Camera ob­scura Women of Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism at the Den­ver Art Mu­seum


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Afa­mous 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

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