In 1934, abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason wrote a letter to her sister, Margaret Jennings, noting that she was anxious to resume painting, which she had temporarily stopped to raise her children.
âI can’t wait to get back to painting and of course it’s in at least a few years,â Mason wrote. âBabies are adorable and terribly interesting. I’m not saying anything against them, butâ¦ I can’t just be engrossed in them.
It may not come as a surprise, then, that when Mason returned to painting a year after writing this letter – sooner than she had expected – she did not paint her children or scenes from home life; instead, she became a founding member of the New York-based American Abstract Artists, joining a group of artists experimenting with an art form more prevalent in Europe but widely rejected by critics and curators in the United States at the time, who favored the realism of painters (men) including Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.
Mason was one of the many artists who also faced the added barrier of being a woman in the male-dominated art world. But these artists also played an important, but historically ignored, role in the technical and conceptual development of abstraction in the United States, according to Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930-1950, a new exhibition – named after one of Mason’s works featured in the exhibition – which opened this month at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Running through March, the exhibition features over 30 works – mostly smaller and on paper – by 20 women artists who have found creative, albeit subversive, freedom in experimenting beyond the confines of the establishment. traditional art, according to curator Sarah Humphreville, senior curatorial assistant at the museum.
By embracing abstraction, women rejected the realism that dominated the decade, which often reinforced “certain subjects that people identified as being particularly feminine or appropriate for women,” such as paintings of mothers and children. , said Humphreville.
“By working in abstraction, and therefore not having an obvious subject in many cases, they really got around this whole situation,” she added.
Artists worked with new forms of printmaking and other mediums, relying on lines, shapes and shading to organize their compositions, often playing with perspective in the process to give the illusion of depth. On paper. Under the guidance of painter and teacher Hans Hofmann, they also learned to use negative space and organize overlapping and intersecting shapes – ideas which Humphreville said were “wild” in the United States. at the time.
The artists shared these ideas in small groups, where women often took on leadership roles, like Mason and other women featured in the exhibit – including Rosalind Bengelsdorf and Gertrude Greene – by co-founding American Abstract Artists. âWithin the group, women were treated equally; they served as officers, sat on committees, wrote for publications and organized programs, âHumphreville wrote of the AAA in his essay accompanying the exhibit.
After the Whitney organized an abstraction exhibition in 1935 in the United States that excluded young artists, and the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition on cubist and abstract art the following year featuring only of European artists, the AAA – which was also made up of many men – organized an exhibition of American abstract artists at the Squibb Galleries in midtown Manhattan in April 1937. It attracted over 1,500 people during its two weeks .
While the reviews were largely negative – “critics accused the artists of being boring, decorative, derivative and out of touch,” Humphreville wrote – the exhibiting artists received a rare positive review from Charmion von Wiegand, critic and abstract artist herself (who also has a design on view in the Whitney exhibit).
Occupying these dual roles of artist and critic, von Wiegand was “one of the people in America who probably understood modern art very well from the start,” said Humphreville. In his review of the 1937 exhibition, von Wiegand “really made an argument for abstraction and said that it was not apolitical for someone to do work and express themselves in this way” , added Humphreville.
The AAA continued to hold exhibitions throughout the 1930s, helping to cultivate greater acceptance of American abstraction among critics in the early 1940s.
At this time, another avant-garde group formed in New York: Atelier 17, where 40% of the members were women, including members of the AAA. The workshop “encouraged technical and formal invention,” according to Humphreville, and the artists specialized and pioneered new printmaking processes. Norma Morgan, whose work is also featured in Labyrinth of Forms, was one of two black female artists who were in the group (the other was Evangeline St Claire).
Despite the creative freedom that artists have found working together and with new forms, abandoning the artistic status quo – especially as women – has come at a price: “They have this double layer of marginalization – they do art that isn’t necessarily the most popular in the United Statesâ¦ and then if you’re a woman on top of that, that’s it [additional] layer, âHumphreville said.
Being a female artist became an even more acute burden with the dawn of Abstract Expressionism, which in 1950 became a “highly masculine” movement, according to Humphreville.
In an attempt to sidestep the gender barriers they faced, some of the women featured in the Whitney exhibit – including Dorr Bothwell and Irene Rice Pereira, who became one of the first two women to have a retrospective at the Whitney, in 1953 – presented their works with modified, less overtly feminine versions of their legal names in order to have a better chance of being exhibited: Bothwell legally changed his first name to Doris, and Pereira signed his works as “I Rice Pereira “.
Critics have also regularly expressed surprise when they learned about the true identities of women artists – as has Hans Hofmann, the artist and professor who taught many of the artists featured in the exhibition Whitney: in an incident recounted to several taken up again by abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, Hofmann would one day have noticed that a drawing she had made was “so good that you wouldn’t know it was made by a woman.” (Abstract expressionist colleague Elaine de Kooning shared a similar recollection of Hofmann’s assessment of her own work.) [Krasner] crazy, âHumphreville said.
As a result of the work of feminist art historians dating back to the 1970s, museums and academics have more recently begun to critically reexamine the historical narratives of art of the development of American abstraction that exclude the contributions of women and people of color, Humphreville added, pointing to Denver. The Art Museum’s Women of Abstract Expressionism 2016 exhibit and Whitney’s Agnes Pelton retrospective last year.
But Labyrinth of Forms is also important to its home, given that “the Whitney didn’t really collect most of this material as it was made,” Humphreville said, adding that many works did not. were not added to the museum’s collection until after the late 1970s.
The exhibit, she added, comes as a long overdue fix – both for American art history and for the Whitney himself: âMany museums have also overlooked these artists at the ‘epoch … makes sure that when they are recorded in history, it must necessarily be a little revisionist. “