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Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction at MoMA

Making Space is an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) featuring nearly 100 works of postwar abstraction by more than 50 women artists. It celebrates their achievements between the end of World War II and the early Feminist movement of the late 1960’s. Many artists working in the postwar era sought to create an international language that would transcend regional and national narratives. Women artists created a female perspective.

The art world shifted from Paris to New York at the end of World War II. A new movement known as Abstract Expressionism emerged from a group of American artists referred to as the New York School. Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko became synonymous with Abstract Expressionism. Abstraction dominated the international art world during this pivotal period, and many diverse artists developed varying styles. But despite new opportunities, women artists were largely dismissed by the male dominated art world.

This exhibition is organized into five categories: Gestural, Geometric, Reductive, Fiber and Line, and Eccentric Abstraction.  

Joan Mitchell was one of the Gestural Abstraction pioneers. She visited Monet at Giverny late in his life and was moved by his expressive brushwork. She built on that experience and developed a personal technique as evidenced in Ladybug (Figure 1).

Joan Mitchell (American, 1925–1992). Ladybug. 1957 Oil on canvas, 6′ 5 7/8″ × 9′

Artists in many areas of the world began experimenting within a grid where they organized space through a network of intersecting lines, shapes and colors. In Latin America, geometric abstraction inspired a new generation of avant-garde artists in the 1950s and early 1960s. Women made significant contributions. Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt’s) Eight Squares is represented in the Geometric Abstraction group (Figure 2).

Gertrud Goldschmidt (Venezuelan, born Germany. 1912–1994). Eight Squares. 1961. Painted iron, 66 15/16 × 25 3/16 × 15 3/4″

Other artists were influenced by perceptual psychology and the way viewers would physically respond to their work. They opposed the emotional gestures of Abstract Expressionism and created work of extremely reductive elements that eventually became know as Minimalism. Yayoi Kusama’s No. F (Figure 4) is an example of Reductive Abstraction.

Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, born 1929). No. F. 1959. Oil on canvas, 41 1/2 × 52″

In the 1960’s women artists began to challenge the concept that weaving and textiles were simply functional commodities. They produced expressive fiber works that upended the concept of fine art and craft. Magdalena Abakanowicz’s dramatic large-scale fiber work Yellow Abakan (Figure 4) dominates the Fiber and Line category.

Magdalena Abakanowicz (Polish, born 1930). Yellow Abakan. 1967–58. Sisal, 124 × 120 × 60″

During this period, some artists began to go beyond the confines of painting and sculpture by incorporating non-art materials. Women artists played a significant role in this new direction that challenged the defined aesthetics of postwar modernism. Lee Bontecou’s Untitled represents an example of what was termed Excentric Abstraction (Figure 5):

Lee Bontecou, Untitled. 1961. Welded steel, canvas, black fabric, rawhide, copper wire, and soot, 6′ 8 1/4″ × 7′ 5″ × 34 3/4″

The exhibition features nearly 100 works by more than 50 artists and runs thru August 13, 2017.

Visit www.moma.org for more information.

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