9th St. Club
Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Mercedes Matter, Joan Mitchell
On ViewGazelli Art House
January 17 – February 23, 2020
If you have ever painted in your life, you will know that there is something horrible that happens to your palette when you accidentally mix multiple colors together. It becomes an undigested green which almost instantly makes you want to clean it off and start over again. There is no turning back. For those who have not experienced this, imagine politely asking the cinema clerk for more salty rather than sweet popcorn in your mix and receiving the exact opposite. Do over? Then buy more popcorn. Nevertheless here, Joan Mitchell, instead of starting over, buying new popcorn, wiggles and smudges the undigested green on the canvas, embracing the sweetness, easing into it. It works. It creates depth and movement, and everything else around it exists and rotates around it. Sometimes that is how I feel waking up to rain, but by the afternoon I can see blue sky behind the cloud: Untitled (1991). I did not know Abstract Expressionism could make me feel this way—is it because it was made by a woman within a movement that I associate with middle-aged, drunk and abusive men?
To be honest, I do not know anyone within my peer group with a genuine interest in Abstract Expressionism, perhaps for the aforementioned reason. Yet here I was, at Gazelli Art House, marvelling at this tiny work, 36 × 22 cm. Within the Abstract Expressionist era, where the most prominent and celebrated artworks were large, violent and made by men, I naturally leaned towards smaller works. Enough for the eye, and exquisite things often come in small packages. Another work in the 9th St. Club exhibition, an even smaller Lee Krasner work, 27 × 15 cm, Untitled (Gouache No.1) (1941). Even if I wished the work did not hang against an aquamarine blue wall attempting to impose itself, it still drew me in with its straightforwardness and precise execution. Blue, a color so often understood as gendered male, was not enough to distract me from a swinging pencil line and several colored rectangular frames encompassed on the paper—simple, clean.
The exhibition runs parallel to the newly opened Helen Frankenthaler artist room at Tate Modern. A fitting time for a feminist Abstract Expressionist exhibition at a commercial art gallery but how feminist was it to walk into the “first gallery to show these [female Abstract Expressionist] artists together in the UK,” only to see a male front of house who was clearly trying to upsell a work to an older, upper-middle class lady. This happens all the time. I’ve worked in galleries; I know the drill.
9th St. Club, an exhibition with some of the greatest female cohort of the Abstract Expressionist movement, lends itself to not only varying techniques and experimentation but to a much smaller and subtle approach to the movement. But why the blue? And why the choice of Frank O’ Hara in George Segal’s Studio with a Cat (c.1970) by Elaine de Kooning when her life's work is so plentiful? My questions were beginning to make my dilemma a little obvious. Is this a feminist move or a market move? Was this bell hooks versus Beyoncé?1 More importantly, does it matter and how much?
It is no surprise that preceding or at the same time as any major retrospective institutional show, there pops up a myriad of parallel commercial gallery exhibitions, “spontaneous” art fair excess and unfounded record-breaking auctions; Modigliani, Basquiat, Krasner etc. But is it ethical (whatever that may mean) to do this with feminism and in this context? A quick glance at the press release and I realise that it has been written with vigorous female energy. I related to this press release and maybe I felt a little proud reading it despite it not being my own writing. But walking around the space, with the expectation to observe this “vitality”2 in the works, I found it only existed in a handful of pieces. I expected more “energetic bursts of abstraction”3 from the selection of works, a punchiness that does the hardships of these (then) marginalised women justice. I feel disappointed that my own overthinking of the bell hooks versus Beyoncé argument could have such an effect on how I experience art within a commercial setting. If only I could trust intention but that is solely a me problem.
1. Moving Beyond Pain, bell hooks, Web. http://www.bellhooksinstitute.com/blog/2016/5/9/moving-beyond-pain.
2. 9th St. Club, Elaine de Kooning, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Mercedes Matter, Joan Mitchell. Press release. Web. https://gazelliarthouse.com/exhibition/9th-st-club/ .