The gendering of expression: A subtle misunderstanding

BY BRUCE ADAMS

©ESTATE OF JOAN MITCHELL, UNIVERSITY OF BUFFALO ART GALLERIES, GIFT OF REBECCA ANDERSON
©ESTATE OF JOAN MITCHELL, UNIVERSITY OF BUFFALO ART GALLERIES, GIFT OF REBECCA ANDERSON

 

Museum curators face a tough challenge. The perpetual need to present familiar art in new ways calls for a steady stream of inventive thematic premises. Inevitably, good exhibitions are sometimes built upon flimsy foundations—call it an occupational hazard. This is no truer than when newly minted curators are expected to contribute fresh insight to an existing mountain of academic discourse.

There’s a solid basis for an exhibition in Hartigan, Mitchell, Jackson: Subtle Resistance, now on view at the University at Buffalo’s Anderson Gallery. Unfortunately, it’s not the one presented. Curator Angelica J. Maier—who undertook the project for her master’s thesis—struggles mightily to redefine the work of Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell through one of the go-to themes of contemporary curatorial practice, gender politics. In doing so, she spins a tale stitched from second-wave feminist rhetoric rather than allowing the work to stand on its own. Which, by the way, it does quite nicely.

There is no doubt that the sixteen paintings, prints, and drawings—plus related historical ephemera—make an interesting exhibit, and an opportunity to reflect on the challenges facing mid-twentieth century women artists. Maier deserves credit for opening a dialogue. However the overarching question raised within the exhibition’s ample wall text and accompanying catalog is whether Hartigan and Mitchell responded to these challenges with a “subtle resistance” to “masculine” constructs of the Abstract Expressionist movement.”  Here, the foundation collapses and the exhibition falls flat.

Maier repeatedly contends with faint evidence that Hartigan and Mitchell departed from the prevailing “masuclinist dictates” of the art world. “As Mitchell painted,” explains Maier, “she would paint, step back, and paint again, a technique that, because of its thoughtful consideration, falls outside the definition of action painting.” This would come as a surprise to Willem de Kooning, the quintessential “action” painter championed by critic Harold Rosenberg who coined the term. One of de Kooning’s most famous works, Women, took almost two years to paint. It seems likely that over that period, there was some contemplative back stepping going on. De Kooning’s process included making numerous tracings of his work in progress, which he cut and rearranged to try new compositions. When Maier quotes Mitchell as saying, “The freedom in my work is quite controlled,” she could just as easily be describing de Kooning.

Another cited example of the artists’ supposed resistance to masculine demands is their practice of painting with canvases positioned vertically, “not on the floor.” This reveals a fundamental misconception. Virtually all painters of the period—male and female—painted vertically. As far as this reviewer knows, Jackson Pollock is the only prominent Abstract Expressionist noted for laying his canvases out on the floor.

Certainly Pollock bought into prevailing social constructs of masculinity; he drank hard, drove fast, and chased women—all of which contributed to his accidental death. Images of Pollock from the time feature his muscular frame clad in black t-shirt, cigarette dangling from his lips, dancing energetically around his canvas like Gene Kelly. He was the poster boy for painterly machismo with his trance-like splattering and potent physicality, which Maier colorfully refers to as “ejaculatory drama.”

So where did Pollock come up with this archetypically male painting process that so reflects the masculine constructs of the time? He copied it from a woman.

Ukrainian American artist Janet Sobel was drip painting long before Pollock flicked his drizzle stick. In his essay, “American-Type Painting,” critic Clement Greenberg cited Sobel’s work as the first instance of “all-over” painting. He says he and Pollock “admired these pictures rather furtively” when they were exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery. Pollock acknowledged that the work “made an impression on him,” and though Sobel’s paintings look much like Pollock’s, she was labeled an amateur housewife painter by the patriarchal art community. Today, Sobel is all but forgotten and Pollock gets credit for the technique.

It can’t be denied that sexism existed and impacted women artists of the period. However, this exhibition goes further to suggest that an aesthetic resistance to male domination is detectible in Mitchell’s and Hartigan’s art. Maier claims, for instance, that Mitchell “disentangled” herself from Pollock’s “Greenbergian formalism” and “the normative gendered constrictions of the time.” To illustrate this, she cherry-picks one of Mitchell’s works (reproduced in the catalogue), and offers a reading of the painting so subjective it’s akin to finding animals in the clouds. Ironically, several of Mitchell’s lithographs included in the show bear a striking resemblance to Pollock’s late black and white paintings. No doubt Hartigan and Mitchell have distinctive styles, a “given” for Abstract Expressionists. Both, however, function well within the sanctioned boundaries of the movement.

Begonia is one such late period Mitchell painting that adheres firmly to Abstract Expressionist “all-over” painting conventions. It’s as powerful as any Pollock, an exuberant display of painterly vigor and technical skill. Mitchell distinguishes herself here as a masterful colorist, with an unlikely palette of orange, green, and yellow, with patches of pink and blue. It’s as if she’s intentionally pitting her painting chops against an impossible chromatic challenge. In the hands of a less masterful artist, this would be a disaster.

Another Mitchell work, the monumental Ode to Joy (A Poem by Frank O’Hara), has the repetitive rectangular-based structure of a Hans Hoffmann painting. But muted earth tones achieve somber un-Hoffmann-like subtlety, perhaps echoing the artist’s feelings toward O’Hara, a friend and supporter who died suddenly years earlier. The conjoined triptych includes patches of gooey impasto nuzzling up against barely painted canvas. Understated washes mingle with paint dribbles and scattered flashes of energetic brushwork.

Critic Peter Schjeldahl’s observations about Mitchell’s work sum it up nicely: “Above all, they are ‘New York paintings’ in the classic, fifties sense, grandly assertive, and full of excited life.” The only thing Mitchell is resisting here is being second to anyone.

Four large paintings by Grace Hartigan from the sixties illustrate one phase in the artist’s diverse career. This was the era of Pop Art, when New York school painters were falling out of favor. Hartigan’s When the Raven Was White reconciles abstraction with figuration. It incorporates distorted elements of nature into Greek mythology, a favorite theme of the artist, contrary to Maier’s contention that her work was “grounded in the social world, not myth.” The complex composition of flatly colored shapes is reminiscent of works by a later generation of neoexpressionist artists to which Hartigan was an inspiration.

Furthering the argument that the two artists resisted gender bias, the catalog cites Hartigan’s early use of the pseudonym “George Hartigan.” This discounts the artist’s explanation that she took the name to honor two of her heroines who had similarly adopted it, George Sand and George Eliot. Hartigan faced the male-dominated art world on its own terms, saying, “I find that the subject of discrimination is only brought up by inferior talents to excuse their own inadequacy as artists.” Maier also misinterprets a letter written by Mitchell (on view), scornfully recounting a scathing review by critic John Canaday. It’s presented as a reflection of the antiwoman climate, but Mitchell was actually railing against the conservative critic’s well-known contempt for all Abstract Expressionists.

Subtle Resistance makes a second point that Hartigan and Mitchell survived in a male-dominated art world with the help of tight social networks. All artists depend on such networks, and Hartigan in particular befriended members of the Abstract Expressionist boys club such as de Kooning, Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. But the show focuses on the two artists’ connection to Buffalo-born, New York City gallery owner Martha Jackson. