In April, Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, debuted at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition offered a vital look into the work of over fifty female artists who were actively creating art during the postwar period from the late 1940s through 1960s. Drawing entirely on the MoMA’s permanent collection, the show featured close to 100 paintings, drawings, textiles, prints, photographs and ceramic pieces.
The exhibit paid homage to the larger history of female artists who played a pivotal role in the Abstract Expressionist movement, and who were often overlooked due to their male counterparts. The show included well-known artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, and Lee Krasner as well as other lesser known artists, Gertrudes Altschul, and Anne Ryan, among others. This exhibition also featured works by Ruth Asawa, Carol Rama, and Alma Woodsey that MoMA recently acquired, which are on view for the first time to the public at the museum.
MoMA’s Making Space helped to put female artists who historically had been ignored, into the forefront of the art world. And in the process, gave these artists the recognition they deserve. The show examines various aspects of the Abstract Expressionist movement including: Gestural Abstraction, Geometric Abstraction, and Reductive Abstraction and is laid out over four different gallery spaces. The mix of work as well as international artists helps the capture this complex period within the art world and beyond.
One of the standalone pieces in the exhibition was a 1966 painting by Lee Krasner. The painting which is tilted Gaea, covered almost the entirety of one of the gallery’s walls. The enormous canvas comes to life in the vibrant hues of pinks, violets and black that Krasner used. Looking at the size of the piece, gives you a sense of the both the physicality of the work itself and the undertaking involved in creating this work. The sweeping paint strokes create curved, biomorphic shapes that seem to blend into one another. There is a joyous energy about the painting that draws you in. However, it is the overwhelming size of the canvas, use of color and the mastery of technique, that commands attention from this work.
Many of the works throughout MoMA’s Making Space explored larger themes such as the body, the role of craft/handiwork, and larger social and political events of this era. The use of craft techniques can be seen in a variety of pieces within the exhibition and has been taken up in innovative ways.
Untitled by Ruth Asawa, who was recently featured in a Borro Blog on Asian-Pacific artists, is a large sculpture that takes on these larger craft elements. Hanging roughly 10′ from the gallery ceiling, it creates a variety of shapes and shadows which it casts on the surrounding walls from the light showing through it. Untitled was created with a technique similar to crocheting. Using a dowel and thin wire, Asawa could tether the wire together using a looping action, creating both a soft and hardness that the sculpture encompasses at the same time. The piece has a tactile quality that is reminiscent of fabric and textiles, but it is fascinating to learn that the piece is in fact made of metal.
Another unexpected piece of art is tilted The Inside is the Outside (O dentro é o fora) by the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark. The sculpture which is part of a larger body of work that Clark was developing in the late 1960s adds a humorous element to the show. The piece which has larger kinetic properties, operates on a loop turning on every few minutes resulting in a loud sound from the vibrating metal that the piece is constructed of. The Inside is the Outside has a playful quality that is demonstrated in the performative aspects of the sculpture making noise, and with the way that Clark handled the materials.
MoMA’s Making Space challenged the larger notions of what the Abstract Expressionist movement has been traditionally associated with. And while it is helping to put female artists who had a hand in shaping this movement to center, it is still following a traditional exhibition model. The work is groundbreaking but the execution in exhibiting them was not. Although all pieces in the exhibit were from MoMA’s permanent collection, they are not regularly on view. This brings up larger issues surrounding the institutional history of art and the museum and why there is not more art by women on permanent display within cultural institutions.
While the show was trying to debunk the larger historical associations with this movement in the art world, it does fall a little short in doing so within its execution. The works in the show are surprising, moving and exhilarating and do help to give a voice to female artists who were left out of the conversation. However, it was the act of putting these artists and their work back into the spotlight which was the most powerful aspect of MoMA’s Making Space. By putting these artists back into the conversation, it also drudges up issues surrounding the lack of gender and cultural diversity within museums’ permanent collections overall and how Making Space was an attempt to right this wrong. The exhibition was smart, thought-provoking and was one of the must-see shows of the summer.