A famous 1950 photograph of the painter Jackson Pollock broadcasts an unwitting message. Pollock’s gleaming head commands the viewer’s eye, his brow furrowed in concentration; his body — frozen in action, right hand dangling a paintbrush over a work in progress — takes up most of the rest of the photographer’s field, along with the expansive canvas on the floor. Squeezed into the far right corner of the frame is the thin figure of Pollock’s wife, the artist Lee Krasner, perched on a stool and looking on in a drab housedress and slippers. Like the photographer, Hans Namuth (who was himself at the zenith of his career), Krasner seems wholly absorbed by Pollock’s kinetic energy. Her face is blurry, and her expression is hard to read, but her place in the photo is clear: She’s there as a bystander, a mere witness to her husband’s genius.

Krasner is among a group of female Abstract Expressionist painters — many of whom spent their careers in the margins of their male counterparts’ relative fame and success — who finally take center stage in a groundbreaking summerlong exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. It’s the first major museum show to focus on the achievements of these artists, and when Women of Abstract Expressionism closes in Denver on Sept. 25, the show will move to the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then to the Palm Springs Art Museum next February, affording a few different parts of the country a glimpse into the individual and collective mastery of 12 painters identified as part of the postwar artistic movement: Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher.

In our collective consciousness of Abstract Expressionism, when we think of the movement, we mostly think of its men — Pollock’s paint-spattered rebel athleticism, Willem de Kooning’s Woman series reflecting his male gaze, Franz Kline’s bold gestural confidence. Museum curator of modern art Gwen Chanzit writes in the exhibition catalog that “in this case, not only are they male, but their maleness, their heroic machismo spirit, has become a defining characteristic of the expansive, gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism.” Women of Abstract Expressionism reminds us that an entire generation of men and women, affected by the crisis of World War II and its aftermath, took to painting to express fragility and global instability in a brand-new artistic style that prized interior meaning, intuition, and self-reflection — the fruits of the individual psyche as translated to, and transformed upon, canvas.

A free-form creativity was flowering elsewhere in the arts — in jazz, literature, and dance — and this group of artists, who were mostly based in avant-garde artistic circles on the East Coast or in the San Francisco Bay Area, took full advantage of the new carte-blanche sensibility. Mitchell and Hartigan’s group of friends included New York School poets John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, while Godwin was inspired by her friend, dancer Martha Graham, of whom Godwin said, “I can see her gestures in everything I do.” 

Like the male painters of their era, these artists drew from a complex, highly individualized set of inspirations, creating mostly large-scale works that reflect their preoccupations. Schwabacher, whose boldly red, slashing Antigone I (1958) dominates a wall in the exhibition, found subject matter in Greek myths, musing in a quote featured near the painting, “Was the result of this Greek teaching [Antigone] that women should be willing to give their lives in favor of men, in that men were deemed by society as so much more important?” Gechtoff similarly mines literature for her dark and foreboding but also inscrutable Anna Karenina (1955). Abbott’s All Green (circa 1954) employs gesture and composition in an exploration of that color in nature, which Abbott saw as “variations of light” more than actual shades. 

Elaine de Kooning, who spent time teaching at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in the late 1950s, was influenced by the Southwestern light, space, and colors, all of which had a lasting effect on her work. Her riotously colored Bullfight (1959), which is inspired by a Juárez skirmish, has no fixed image of bull or matador, but rather expresses energy and motion on a giant canvas filled with herky-jerky, dizzying angles. (De Kooning’s Juárez, in the collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art, deals with similar subject matter.) Another intriguing large work, Hartigan’s The King is Dead (1950), repeats abstract patterns of color and gesture, courting art-world and proto-feminist controversy with the “king” of its title, which Hartigan said referred to Pablo Picasso.

The exhibition is organized by painter, with panels that detail each woman’s life and career next to several examples of her work. This arrangement allows viewers to quickly familiarize themselves with the painters’ styles and sensibilities and also to draw parallels and distinctions among them. The curators point out the disparity in notoriety, as some artists had stronger careers than others, even as they were all herded into the “woman artist” category. In 1957, Life magazine featured five artists under age thirty-five in “Women Artists in Ascendance,” including Mitchell, Hartigan, and Frankenthaler, though none of the women are shown actually painting, but rather “posed appealingly for Life’s cameras,” according to the exhibition catalogue.

The younger generation of Abstract Expressionists included those profiled in Life, while artists like Krasner, de Kooning, and Fine are more closely aligned with the first generation (and in the case of Krasner andde Kooning, were married to the most famous members of that group). These close artistic circles allowed for many of the women’s paintings to be exhibited alongside their more famous male counterparts; Mitchell’s painting Untitled (1950) was installed alongside Pollock’s in the influential New York Ninth Street Show in 1951. Mitchell, Fine, and de Kooning all sat on the Committee of Artists that selected work for The New York Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions from 1953-57; perhaps not coincidentally, each of these women also annually exhibited work in the show, along with Hartigan and Frankenthaler, who “was selected for all but one of the shows.” Frankenthaler’s technique of thinning paint to stain canvases with a wash of color (on view in her 1952 Mountains and Sea) was a precursor to Color Field painting; her work made its way into the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg, a show widely credited for introducing the Color Field style.

By all accounts, New York artists experienced the worst sexism from male artists, curators, and critics, while Bay Area painters enjoyed a less competitive — and perhaps therefore less discriminatory — field. Bay Area painter DeFeo, whose 9-foot charred, brutal canvas Incision (1958-61) is one of the more striking inclusions in the show, summed up that scene:“I really felt that I had the respect of all my male friends who were artists. It wasn’t an issue [being a woman] maybe because there wasn’t any competition for wall space, even any competition for jobs.” Meanwhile, Hartigan wrote in her journal in 1951 after a visit with Frankenthaler, Krasner, Pollock, and Barnett Newman: “Clem [Greenberg] got on his kick of ‘women painters.’ Same thing — too easily satisfied, ‘finish’ pictures, polish, ‘candy.’ … He says he wants to be the contemporary of the first great woman painter. What shit — he’d be the first to attack.” This discrimination was borne out by the Museum of Modern Art when it presented the international traveling exhibition The New American Painting and included only one female artist, Hartigan, out of 17 Americans.

Walking around the exhibition, one might get the feeling that many of these painters would find it horrifying to be, yet again, grouped together by their sex. During a short film made for the show, Schwabacher’s daughter Brenda Webster says of the artist, “She hated it when people referred to her as a woman painter — she wanted to be a painter, period.” In an interview for the art website Hyperallergic, curator Chanzit says of her decision to focus exclusively on female Abstract Expressionists, “We’re making up for some lost time … I never started out to do an exhibition of women; it’s just that when I began to take a look at who had been left out of the canon, who had been left out the history of Abstract Expressionism, it was clear there was this whole group of people, and just by chance, one whole group were female artists.” Chanzit mentions the fact that Janson’s History of Art, the seminal college textbook for students of art history, didn’t include a single female artist until 1986. She also cites the work of the feminist art group Guerrilla Girls and Linda Nochlin’s pioneering 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” as fodder and inspiration for Women of Abstract Expressionism.

In the show, though, the work speaks for itself, devoid of gender constructs and stereotypes —neither “polish” nor “candy” are evident among canvases of epic proportions and creative scope, each one displaying a singular aesthetic vision. After all, as the straight-talking Hartigan describes the artistic process in the exhibition’s film, “You are inside yourself, looking at this damned piece of rag on the wall that you are supposed to make a world out of. That is all you are conscious of. I simply cannot believe that a man feels differently.” ◀