In Depth

Making Space at MoMA: The women of abstract art

A new exhibition in New York showcases the work of 50 female contemporaries of Pollock and Rothko

While artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko have become household names, their female contemporaries have struggled to gain the same recognition for their seminal works. A major new exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art will shine a spotlight on the women who played an essential role in the development of abstraction in the post-World War II period, bringing together approximately 100 pieces from more than 50 artists, nearly half of which will be on show at the museum for the first time.

Societal shifts that occurred during the war opened up possibilities for women to pursue careers as artists in an unprecedented way, with many becoming part of the abstractionism movement that flourished in the decades that followed. However, without the benefits of the feminist movement of the 1970s, female artists struggled to get their artworks seen and voices heard. This was particularly true in the masculine world of Abstract Expression, which is the initial focus of the five-part display. Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner were among the few female painters to gain critical acclaim, and here their impactful, large-scale canvases are shown alongside diverse works including sculptures from Louise Bourgeois and Dorothy Dehner.

Elsewhere the exhibition goes on to examine the international rise of geometric abstraction, bringing Latin America to the fore by featuring works from Uruguayans Maria Freire and Elsa Gramko. It also explores how designs were translated into mass-produced products, such as bold and graphic textiles spearheaded by such designers as Lucienne Day.

Moving chronologically, Making Space is an examination of how – throughout the 1950s and 1960s – artists turned to the minimalist aesthetic of reductive abstraction, bringing together the structured and simplified works of Jo Baer, Agnes Martin and Anne Truitt. In the same period figures such as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Lenore Tawney and Sheila Hicks were pushing boundaries in the field of textiles, the latter being an early pioneer of fibre art, crafting soft sculptures from crocheting, knotting, looping, weaving and twisting fibres.

The exhibition closes with a look at the new direction that took hold in the 1960s, which art historian Lucy Lippard called Eccentric Abstraction at the time. Its proponents, which included Lynda Benglis, Lee Bontecou, Carol Rama and Feliza Bursztyn, emphasised unusual materials and processes, exemplified in the latter's 1967 series Histericas, which saw bold, cacophonous kinetic metal sculptures come alive with the use of motors.

Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 15 April to 13 August; moma.org

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