussions of World War II. Innovative photographer Gertrudes Altschul, whose last name ironically translates to “Old School,” was already active as an artist when she fled Germany for Brazil, as was sculptor Gego who emigrated to Venezuela. Brazilian Lygia Clark, whose work is represented by a sleek, clever sculpture Inside is the Outside, lived in Paris as a political refugee in the 70s. In fact, the Argentinian artist Lidy Prati associated herself with the European art movement known as Concrete Art. Her work is represented by Vibrational Structure, a truly vibrant minimal painting, two lines on a burnt orange background.
The collection can not claim to globalism when the overwhelming pieces are North American. In fact, the minor works of Rumanian Bela Kolorova and Lebanese Etel Adnan’s seem an afterthought, purchased on a shoestring budget. Most of the foreign artists in the exhibit such as Yayoi Kusama and Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois came to the US attracted by its art scene, which was claiming its independence after centuries of domination from Europe. Their work does not bring significant representation from other regions of the world and is indeed integrated in sections with other North American pieces as it should be. Only the Latin American work jars, because it is clearly more influenced by European Art than by the North American movement of the 50s. But without the stunning Latin American work, there would be one less room, down to five.
The vast subject of postwar women artists and abstraction can not, and is not covered by the few pieces in the Museum’s collection. While this exhibition has been brilliantly put together, by organizing the work, by letting it breathe and speak on the walls, it really calls for a major version such as 2010’s “Elles” at Centre Pompidou where these artists who worked on “making space,” really get the space they deserve. Do these women justice at last.
The show is still exhilarating, because so much of work is outstanding. While their art did not get the recognition it deserved, postwar women felt free enough from paralyzing stereotypes and their related duties to let their creativity burst onto the canvas. From wall to wall, the works wink at each other, glad to be celebrated together. Enjoying the fireworks are the usual diehard tourists, the usual cool young New Yorkers, the usual not-so-young cool New Yorkers. And touchingly, a number of women with their young daughters: “See what awesome work your great-aunts went on creating against all odds?”
Arabella Hutter is a writer with a background in film and TV production. The executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers from 2012 to 2015, she was also a regular contributor to Le Temps. She currently writes reviews of art, opera, theater and literature.