At MoMA, Women at Play in the Fields of Abstraction

By Holland Cotter

April 13, 2017

Funnily enough, the Museum of Modern Art has never named the long-running blockbuster show that fills its permanent-collection galleries. So I’ll name it: “Modern White Guys: The Greatest Art Story Ever Invented.” What the museum does name are the occasional temporary exhibitions that offer an alternative to that story. “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction” is the latest, and a stimulating alternative it is.

Abstraction is a foundational subject for MoMA. The institution was basically conceived on the premise that this is the mode to which all advanced art aspires. But the work in “Making Space,” dating from the end of World War II to the beginning of second-wave feminism, is not really representative of the museum historically. For one thing, of course, it’s all by women. And it’s by artists of diverse geographic and ethnic backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, much of what’s here is late in arriving at MoMA. Several pieces from Latin America, given by the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, came just last year.

In its diversity and in other ways, “Making Space” escapes the old MoMA formula, though in certain other ways it adheres to it. We begin on what looks like familiar ground. The show’s first section, “Gestural Abstraction,” is dominated by two brushy, wall-filling paintings — one by Lee Krasner, the other by Joan Mitchell — of a kind that has been a staple at the museum since the 1940s. Both artists are big names but, you note, they are not quite big enough to rate fixed placement beside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline in the permanent Abstract Expressionist galleries.

So the show starts in what feels like honorable-mention mode. But it doesn’t stay there. Instead, it goes for difference and sticks with it, introducing us to artists we may not know or have an institutional context for. We meet one right off the bat, the Lebanese-born American painter-poet Etel Adnan, whom many New Yorkers — and possibly MoMA — first learned about only through the New Museum’s 2014 survey of art from the so-called Arab world.

Ms. Adnan’s painting, with its little central rainbow banner, signals that the abstraction by women in this show will not be just Euro-American, but global. And a second picture, this one a 1960s collage painting by the African-American artist Alma Woodsey Thomas, suggests that it will be racially inclusive, too. So, already, old MoMA barriers are leapt.

Even more interestingly, the Thomas piece complicates the idea of what “gestural” means. It’s done in the artist’s usual mosaic-like blocks of color, but on narrow strips of paper, joined by staples and masking tape. The result is not painting as a gush of I-am-here ego or emotion. It’s a construction, a sort of funky one. And it is personally expressive, though in ways hard to pin down.

A lot about the show is hard to pin down, which is its strength. The famous flowchart of Modern art’s evolution plotted by MoMA’s first director, Alfred Barr, and still reflected in the show’s section labels — “Geometric Abstraction,” “Eccentric Abstraction,” etc. — simply doesn’t apply here. There’s too much genius irregularity — aesthetic, personal and political — on view to fit any prefab template.

It’s important to know, for example, that the exquisite, centrifugally spinning collages of the New York artist Anne Ryan (1889-1954) were inspired as much by life as by other art. Each of these sparkling visual salads of fabric, paper and thread reflects the artist’s work as a seamstress (she made all her clothes) and a cook (she opened a Greenwich Village restaurant) as much as her interest in Pollock and Kurt Schwitters. (Ryan fans will not want to miss a splendid gallery show dedicated to her at Davis and Langdale Company through April 22.)

In a section called “Geometric Abstraction” are several 1950s works from Latin America, though whether they embody Modernist order and balance is a question. The opposite seems to be true in a crazily tilting iron sculpture by the German-born Venezuelan artist called Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt). And while the interlocking black and white forms in a 1957 painting by the Brazilian Lygia Clark are in perfect alignment, their angled shapes convey a sense of psychological menace — like sharp teeth in a closing jaw — that MoMA’s 2014 Clark retrospective entirely smoothed over.

And what view of Modernist rationality lies behind the work of the Czech artist Bela Kolarova? Working in Prague under a repressive political regime in the 1960s, she created photographs of circular forms that look like drains in a giant sink, and made relief paintings that bristle with potentially finger-slicing grids of metal paper fasteners.

The grid as a form gets an impressive pre-Minimalist workout in 1940s room dividers made of cellophane and horsehair by the incomparable weaver, printmaker, art historian, philosopher, teacher, theorist and life-student Anni Albers. Eleanore Mikus melts and molds the grid in a 1964 relief. And Lenore Tawney bends, twists and lightens it in her “Little River Wall Hanging.”

In the 1950s, Ms. Tawney lived in Lower Manhattan, where she counted Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and Agnes Martin (who is also in the MoMA show) as neighbors. Living in an old shipping loft, she made the most radical work of any of them: towering open-warp fiber pieces that stretched from floor to ceiling and across the loft’s wide space. Yet, in 1990, when she finally had a retrospective, it took place not at MoMA, but at the American Craft Museum, which was then across the street.

Have things changed much for art by women at MoMA? Ms. Tawney’s work is now visible there, but in set-aside circumstances. This is the way historical work by women is usually shown there, in occasional roundups, like the one assembled by the painter Elizabeth Murray in 1995, or the larger “Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art” in 2010, or now in “Making Space,” organized by the MoMA curators Starr Figura and Sarah Meister, with Hillary Reder, a curatorial assistant.

These shows are invariably moving, surprising and adventurous. The present one certainly is. But they have too easily become a new normal, an acceptable way to show women but keep them segregated from the permanent-collection galleries. In other words, they are a way to keep MoMA’s old and false, but coherent and therefore salable, story of Modernism intact.

Things may be changing. The old model may slowly be breaking up as the reality of Modernism as an international phenomenon, pan-cultural yet locally distinctive, becomes more widely known. And that knowledge can’t help confirming the reality that work by women, feminists or not, was the major inventive force propelling and shaping late-20th-century art.

It’s time to integrate that force into the museum fabric, into the permanent-collection galleries that remain MoMA’s great popular draw. How to create the new mix? Experiment. Put Anne Ryan next to Schwitters and Pollock and 1950s fabric designs by Vera (Vera Neumann), and see how that shakes out, historically and atmospherically. Introduce a body-adjusting chair by the great Italian-Brazilian artist-designer Lina Bo Bardi to the body-obsessed sculpture of Constantin Brancusi. Put Ruth Asawa’s porous, basket-like wire sculptures up against Richard Serra’s fortresslike walls. Let Alma Woodsey Thomas and Mondrian meet and talk about masking tape and useful beauty.

Naturally, some people will have a problem with all this. A politically minded eroticist like the Italian artist Carol Rama (1918-2015), who has a fantastic piece called “Spurting Out” in the current MoMA show (and a retrospective at the New Museum coming at the end of the month), scares the pants off traditionalists, because what do you do with her? Where does she fit in? How can you make her make White Guy sense? You can’t.

Anyway, it’s time to give the White Guys a rest. They’re looking tired. And the moment is auspicious. MoMA is expanding; the only ethical justification for doing so that I can see is to show art it hasn’t shown before, to write a broader, realer story, one that might even, in truth, be great. Construction is still in progress, but plans for the new history can start right now. Go see the work by women in “Making Space,” then go to MoMA’s permanent- collection galleries and start mentally moving in their art.







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