“This painting is so good that they would never suspect that it was painted by a woman.” The appointment that welcomes the colossal exhibition that the Center Pompidou dedicated to abstract painters came from the mouth of Hans Hofmann, the German forerunner of abstract expressionism. It was addressed to Lee Krasner, and while her implicit misogyny is impossible to ignore today, it was meant to sound like a compliment: Hofmann believed that Krasner was his most gifted student and considered her superior, in all respects, to her overrated husband , Jackson Pollock.
The misunderstanding that inspires this quote is an ideal starting point to examine, from the sign of the persistent disdain that his work aroused even for the most charitable souls, the more than 500 works belonging to 110 artists enrolled in the different schools of abstraction, from the end of the 19th century to the present day. It joins another good idea: the curator Christine Macel, who already developed a brilliant genealogy of art made by women when she took over the curatorship of the 2017 Venice Biennale, has placed at the beginning of the tour a gallery of portraits of all the creators on display . Barely two or three faces – Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, is that Etel Adnan? – are recognizable at first glance. The rest are part of an endless mass of silenced stories, the chronicle of a perhaps involuntary erasure, but no less unfair for that. “The invisibility of women in this story passes through the absence of their representation, their visual incarnation and the diffusion of their images, inversely proportional to those of their peers, who personified the myth of the pioneering genius in what was virilely designated , with a military metaphor, like avant-garde”, Macel writes in the catalog, recalling its origin as the antonym of rearguard.
The exhibition removes these artists from a subordinate place and elevates them to the rank of “co-producers” of pictorial modernity.
In the wake of similar initiatives promoted in the last decade – this same museum opened the ban in 2009 by reordering its permanent collection with only women in the scandalous show they @ centrepompidou—, The exhibition aims to remove these artists from a subaltern place and elevate them to the rank of “co-producers” of pictorial modernity, following the thesis of Griselda Pollock, who accuses museums and historians of having orchestrated an “active elimination”. In this sense, the exhibition has a restorative, but not encyclopedic, desire: it is structured in a grid of microsalas through which the visitor wanders instinctively, which follow a chronological order, but are communicated by discreet passages that allow extemporaneous jumps. They reflect the different temporal and geographical realities in which this new language is born, grows and reproduces. The point of view is not limited to painting, but also delves into then minor genres, such as photography or dance, architects of a first geometrization of the human body, or the decorative arts: the textile experiments of Sonia Delaunay or Vanessa Bell will hit the canvas shortly after. For example, a patchwork The colorist and modest of the first, made in 1911, will end up converted, just three years later, into a large-format oil painting entitled Electric prisms.
Apart from the usual machismo, the root of this historical slight can be found in the first attempts made by certain nineteenth-century painters, who did not conceptualize abstraction as such, but rather linked it to a “sacred symbolism” that aspired to represent the transcendental from theosophy and the occult. Spiritualism was refuted by modern historiography, so those names had no place in the canon. In the last decade there has been a radical change in this regard. The mind-blowing retrospective that the Moderna Museet dedicated in 2013 to Hilma af Klint, a Swedish painter who drew monumental geometric shapes under the effects of hypnosis, was allegedly rejected by the MoMA and the Pompidou: what she was doing was not art, but esotericism. Today his work hangs in the permanent New York museum, between Kupka and Kandinsky, while the Pompidou dedicates one of the rooms of this exhibition to his incipient abstraction. There he links her to another nineteenth-century painter who was rediscovered in 2015: the British Georgina Houghton, who drew with colored pencils guided by “divine forces”, practicing an automatism that heralds the one that would later proclaim surrealism with greater fortune.
In 2013, an exhibition dedicated to Hilma af Klint, a pioneer of abstraction, was rejected by the MoMA and the Pompidou. Today it hangs in the halls of both museums
The selected artists have few things in common, except having been the object, as a general rule, of a late recognition, by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, which was not claimed until the first Documenta, in 1955, until Ruth Wife, whose hanging sculptures, displayed against the backdrop of the zinc roofs of Paris, are trading higher on the market. Almost all of them benefited, in any case, from less subjection to dogmas, which allowed them to innovate with greater freedom, from the painters of the Russian avant-gardes, such as Natalia Goncharova or Alexandra Ekster, to women ascribed to abstract expressionism. Along with the most celebrated names, such as Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler or Joan Mitchell, the exhibition vindicates others less well known, such as Shirley Jaffe or Janet Sobel, a self-taught housewife from Brooklyn who attracted praise from Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim.
The geographical scope of the show is admirable, of the Gitai group, represented by Atsuko Tanaka, influenced by the Lygias, Clark and Pape, in Brazilian art, including the artists linked to the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, a Parisian cenacle destined to promote the Geometric abstraction where Fahrelnissa Zeid or Carmen Herrera exhibited, another name rediscovered as a result of their triumphal exhibition at the Whitney in 2016. Less captivating in its final stretch, the show shines, in any case, by proposing unexpected and exciting pairings: the psychedelia of Martha Boto and the optical tremors of Bridget Riley, the hard edge of Ilona Keserü with that of Tess Jaray, the textile cavities of Sheila Hicks and those of Lenore Tawney, the fluorine mounds of Huguette Caland and the stridencies of Barbara Kasten, the erotic volumes of Zilia Sanchez and the cardboard folds of Dorothea Rockburne.
The latter contributes, along with other names such as Lynda Benglis, a critical voice regarding the very approach of the show: both opposed the supposed essentialism of feminine art. The looks of all of them create a polyphonic debate about a method, not a style, whose official history now becomes a little less incomplete.
‘They abstract’. Pompidou Center. Paris. Until August 23.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.