I recently visited a semi-major metropolitan city for an Abstract Expressionism exhibit. I was pumped for the art, but also for the chance to introduce my non-art-history-fanatic boyfriend to the first modern art movement to embrace women.
We stepped into the special exhibition hall and I went into my customary manic art appreciation mode, rushing around the room and exclaiming in a hushed voice, “That’s a Philip Guston!”, “Check out that Rothko!”, and “This Clyfford Still is SO good!”
My guy nodded supportively, looking how I must when he tries to explain football or covered calls.
Then I spotted a Jackson Pollock in the distance and was like, “Dude. You’re about to see a Lee Krasner.” Not only were Lee and Jackson married—albeit tumultuously—but they were both very active in the Abstract Expressionism movement. Jackson was the bad-boy poster child, but Lee was a painterly force to be reckoned with.
We stood in front of the Pollock, quiet for a bit. There was no Lee. “That doesn’t make sense!”, I said, annoyed. “She was just as good as he was.”
Then I saw a Willem de Kooning off to my right and, in a hushed tone, said, “Please let there be an Elaine de Kooning nearby. There was not. Elaine, Willem de Kooning’s talented wife, was another no-show.
I flushed and looked at my boyfriend disappointedly. “Is it possible that I’m at an Abstract Expressionism exhibit in 2017 that has completely excluded the female talents of the time?” I mean, I know the guys we’re considered the period’s heavy-hitters—because that’s just how things were—but I foolishly thought HIStory had been righted.
He shrugged, clearly at a loss.
As we left, the special exhibition ticket taker asked cheerfully, “How’d you like it?”
“Welllllll, what I saw was stunning, but I’m more concerned with what I didn’t see. I mean, where were all the women?”
“Oh, there weren’t very many female painters in this period,” said the young woman.
I looked at her, stunned. “Oh boy. That’s not true. I can think of about fifteen off the top of my head,” I replied. “I feel like we’re only getting part of the Abstract Expressionism story here. And, I know it’s not because the work isn’t available. I saw a Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell in the main wing.”
“Really? Hmm. I’m sorry. I’ll pass that on,” she said, unequipped to handle my fervor.
I looked blankly at my boyfriend and we left the hall in silence. I felt like he thought I didn’t know my stuff or that I’d exaggerated the importance of women in this post-war art movement.
When we were settled back at our hotel, I handed him a cocktail and said, “Hey, can I show you something?” Before he could answer, I launched into a feverish digital presentation, using past exhibition materials from more progressive museums like the Denver Art Museum, Palm Springs Art Museum, and the Mint Museum, on the narrowed subject of Women in Abstract Expressionism.
Yes, it was satisfying to help him see the big picture in place of a small sliver of someone else’s version of history. But, it still felt like I was compensating for something lost—like, “we’ve come a long way baby,” but we’re still dealing with a concessionary side-show in place of an exhibit that just includes the whole truth. I want to see the full spectrum of talent from this groundbreaking period. Is that too much to ask? You tell me.