MoMA Makes Space for Women 70 Years Later

Epic 1966 Gaea painting by Lee Krasner

This show never happened…until now. Over the years, MoMA has been collecting the work of female artists, but in their prime, only a few had the chance to reach a wide audience, and certainly back in the Fifties this group would not have been assembled for an all-woman show.

MoMA corrects this oversight and gives these women the attention they deserve in Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, closing August 13.

MoMA has burrowed into its collection to present the work of female painters and sculptors who largely worked in the shadows of the dominant male artists of the Fifties and Sixties, both in the United States and abroad.

Grace Hartigan’s 1957 Shinnecock Canal

The curators have segmented the artists by style, and it’s fun to discover better-known favorites alongside some women that you simply have never heard of. The first part features large ethereally stained canvases by superstar Helen Frankenthaler and swooping gestures by Lee Krasner (pretty in pink).

The gallery also showcases lesser-known Lebanese-born abstractionist Etel Adnan and Grace Hartigan, who briefly attempted to get her work into galleries by letting dealers think that “George” Hartigan did them. Grace did OK, however, becoming the only female painter that MoMA included in its Fifties European touring show New American Painting.

You can almost imagine critiques like “too feminine” and “paints like a girl” being uttered over shots at the Cedar Tavern. Joan Snyder was not ashamed to say that she drew inspiration from nature – instead of internal angst. Super-minimalist Agnes Martin did the same, drawing inspiration for her thin pencil grids from the majesty and stillness of nature.

Close up of Agnes Martin’s 1964 oil and pencil Big Tree

The “geometric” gallery is where the show expands away from New York’s home base to feature more of the Latin American contingent, like Venezuelan sculptural innovator Gego, a German refugee born Gertud Goldschmidt, and Cuban-born Carmen Herrera. Carmen, who lived in Paris and other world capitals, didn’t sell her first painting until 2004 when she was 89. To put that into perspective, black-and-white paining in MoMA’s collection was done in 1952. Well, at least the Whitney gave her a one-woman show this past year.

The curators hit a home run by also including textile artists and designers like Bauhaus artist Anni Albers and sculptural innovator Sheila Hicks. Seeing these and the process-art artists together is a treat – Eva Hesse and Polish art megastar Magdelena Abakanowicz. Both use found objects but Eva used industrial materials to create ephemeral sculptures and installations; Magdelena took lowly sisal and created a monumental textile presence.

On our Flickr album, we’ve arranged photos of the works in the show chronologically, so it was surprising to find that some of the earliest pieces of abstract art in the show were the 1951 bowl chair by Brazilian designer Bo Bardi and 1950 Stone on Stone textiles from Vera.

Two versions of Vera’s 1950 Stone on Stone pattern — prints on linen and silk by commercial manufacturers for the home market

Anyone decorating a home or buying a headscarf in the Fifties and Sixties knew of Vera, one of the first one-name household design names. The curators make a point to note that by hiring contemporary designers, commercial fabric houses were able to disseminate abstraction throughout the United States in curtains, upholstery, and daily items.

Big-time abstract painting and sculpture – whether expressionist, geometric, or minimal — might have been dominated by the guys, but the democratization of abstraction in the way of dress fabric and curtains was a realm that made female designers into brands.

To learn more about many of these innovators, listen in on MoMA’s audio tour via their website or app.

Here’s a quick spin through the show with curator Starr Figura here:

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