The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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MAY 2014 Issue

Magnificent Obsession: Joann Gedney, The Early Paintings, 1948 – 1963

On View
Rox Gallery
March 7 – April 17, 2014
New York

Magnificent Obsession: Joann Gedney, The Early Paintings, 1948 – 1963, curated by Gregory de la Haba at Rox Gallery, is an art historian’s dream come true: the discovery of a pristine body of work documenting the life and oeuvre of an unknown Abstract Expressionist. In addition to the paintings and drawings selected for the show, there are scores of others in the painter’s Village townhouse, as well as boxes of diaries, notes, and letters that complete a rich background and historical context.

Joann Gedney Magnificent Obsession

The show is the first posthumous evaluation of Gedney’s (1925 – 2013) work, that had so far escaped the radar of the critical world, hidden away for the past 70 years inside her home and studio. It generously covers more than a decade of the early years of Gedney’s oeuvre, a period during which her work fluctuated between the two initially conflicting directions endlessly debated at Phillip Pavia’s Club, described by him as “the abstractionists’ presence and the purists’ lack of presence.” This translates in to two groups of works: the geometric and meditative paintings versus the emotional, gestural works. 

A pinnacle of the first direction—“Tenth Street Corner” (1963)—brings the image closer to the surface of the pictorial plane, executed with a decisiveness à la Kline, where every line is mostly a single brush stroke, creating configurations of vibrating tensions, like strings of musical instruments. In many of the compositions of this genre, the flat white background becomes a determining part of the whole, creating ambiguity and struggle between figure and ground, an almost interchangeable gestalt. When instead Gedney engages in her full gestural mode, as in “The Inner Studio” (1955) or “The Box Within” (1958), she builds up the paintings with forcefully applied layers of thick paint in which exploration and pentimenti become central, creating tridimensional surfaces in polyphonic voices.

As much as her pictorial repertoire is still in the lineage of the masters she was close to at the time—Kline, De Kooning, Pollock—Gedney generates a language and palette of her own. Her bold and idiosyncratic use of unusual greens and strong primary colors against the cream backgrounds becomes her signature world of images, a laboratory of individual alchemy. Although the stated subject in her paintings and drawings during this period is pictorial space, the works belong to the realm of pure emotion, linking her further to Franz Kline’s credo: “I paint not the things I see but the feelings they arouse in me.”

Joann Gedney, "Homage to Franz Kline," 1959. Oil on canvas.

The exhibit plunges the viewer inside a world that consistently opts for flux over stability—a feeling of perpetual motion and surprise. It often brings to mind Jung’s ideal artist, operating from a state of mind that allows the retrieval of unassimilated psychological content. Abstract Expressionists were especially drawn to Jung’s belief that humans think in images before translating their thoughts into language. Gedney’s works speak to this aesthetic of spontaneity, which by the early 1960’s had established an intersection between painting, dance, automatic writing, and jazz improvisation. The parallel with the music of the time is a particularly fertile one, as her broad brush compositions, much like jazz phrases, could be analyzed in terms of inception, combustion, duration, and direction. Further, Gedney’s abstract compositions appear to follow a procedure that parallels that of poet Charles Olson, who wrote (in his essay “Projective Verse” 1950):  “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.”

The group of drawings and gouaches in the show provides an additional window into Gedney’s process. Even her preparatory studies, with their decisiveness and forceful density of overlapping lines, structural forms, and occasional colors, confer full autonomy to these smaller works on paper, rich in dynamic directional play and dramatic painterly gestures. These paintings and drawings have a powerful presence, some calmly meditative, others wildly tumultuous, drawing from the sensuousness and vitality of the paint itself. The results can be alternatively jarring or soothing, but the intention to portray and materialize emotions situates them firmly within the Abstract Expressionist canon.

Joann Gedney, "Oil on canvas," 1962. 24 3/4 x 32 1/2."

Joann Gedney realized early on that she wanted with unshakable resolve to be an artist. Unmarried, of modest means and no family connections to the art world, she boldly marched on: “I will do it my way with or without a game plan. I want to be me,” she writes in her diaries. She attended the Art Students’ League where she found a mentor in Nahum Tschacbasov: “He taught me what art is, everyone learns from a fellow artist, not from academics: it’s like a blood transfusion.” Soon, however, she felt the need to distance herself from Tschacbasov, stating that “the problem of influence is a serious one and I could not have progressed so far without him. Now I need to establish where he ends and I begin.”

She embarked on a journey that brought her to the Village and the heart of the Abstract Expressionist movement. During the years she lived on 10th Street, she got drunk on 15 cent beer at the Cedar Bar, participated in the heated discussions at The Club, befriended Franz Kline and many of the major Abstract Expressionist painters, and participated in the group’s promiscuity, which she described as “musical beds.” The Abstract Expressionists and an enraptured group of critics, poets, and philosophers spent a great deal of their time visiting each other’s studios, shared passion and commitment, started galleries and collectives, ate and drank together, argued, loved and supported each other, formed and broke alliances. In 1957, Gedney co-founded the March Gallery, initiated as a gesture of artists’ self-empowerment and agency in the period’s climate of team spirit and harsh competition. In Gedney’s case, all of this was lived fully and chronicled in her art and writings from the unique perspective of a young woman on her own.

