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Judy Chicago, “Smoke Bodies” (1971-1972)
Judy Chicago, “Smoke Bodies” from Women in Smoke, California (1971-1972), Pro Res 422 / H. 264, mut 14’45”Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archives, The Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, Salon 94 and Artist Rights Society © Judy Chicago © Judy Chicago, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2021

Celebrating the overlooked women of abstract art

Guggenheim Bilbao’s Women in Abstraction show rewrites the history of 20th century abstract art, placing women at the centre of a traditionally male-dominated narrative

The abstract art canon is notoriously dominated by white men. The American modernist painter Hans Hofmann reportedly paid his student Lee Krasner the dubious compliment: “This painting is so good, you’d never know it was done by a woman”. In the same conversation, he acknowledged Krasner’s huge influence on the work of her husband, Jackson Pollock. It's an anecdote that perfectly encapsulates the erasure and negation of women from the abstract art world, across the 20th century.

Despite the fact that the world has largely made a great deal of progress since 1937 when Hofmann cherished his belief that the highest compliment you could pay a female artist was that their work could be mistaken for a man’s, inequality is still manifest. Visitors to the Guggenheim’s Women In Abstraction are met by a wall of portraits depicting the 110 artists featured in the exhibition. “I doubt that many visitors would be able to put a name to those faces,” laments curator Christine Macel. “Even the ones such as Lygia Clark, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Sophie Taeuber-Arp who are the best known in the history of 20th-century abstract art.”  

Macel speaks on location at the Guggenheim, among the artworks. She says the lack of representation of women's work in 20th century abstract art seems “inversely proportional to pictures of male colleagues embodying the myth of the pioneering artist in what has been named – in a virile, military metaphor – ‘avant-gardes’.” Yet, what feels so important about this landmark exhibition is not only the way in which it reframes the story of abstraction to place women in the centre of the picture, but the way in which it explodes the very idea of abstraction and what the concept is able to contain.

Women In Abstraction moves beyond the western canon, encompassing painting, sculpture, textiles, dance, film, performance, and the decorative arts from around the world, complicating and enlarging the definition of abstraction to show how it alters from artist to artist; from time and place. 

Japanese artist Atsuko Tanaka, who is one of the artists on display, moved from figuration to abstraction in 1951, a time in which the country was experiencing rapid industrialisation. Tanaka began incorporating industrial materials and the artefacts of modernity into her work to explore the dimensions of sound, time, and space. 

“Electric Dress” (1956) was a performance piece in which Tanaka wore a creation made from almost 200 coloured bulbs which flickered into life at random – a dynamic yet static work, constantly in flux; an illuminated sculpture. While some critics took the work to be a feminist statement about repression and the confined female body, Tanaka refuted these interpretations. An essay about her work in the exhibition catalogue gives an account of her resistance to being pigeonholed as a feminist artist: “My works have nothing to do with politics. Neither do they have anything to do with gender. It doesn’t matter whether I am a man or a woman.”

Other artists in the exhibition, such as the aforementioned Lee Krasner, also resisted the idea of their work being viewed through the lens of their gender identity. Along with Georgia O’Keeffe, Krasner declined an invitation to be included in Peggy Guggenheim’s 1942 exhibition entitled 31 Women on the grounds she didn’t want to be defined as a “woman painter”. 

Some of the work on display speaks explicitly of gender. Judy Chicago’s Women In Smoke (1972-2018) depicts women whose naked bodies are painted in the same bright colours as the plumes of vivid smoke being released into the empty desert sky around them. Shot on location in the arid, lunar-like landscape of Southern Californian, the artwork – which encompasses performance, ephemeral sculpture, site-specific installation, video, and photography – explores ideas of womanhood, sacred ritual, the mythological figure of the goddess, women’s bodies, nature, space, and history. 

Rosemarie Castoro’s “Armpit Hair” (1972) disparages the beauty standard of women’s smooth, hairless bodies. This sculptural form of nearly three metres in length is made of plaster and graphite applied to a wooden background with the winding, sweeping gesture of a broom. The artwork appears to sprout organically from the wall on which it’s mounted, in a way that suggests the conspicuous and rebellious growth of so-called unseemly body hair. 

American artist Howardena Pindell was a child when, at a root-beer stand in Kentucky with her father, she realised the significance of the red circles on their mugs – they were to mark out their glasses as having been used by people of colour. The circle, as a symbol of segregation and trauma, is explored by the artist in her untitled work of 1971, whereby the large canvas is inhabited with hundreds upon hundreds of red dots.

Every one of the 400 or more works of art on display in this vast exhibition – an exhibition which occupies several rooms in the colossal space of Bilbao’s impressive Guggenheim – affirms the contribution of women to the development of abstraction, enriching the story of modernism, and creating a new history art in the 20th century. Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse of some of the many artworks on display in this landmark group show.

Women In Abstraction is at the Guggenheim Bilbao until April 27 2022