In 1934, the abstract painter Alice Trumbull Mason wrote her sister, Margaret Jennings, a letter, noting that she was eager to resume painting, which she had temporarily stopped in order to raise her children.
“I am chafing to get back to painting and of course it’s at least a couple of years away,” Mason wrote. “The babies are adorable and terribly interesting. I’m not saying anything against them, but … I can’t be just absorbed in them.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that when Mason returned to painting a year after she wrote that letter – earlier than she had anticipated – she didn’t paint her kids or scenes from life at home; rather, she became a founding member of the New York-based American Abstract Artists, joining a group of artists experimenting with an art form more widespread in Europe but largely dismissed by critics and curators in the US at the time, who favored the realism of (male) painters including Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.
Mason was one of many artists who also faced the additional barrier of being a woman in the male-dominated art world. But these artists also played important, yet historically overlooked, roles in driving the technical and conceptual developments of abstraction in the US, according to Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930-1950, a new exhibition – named after one of Mason’s works featured in the exhibit – that opened this month at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. On view through March, the exhibit features more than 30 works – mostly smaller, and on paper – by 27 female artists who found creative, albeit subversive, freedom in experimenting beyond the bounds of the mainstream art establishment, according to curator Sarah Humphreville, senior curatorial assistant at the museum.
In taking up abstraction, the women rejected the realism that dominated the decade, which often reinforced “certain subject matters that people identified as being particularly feminine or as being appropriate for women to do”, such as paintings of mothers and children, Humphreville said.
“By working in abstraction, and therefore not having an overt subject matter in many cases, they really circumnavigated that whole predicament,” she added.
The artists worked with new forms of print-making and other mediums, relying on lines, shapes, and shading to arrange 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 make use of negative space and arrange overlapping and intersecting forms – ideas that, according to Humphreville, were “wild” in the US at the time.
The artists shared these ideas in small groups, where women often took on leadership roles, as Mason and other women featured in the exhibit did – including Rosalind Bengelsdorf and Gertrude Greene – by co-founding American Abstract Artists. “Within the group, women were treated as equals; they served as officers, participated on committees, wrote for publications, and organized programs,” Humphreville wrote of AAA in her essay accompanying the exhibition.
After the Whitney staged a 1935 exhibit on abstraction in the US that excluded younger artists, and the Museum of Modern Art staged an exhibition the following year on cubist and abstract art featuring only European artists, the AAA – which was also composed of many men – organized an exhibition of American abstract artists, at the Squibb Galleries in midtown Manhattan in April 1937. It drew more than 1,500 people during its two week run.
While the reviews were largely negative – “reviewers charged the artists with being boring, decorative, derivative, and disconnected from reality”, Humphreville wrote – the exhibiting artists got a rare positive review from Charmion von Wiegand, a critic and abstract artist herself (who also has a drawing on view in the Whitney exhibit).
Occupying those dual roles of both artist and critic meant von Wiegand was “one of the people in the US who probably kind of understood modern art firsthand really well from an early moment”, Humphreville said. In her review of the 1937 show, von Wiegand “was really making an argument for abstraction and saying it’s not unpolitical for someone to be making work and expressing themselves in this way”, Humphreville added.
The AAA continued staging exhibitions throughout the 30s, helping to cultivate greater acceptance of American abstraction among critics by the early 1940s.
Around that time, another avant-garde group formed in New York: Atelier 17, where 40% of members were women, including members of the AAA. The workshop “encouraged technical and formal invention,” according to Humphreville, and artists specialized in and pioneered new printmaking processes. Norma Morgan, whose work is also featured in Labyrinth of Forms, was one of the two Black female artists who were part of the group (the other was Evangeline St Claire).
Despite the creative freedom the artists found working together and with new forms, abandoning the artistic status quo – particularly as women – came with a price: “They have this double layer of marginalization – they are making art that is not necessarily the most popular within the US … and then if you’re a woman on top of that, that’s this [additional] layer,” Humphreville said.
Being a female artist became an even more acute burden with the dawn of abstract expressionism, which by 1950 became a “highly masculine” movement, according to Humphreville.
In attempts to circumvent the gender-based 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 altered, less obviously feminine versions of their legal names in order to have a better chance at being exhibited: Bothwell legally changed her first name from Doris, and Pereira signed her works as “I Rice Pereira”.
Critics also regularly expressed surprised when they learned the true identities of women artists – as did Hans Hofmann, the artist and teacher who taught many of the artists featured in the Whitney exhibit: in an incident recounted many times by the abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, Hofmann once allegedly remarked that a drawing she made was “so good that you would not know it was done by a woman”. (Fellow abstract expressionist Elaine de Kooning shared a similar memory of Hofmann’s assessment of her own work.) That “drove [Krasner] crazy”, Humphreville said.
Following the work of feminist art historians dating back to the 1970s, museums and scholars have more recently begun to critically reexamine art historical accounts of the development of American abstraction that exclude the contributions of women and people of color, Humphreville added, pointing to the Denver Art Museum’s 2016 Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibit and the Whitney’s own Agnes Pelton retrospective last year.
But Labyrinth of Forms is also significant for its home, given that “the Whitney didn’t really collect most of this material as it was being made”, Humphreville said, adding that many of the works weren’t added to the museum’s collection until after the late 1970s.
The exhibit, she added, comes as a long overdue correction – for both American art history and the Whitney itself: “A lot of museums also overlooked these artists at the time … you kind of already start having that marginalization happen during their lifetimes, which makes it so that when they do get written into the history, it necessarily has to be a little bit revisionist.”
Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930 - 1950 is showing at the Whitney in New York until March 2022