Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Mothers of Invention at MoMA, Part 1

Part 4: Alma Thomas  

For the past several months under the rubric of Mothers of Invention, I’ve been publishing posts that consider the achievements of women artists in recent art history. I’m back with a walk-through report of Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, up through August 13.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 1965-66, oil on canvas
All photos mine unless otherwise identified

Making Space is a terrific show that features the paintings, sculptures, photographs and works on paper of women who were working in the mid-20th Century. Yes, the big names—Krasner, Mitchell, Nevelson, and Frankenthaler—are all there, but so are a number of excellent Latin American artists who are only now getting their due here in the States: among them Carmen Herrera, Lygia Clark, and the marvelous Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt, a German-born Venezuelan), thanks to promised gifts to the museum via the Latin American and Caribbean Fund. So the exhibition, curated by Starr Figura and Sarah Hermanson Meister, is drawn entirely from the museum’s holdings or soon-to-be holdings.

In Gallery 2: Carmen Herrera, foreground, and Lygia Pape

Another important aspect of the exhibition is the inclusion of artists who work/ed with fiber (I'm not calling it "fiber art," just as I don't call painting "oil art"). Sheila Hicks, still active and exhibiting in her 80s, is included along with Anni Albers, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Ruth Asawa and Lenore Tawney. The curators rightfully acknowledge the connection between the interlacement of warp and weft with that of the modernist and minimalist grid. “We were interested in the point and counterpoint of how fiber and textiles become their own abstract grid,” notes Meister in a video on the MoMA website.

In Gallery 4: Magdalena Abakanowicz, Ruth Asawa, Lenore Tawney

This exhibition is part of a critical mass of important recent exhibitions that feature the work of women from mid-20th Century to now. To broaden the perspective a bit: Last year saw Women of Abstract Expressionism, which originated at the Denver Art Museum and then traveled this year to the Mint Museum in Charlotte, and then the Palm Springs Museum (it closed there on Monday, May 29). Then there was the somewhat more contemporary Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016, which inaugurated the museum-like spaces of Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles last year. While each of these exhibitions had a different specific focus, there was a significant overlap of artists and time periods.

Compare these exhibitions to the testosterone-heavy, Greenberg-influenced Action/Abstraction at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2008. Curated by Norman L. Kleeblatt, the exhibition covered roughly the same post-war period as Making Space, but subtitled Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976, it tells you everything you need to know about why the current crop of women-focused exhibitions is so important and so necessary. (Out of 31 artists in the exhibition, seven were women.) 

Now for the bad news about Making Space. The museum didn’t. Not really. This splendid ensemble of almost 100 works by 55 artists was crammed cheek-by-jowl into the third-floor drawing galleries instead of given the breathing space it rightfully deserved on the sixth floor’s big special exhibition space. As a museum-goer I must say that the subtext here seems to be that despite their (our!) hard-won achievements, women artists are still making do, still making the most of the space allotted.

Following is a gallery-by gallery walk through with links at the end to videos of the curators in conversation.

Entering Gallery 1

The curators made the most of the sight lines. From the entry, where we saw a small Etel Adnan placed on a charcoal gray wall, we begin to enter Gallery 1 with views of Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler

Joan Mitchell, Ladybug, 1957, oil on canvas; photo from the MoMA website

Helen Frankenthaler, Trojan Gates, 1955, oil and enamel on canvas
I didn't immediately recognize this as a Frankenthaler, accustomed as I am to her lyrical, clear-hued stain paintings

View into Gallery 1 with Mitchell; two small works, one each by Elaine de Kooning and Pat Passlof; and Lee Krasner on the far wall. We will go clockwise around the room

Pat Passlof, Untitled, 1950, oil on paper

Gallery view with Lee Krasner, Dorothy Dehner

Lee Krasner, Gaea, 1966, Oil on canvas

Dorothy Dehner, Encounter, 1969,  bronze, six parts

Janet Sobel, Untitled, 1946, oil and enamel on composition board

Pollockian, eh? Look at the date. Pollock's first finished drip painting, Full Fathom Five, was completed in 1947

