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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Installation view of Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930-1950 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 9, 2021-March 2022). From left to right, top to bottom: Esphyr Slobodkina, Untitled, 1937; Marie Kennedy, Untitled, 1937; Alice Trumbull Mason, Untitled, 1937; Rosalind Bengelsdorf, Untitled, 1937; Agnes Lyall, Untitled, 1937; Gertrude Greene, Untitled, 1937; Ray Kaiser, Untitled, 1937. Photograph by Ron Amstutz


Particularly after visiting MoMA's show of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, I approached another show of women's abstracts at the Whitney Museum of American Art with caution.  Please don't let it be another overblown attempt to imitate masculine theater, I prayed to myself.  But I needn't have worried: taste and discretion rule triumphant at the Whitney's ingratiating period effort, "Labyrinths of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930-1950" (through March 13).  It is a most entertaining show.


This is a group of nearly 35 modestly-scaled works, almost all on paper and almost all from the Whitney's permanent collection. About two-thirds of these works employ one or more print techniques: there are examples here of woodcut, lithograph, screenprint, monotype, engraving, etching and aquatint.   The rest of the works on view are in a variety of media, ranging from pen and pencil to oil, watercolor and collage.


About half of these works date from the 1930s. Virtually all the rest are from the 1940s, but they are often if not always by artists I associate with the shows staged by the American Abstract Artists in the 1930s.  Indeed, works from a portfolio published by that group in 1937 form a mainstay of this show.  And in general its prevailing imagery is the same blend of Picasso and Miró, together with a dash of Kandinsky and a pinch of Mondrian, that dominated the AAA in the 1930s.


Some artists here didn't shine until much later. I mean the ever-present Lee Krasner & Louise Nevelson: they didn't hit their stride until the 1950s. But I was more eager to see work by AAA stalwarts like Esphyr Slobodkina, Rosalind Bengelsdorf, Gertrude Greene,  and Alice Trumbull Mason.  Other artists here worth mentioning – even if not always represented by outstanding work: Anne Ryan, Hedda Sterne, Charmion von Weigand, Elaine de Kooning, Irene Rice Pereira, and Dorothy Dehner.


This is not a large show.  It is situated on the third floor of the Whitney, where most of the space is occupied by offices and a theater: the gallery space reminded me of the lobby of a theater, as did the generally small scale of the works on display. Words like "modest," "unpretentious," and "unassuming" come to mind.


I would say "demure" but the Progressive Thought Police would have me lynched as a sexist.  The most positive words are a couple that Roberta Smith of the New York Times managed to come up with a year or so ago in reviewing a book about Trumbull Mason: she called this artist's work "intimate" and "considered."


I did wonder what the original members of the AAA in this show would have thought of an all-female show: would they have been delighted or insulted?  The way I see it, in their heyday, the idea was for a woman artist to be free to compete with the men on completely equal terms, to see if she could stand up to the competition.


And to say truth, in the 1930s the male leaders of the AAA – George L.K. Morris, Ilya Bolotowsky, Byron Browne and the rest of them – were no less derivative of the School of Paris than were the women. This was not major art.  So for the men, too, this intimate, considered kind of a presentation would have been most appropriate.


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