‘These women were at the forefront of the first great movement in contemporary art that American artists uniquely championed and yet…so overlooked were they by their peers that, at the end of this period in 1971, the art critic and historian Linda Nochlin could famously ask: “why have there been no great women artists?” The answer: they were hiding in plain sight.’ – Dr John Paul Rollet, Chicago University
When someone mentions the abstract expressionists to you, who first comes to mind? Willem de Kooning? Jackson Pollock? Mark Rothko? Whoever is on your list, I’m sure you would struggle to include many women, if at all. Yet this great American art movement was not exclusive to male membership. In fact, many of its key players were female, all of whom have somehow been written out of Art History. Now however, their work is being highlighted through an exhibition titled Hiding in Plain Sight at Amar Gallery in London, which bringing these women’s artwork into the light.
Hiding in Plain Sight was inspired by the 9th Street Art Exhibition, which took place in New York between 21st May and 10th June 1951. The exhibition was organised by a group of artists whose studios were located in downtown Manhattan, known as the Downtown Group, and whose work until then had been overlooked by New York City’s art critics. Some members of the group had formed weekly discussions, through what they called The Club, which led to the organisation of the now infamous 9th Street Art Exhibition. Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg were amongst 62 artists to have exhibited in this show, which was hung by the art dealer Leo Castelli, a figure selected by the artists involved, as they believed that he would display the work without favouritism. While most of these artists were male, a number of them were female, five of which – Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan and Yvonne Thomas – appear in Hiding in Plain Sight.
The artwork in Hiding in Plain Sight is initially concealed when you enter Amar Gallery. On street level, you are welcomed inside with a huge photograph of an extremely beautiful woman sitting amongst a sea of pastel-hued paintings, some bibliographical details about the artists whose work is on display, and two bouquets of white flowers. The actual paintings are shielded by a black curtain, beneath which a hidden world is waiting to be revealed. It seems apt that this collection of works has been masked by a piece of fabric, as it mirrors the exact situation of how these women have been overlooked by art history. Once the viewer passes this piece of cloth, they descend below ground into a gallery covered in canvases, collages and works on paper. The woman who welcomes the viewer into the gallery upstairs is Helen Frankenthaler (12 December 192 – 27 December 2011), who was photographed sitting in her studio for Life Magazine. Downstairs, her painting Moon Spin, 1975, acrylic on canvas, sits amongst dozens of other works that look as though they would be right at home at any major art institution. Unfortunately however, they are not, and many of the works on display here are on view outside of the United States for the very first time.
Curated by Dr John Paul Rollert, who teaches at both Chicago and Harvard Universities, Hiding in Plain Sight includes the work of 11 female artists who may be described as abstract expressionists. The term abstract expressionism is attributed to work produced during the 1940s and 1950s in New York, and its characteristics generally consist of gestural brushstrokes and spontaneity. Amongst the display, one of the most captivating works is Amaranth Ehrenhalt’s (b. January 15, 1928) Carmona, 1957, oil on canvas. An explosion of warm colours, the work is one of a series of animated paintings by the artist exhibited at Amar. Alongside Ehrenhalt’s works are the slightly more delicate paintings of Lynne Mapp Drexler (21 May 1928 – 30 December 1999), whose pink, yellow and blue Happy, 1960, oil on canvas, is reminiscent of impressionist pointillism.
Also on display are a number of works on paper by Elaine de Kooning (12 March 1918 – 1 February 1989), the wife of Willem de Kooning, one of the most celebrated artists of abstract expressionism, who cited Elaine as the inspiration for his artistic direction. Untitled (Bull abstract), 1970, tempera on paper and Dancing Tree, 1968, gouache on paper, are grey gestural meditations on nature that appear to be much softer than the loud paintings that her husband is famous for. They are displayed besides Perle Fine’s (30 April 1905 – 31 May 1988) Untitled (Prescience), 1951, oil on canvas, that consists of quiet dark blocks of colour which stands out amongst an exhibition that is mostly bright and energetic.
Other highlights include a hot red abstract interpretation of the sun by Charlotte Park (1918 – 2010) in The Sun, 1960, oil on paper mounted on canvas. This heat is reflected in Ethel Schwabacher’s (20 May 1903 – 25 November 1984) Warm Rain I, 1959, oil on canvas, which consists of a predominantly red canvas with patches of grey, white and black. Amongst the warmth and intensity of Park and Schwabacher’s work is White, 1951, oil on canvas, by Grace Hartigan (28 March 1922 – 15 November 2008), that merges thick, expressive brushstrokes white paint amongst a background of darker colours.
‘I bring my own experience, which is different from a man’s, and put it where I can. But once that is done, I don’t know if it’s a woman’s experience I’m even looking at.’ – Grace Hartigan
Hiding in Plain Sight affirms the importance of these women within art history, emphasizing that abstract expressionism was not a solely male movement. At a time when buyers and dealers are rushing to ‘rediscover’ female artists for their collections, and where academics and institutions are looking to diversify their exhibits, it is not unlikely that many of the artworks within the exhibition will soon be displayed in museums across the globe, with these artists finally gaining the same recognition enjoyed by their male counterparts.
Hiding in Plain Sight is on display at Amar Gallery, 43 Penton Street, London N1 9QA until 13 December 2018