Behind the wall with the Frankenthaler is this corner with collages by Anne Ryan and a painting on paper by Alma Thomas

Anne Ryan, Collage, 353, 1949; cut-and-pasted colored paper, cloth, and string on paper

Alma Thomas, Untitled, 1968, acrylic on cut and stapled paper

Gallery 2

This gallery is filled with geometric abstraction in two and three dimensions. In Latin America geometric abstraction was, notes the wall text, "the primary currency for a new generation of avant-garde artists in int 1950s and early 1960s . . . Women artists were strikingly prominent and made formative contributions within the many progressive artistic circles in Latin America."

We've entered from the right, just beyond the blue construction by Bela Kolarova.

The Gego scupture, center, Eight Squares, 1961, painted iron, will be our touchstone as we go counterclockwise around the room

Maria Freire, Untitled, 1954, oil on canvas, 36 x 48

These two vertical paintings followed Friere's Untitled painting
Left: Elsa Gramcko, Untitled, 1957, oil on canvas (you can see this painting on the wall in the installation shot below); right: Lidy Prati, Vibrational Structure from a Circle, Series B, 1951, oil on canvas

Installation view with Gego's Eight Squares to orient you. On wall from right (maintaining the counterclockwise tour): Gramcko, Pape, Herrera

Continuing counterclockwise from left: Lygia Pape, Orange, 1955, oil and tempera on board; Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1952, synthetic polymer on canvas; on pedestal, Lygia Clark, The Inside is the Outside, stainless steel

Another view of Clark's sculpture with Louise Nevelson against the far wall

Louise Nevelson, Big Black, 1963, painted wood

Continuing counterclockwise, a wall of Gertrudes Altschul photographs, one of which is shown below

Untitled, 1952, gelatin silver print
Photo from the MoMA website

Passage between Galleries 2 and 3

Maybe this is considered a gallery, but I'm calling it a passageway because it felt that way, leading from the geometry of Gallery 2 to the achromatic and reductive sensibility of Gallery 3. To be honest, the narrowness of this space doesn't allow for the best viewing of the weavings--especially when you have tourist yahoos who insist on taking selfies in front of everything, thereby impeding the smooth flow between galleries. (Yes, I can be cranky, but curators are going to have to take this traffic issue into account when planning their installations.)

Anni Albers, Free-Hanging Room Divider, 1949, cellophane and cord

I love the relationship between this work and its detail with the Altschul photograph above--the stark palette, the shadows, the diagonal threads. I live for these conjunctions!

Detail below

Another Albers, also titled Free-Hanging Room Divider, with the same materials

Detail below

Gallery 3

The largely black and white palette of the passageway leads us to a small third gallery where all the work is achromatic. I particularly like how the vertiginous waviness of Bridger Riley's painting is counterpointed by Jo Baer's three square paintings with large expanses of white, Yayoi Kusama's patchwork of net patterning, and Anne Truit's stabilizing verticals. This is what makes me want to come back as a curator in my next life. I'm not showing you everything in each gallery, partly because I want you to see it on your own, but also because I was shooting around the other gallery goers, and sometimes that meant a long wait to get a shot when no one was in the frame--or the impossibility of getting the shot I wanted. 

Bridget Riley, Current, 1964, synthetic polymer and paint on composition board

Detail below
(I love the imperfection of the hand-painted line)

Jo Baer, Primary Light Group: Red, Green, Blue, 1964-65, oil and synthetic polymer paint on three canvases

Detail of the bottom corner of the right-most painting

Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation of Nets (No. 7), 1962, collage of gelativ silver prints

Detail below

Installation view of Eleanore Mikus painting, left, and three Anne Truitt drawings

Anne Truitt,  Sumi Drawings, 1966, ink on paper

Installation view of Mikus, Truitt, and Agnes Martin
Right: Martin, The Tree, 1964, oil and pencil on canvas

Detail below

Part 2 will come soon

Meanwhile, here are two interesting videos from the MoMA website
Sarah Meister and Starr Figura discuss the exhibition 

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