New York CityArt Students League of New York
November 2 – December 1, 2019
Postwar Women concentrates on the work of women who attended the Art Students League, emphasizing art made between 1945 and 1965 and including pieces created before and after those periods. The League has been particularly open to women, presenting them with the chance to study beginning in the middle of the 19th century (it opened in 1875). The women who studied there range from the well-known to the obscure, but the level of accomplishment is uniformly high. A show like this publicly establishes the considerable achievements of working under conditions of hardship, given the unspoken and spoken prejudices against their gender. As might be expected, the body of works in this exhibition is varied, including painterly and sculptural mediums and styles that are both figurative and abstract. But the broad spectrum makes the point that the women the show encompasses were every bit as gifted and accomplished as their male colleagues. Thus, Postwar Women successfully argues for a close-to-complete re-evaluation of women’s contributions to fine art in New York during this period, a time when art was being shown mostly by men in the field of Abstract Expressionism.
Indeed, a number of the more impressive pieces in the show do bring to the fore lyric abstraction. Charlotte Park’s untitled oil on canvas, painted around 1960, merges biomorphic shapes of light pink, white, gray, and moss green hues, with touches of red highlights. The shapes, irregular but not terribly jagged, merge in intuitive fashion, offering a field of near collisions, balanced by a measured sense of form and a restrained feeling for color. Lee Krasner’s small, untitled piece from 1942 presents an amalgam of stylistic effects: two enclosed ribbons, black and tan in color, on the lower right, with a dark brown, scythe-like form in the middle, accompanied by a feathered black strip that travels across the painting. These forms, abstract but coherent within the composition, float over larger backgrounds shapes: a blue-gray square on top of a rounded white egg shape. Krasner’s compositional skill is extraordinary. Grace Hartigan’s watercolor and paper collage, also untitled and made in 1970, offers a reddish-maroon abstract shape with a protuberance jutting upward toward the left from the central form. Above the column pushing ahead is a light red bell-like shape. Hartigan paints thick, dark-green strokes around these forms, their sensuous appearance forceful and impressive.
The figurative works are equally compelling. Isabel Bishop’s early, small oil and tempera on panel, The Conversation (1931), consists of two men talking. Both wear overcoats and hats; the figure on the left faces us, with a light-colored topcoat and tie and holding a cane behind him. The man in the black coat on the right has his back to us, but we see his features in profile. The scene takes place against a dark brown background. Gwendolyn Knight’s 1945 tempera on board, The Boudoir, depicts a nude woman with masked eyes and lipstick, her long black hair cascading down her unclothed body. Her elongated figure kneels on a bed with decorated sheets, while behind her, on the right, a set of green curtains hangs. Also included is Elaine de Kooning’s graphite drawing of Frank O’Hara (1970), kneeling shirtless next to a cat in George Segal’s studio. Her delicacy of line is impressive. The composition of Joyce Pensato’s Untitled (Mickey, Donald, Scottie) (1990), a large charcoal drawing, is dominated by a slightly menacing Mickey Mouse, with big ears, circles for eyes, thin arms, and splayed legs. Although it takes inspiration from pop art, it isn’t terribly friendly: the drawing possesses an uncongenial aggression. May Stevens’s War Room (1968), made with gouache and ink on paper, shows mirror images of an older man wearing nothing but a green cadet cap with a bulldog in his lap. A targeted, anonymous white map separates the two identical figures.
The sculptures in the show are also vary between figurative and abstract. The formation of Eva Hesse’s Mold for Sans II (1967), a set of four vertically stacked urethane molds reveals how the actual sculptures were created. Figure Regardant une Maison (1950) is a beautiful work by Louise Bourgeois, consisting of two thin forms the height of a person. The piece encapsulates the artist’s ability to transform figures into abstractions and back again. Elizabeth Catlett’s 1981 patina bronze piece, Standing Mother and Child, continues a theme the artist regularly returns to. And Kazuko Miyamoto’s Hanging Paper Sculpture, re-constructed in 2017 after being originated in 1980, looks a bit like a rope ladder with tobacco leaves hanging from the bottom rung. It is impossible to include other examples of the show in this short space, but one hopes that the works described give a sense of the skill and creativity of the artists that curator Will Corwin chose. Let’s hope that more shows like “Postwar Women” appear. This strong exhibition not only reveals the tenacity of women working in the margins, it also demonstrates how very good they are. The works of women can no longer be hidden in light of their creative excellence.