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Essay: Blurring Boundaries: The Women of American Abstract Artists, 1936 – Present

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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Blurring Boundaries:

The Women of American Abstract Artists, 1936 – Present

Past and present merge in the 2018 exhibition Blurring Boundaries: The Women of American Abstract Artists. In the first exhibition dedicated exclusively to the intergenerational group of women artists of American Abstract Artists, Blurring Boundaries traces the history of the group’s female founding artists through contemporary practicing members. The exhibition highlights fifty-four works, emphasizing each artist’s approach to the central tenets of abstraction — composition, color, content, and material. Included are well-known founders and early members like Perle Fine, Gertrude Greene, Alice Trumbull Mason, Charmion von Wiegand, Esphyr Slobodkina, and I. Rice Pereira, alongside a cast of contemporary makers including President Emeritae Merrill Wagner, Beatrice Riese, and Irene Rousseau.

“The stamp of modern art is clarity: clarity of color, clarity of forms and of composition, clarity of determined dynamic rhythm, in a determined space. Since figuration often veils, obscures or entirely negates purity of plastic expression, the destruction of the particular form for the universal one becomes a prime prerequisite.” – Perle Fine (1905-1988)

Perle Fine’s declaration for the hierarchy of distilled form, immaculate line, and pure color came close to being the mantra of the 1930s and of American Abstract Artists, a group which was founded in the disorder of Great Depression America. AAA was established at a time when museums and galleries were very conservative in their offerings and exhibitions. Even the Museum of Modern Art, which mounted its first major exhibition of abstract art in 1936, did not recognize American artists working within the vein of abstraction. MOMA’s exhibition, entitled Cubism and Abstract Art, though innovative for content, was four floors of decidedly Euro-centric artwork. Of the 113 exhibiting painters, sculptors, photographers, designers and architects, only a handful were born or living in America. This neglect angered American abstract artists and was the impetus which led to American Abstract Artists’ founding later that year.

In 1945, several of AAA’s female members participated in an all-women’s show, entitled The Women, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. This show helped to underscore the very limiting roles which women were expected to play during this time: that of the muse, the mother, and the mistress. Women who were married to successful artists, critics, or collectors were slightly more visible, but otherwise, female artists stood a strong chance of disappearing into the void of domesticity. To avoid being dismissed simply on the basis of gender, many female artists eluded signaling their womanhood by using only surnames or initialing their canvases. AAA member Lenore Krasner changed her name to the androgynous Lee, while Irene Rice Pereira simple used the initial I. In abstraction, the gender of the painter made little difference, whereas subject matter could be problematic for women painters,  conjuring images of pastel flowers or beatific children. Pure abstraction gave women a freedom they did not have when painting representationally: it did not hold the same repressive signifiers. By the time of Guggenheim’s 1945 exhibition, perceptions regarding women within abstract art were shifting, but critical review was still tinged by surprise at women’s ability to create strong abstract work.

If the reception of women in Guggenheim’s show could be described as lukewarm at best, the opposite was true of their participation within American Abstract Artists. Perhaps as a result of their mutual status as internal exiles of the art world, women within American Abstract Artists have enjoyed a remarkably active history and generative relationship since the group’s founding. Often taking leadership roles within the organization, women were instrumental in establishing AAA’s mission within the arts community. Among the forty founding members of AAA, nine were women; of the group’s fifteen presidents, six have been female. This gender objectivity was highly unusual of the time — still today, the group’s membership, a nearly even split, remains remarkable within the broader art world.

This brings us to the central debate that always seems to shadow an all-women exhibition: what is the value in organizing an all-women’s exhibition? In an ever-growing lineup of all-female exhibitions, does defining a show on the bases of gender simply contribute further to a sort of gender ghettoization? I would say that it comes down to context: the approach and intention behind the organization of this exhibition is not to serve as an argument for or call-to-arms to emphasize gender parity within the arts.  Rather, the purpose of Blurring Boundaries is to celebrate and recognize the contributions of the pioneering female membership within an organization that seems to have, since its genesis, operated outside the bounds of the status quo. This project enables us to highlight the work and history of these remarkable artists within a group where they have always existed as simply that: artists, no gender-identifier required.

In celebration of this tradition, Blurring Boundaries: The Women of American Abstract Artists, 1936 – Present uses the same guiding principles to explore the rich diversity of process and material that is characteristic of contemporary abstraction. The artists of Blurring Boundaries may be united in their devotion to the abstract, but their approach is certainly anything but mutual. From the serene gestural paintings of Anne Russinof and the riotously cheerful landscapes of Cecily Kahn (granddaughter of AAA member Alice Trumbull Mason, also included in the exhibition), to the process-oriented sand casts of Vera Vasek and river drawings of Raquel Rabinovich; to the immersive spaces created by the vinyl curtains of Lynne Harlow and the animated illustrations of Jeanne Wilkinson — the artists of Blurring Boundaries each invite us into a world that is distinctly their own. Viewing their work collectively and at a distance, we are reminded, too, that these are spaces in which object and non-object co-exist; where space and time dissolve social constructs; and ultimately, where boundaries soften until they fade away.

Rebecca DiGiovanna

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