Women in Abstract Painting


The King Is Dead (Hamilton?)

Grace Hartigan, The King Is Dead [Hartigan said The King is Picasso]

The Denver Art Museum hosts this show of over a dozen women artists, from San Francisco and New York, primarily.  Some are quite well known (Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner), others less so (Perle Fine, Mary Abbott) but all are impressive. Each gets a space of her own. Each has 4-6 paintings judiciously selected.  The placards downplay, if they mention at all, their connections with male abstract expressionists, rightly so, since the work clearly stands on its own, and may, in fact, in cases such as Frankenthaler’s Color Field paintings, have influenced other women, and men, as much as Rothko or Still influenced the women.

Of course there is a publication with all the paintings and there is a quite good 15 minute film that has interviews with the women in the show or those who knew them. The candid photos the women in their studios and at play suggest that were  “out there”: smoking, partying, working hard and having clear, engaging thoughts about their work and the work of others.  Several state that San Francisco was a far less macho, discriminatory work for women than New York City.

Perle Fine 2

Perle Fine’s small abstraction. Most of the work in the show is quite large.

It may not be possible to “pop” over to Denver but if you find yourself here, it is a terrific show. And right next store, in the Clyfford Still Museum, is a room dedicated to work he made in San Francisco while a teach at the San Francisco Institute of Art where he served as a mentor for some of the women in the show, someone to learn from but hardly imitate as these women artists found voices of their own.


Richard Diebenkorn

The retrospective of Diebenkorn’s work at the de Young museum in San Francisco offers an expansive view of his work during his Berkeley years in the 50s and 60s. What the de Young displays from its permanent collection is poor preparation for the diversity of work on display. We see his transition from abstraction to figuration vividly, with even the most clear cut of landscapes and portraits retaining the flatness and band-like qualities of his more abstract work. His palette is more subtle than I’d imagined as well, with great use of blue, blue-grey, yellow, and golden yellows in particular. His portraits evoke a powerful sense of Hopper’s alienated urban citizens and deserted scenes, but without the depth of field and realism of Hopper so that a tension with a more abstract rendering of space (the space of the canvas) contends with the rendering of social space. They also evoke, pointedly, Matisse, in color, form, composition and subject matter, but a similar avoidance of realism and an emphasis on tone or mood.
Most striking, to me, about his portraits is the absence of facial detai. Very few render faces in a recognizable way. Some have no features at all. The absence of this traditional focal point again pushes consideration toward the plane of the canvas and to the overall, haunting mood of the piece rather than evoke comparison/constrast with actual people or a model. There are exceptions but Diebenkorn manages to be both radical and traditional at the same time: offering what appear to be familiar scenes and compositions and then decomposing the familiarity into something more surprising, disconcerting, arresting and even disturbing. It is a show well worth seeing.