Joann Gedney, "Abstract Study," 1958. Oil on canvas.

Of course, although women actively participated in the movement, the dominant artistic personalities of AbEx were men. Tellingly, Gedney repeatedly hints at her desire to be “one of the boys,” at adopting a worldview, artistic ambition, and lifestyle typical of these men. One of the unintended consequences of this gender identification with “the boys” was a long battle with alcoholism, in which she later bravely prevailed. Gedney’s diaries and letters are rewarding not only in themselves, but as a yet-to-be-explored source for a fresh re-examination of the role of women in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Women offered unique contributions to the movement, yet their careers and notoriety rarely compared to their male counterparts. They had fewer exhibition opportunities, less media coverage, and a more marginalized role in the cultural discourse of the time. In describing her interest in painting, Joann Gedney repeatedly goes back to the idea of space: “The word I connect with my painting is space. Space and the picture plane.” Similarly, Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchell engaged in the new explorations of pictorial space, while Lee Krasner began treating the pictorial space as a continuum.

Yet in her diaries and in the interview with Charlotte Ghiorse, Gedney makes a clear distinction between herself and the successful women in the Abstract Expressionist milieu. She, like, many of the men she emulated, was struggling: she lived and worked in a $40 a month loft with only cold water and insufficient heating, had to work her whole life at a day job and could only afford the cheapest of paints. While she was living the life of the counterculture, she points to the wealth of Marisol, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell, and to the protection of established husbands as in the case of Lee Krasner married to Pollock, Dorothy Dehner married to David Smith, Elaine de Kooning married to Willem, and Hedda Sterne married to Saul Steinberg.

Magnificent Obsession forcefully speaks to the need of a long overdue critical evaluation of the vast body of work produced by this brave and unique arist. She certainly mastered the visual vocabulary and formal innovations of Abstract Expressionism, creating works of haunting energy and beauty. In her catalog essay, critic and managing art editor for the Brooklyn Rail, Kara L. Rooney, perceptively describes this world as one concerned with “figure/ground relationships, color versus gesture, geometric shape versus biomorphic fluidity.” However, the complex task of ascertaining Gedney’s stature within the movement is still a work in progress. Among the works exhibited at the Rox Gallery, she has an explicitly titled “Homage to Gorky,” and we also see occasional echoes of Kline and De Kooning, as we familiarize ourselves with her own painterly world.

In her emotional, gestural mode, the artist she appears to have the deepest formal kinship with is another female painter: Joan Mitchell. They both called some of their compositions Landscapes, Mitchell utilizing the title as a more explicit departure point (“The work is about landscape, not about me”) while Gedney employs it as an alternative to Abstract Study, in her experimentations with space.

Joann Gedney, "Landscape I," 1957. Oil on canvas, 48 3/4 x 56 1/4.

If we take three of the works in the show, “Oil on Canvas 39 1/2 × 52” (1950), “Landscape I” (1957) and “Landscape IV” (1959), and compare them with contemporary Mitchell compositions such as “Ladybug” (1957) and “Piano Mecanique” (1958), their apparent relatedness also sets off their very individual qualities and essential differences.

Joann Gedney, "Landscape IV," 1959. Oil on canvas, 49 x 70".

Both artists use muscular, paint loaded brushstrokes, wet paint and its drips, heavy impastos that create relief in crowded compositions bursting with energy. But while Mitchell is a much more controlled artist, rejecting the notion of herself as an “action painter,” Gedney’s surfaces are built from archeologically overlapping multitudes of layers, where one can follow in close up the experimentation, the sequence of gestures, the artist constantly changing her mind. Both rely heavily on pure colors; in Mitchell’s case they occasionally merge to produce intentional muddy islands, while Gedney, despite her more hesitant and meandering process, sticks to pure hues often propped by grids of black gestural scaffoldings. Mitchell’s jagged compositions of this period project centrifugal forces, barely contained by the painting plane, whereas Gedney’s use of pulsating thick color with painterly drawings of pure black—sometimes forcefully, sometimes suggestively, and sometimes architecturally, like an expressionist descendant of Mondrian—fully contains the explosive energy of the work within the pictorial space.

Though Gedney’s work has its roots in spontaneous gesture and visual imagination rather than observation from nature, it has a capaciousness that includes suggestions of figures and landscape. At times, Gedney’s abstractions poetically evoke figuration, as in the case of “Abstract Study” (1948) and “Landscape III” (1959). Rhythmically repeated forms emerge against a cream-colored background, suggesting landscape elements rapidly dissolving into abstraction. The floating, ethereal quality of these works could be alternatively perceived as either suggestions of landscapes in the distance, or landscape patterns as seen looking down from an airplane, through thin clouds. The vertical dripping threads of white, with their gravitational pull, bring the whole composition back into the picture plane. In both works, the soft gradation of pale, nocturnal blues and greens accentuates their dream-like quality.

Regardless of whether Gedney’s lack of notoriety derived from her being a woman or from an inability to network and self-promote, or whether it has something to do with a not entirely resolved “problem of influence,” her paintings, drawings, and diaries are a treasure trove, offering new insight into the work of an intense and powerful artist, as well as into a single woman’s struggle inside the male-dominated world of Abstract Expressionism. 


Alessandro Cassin

Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

All Issues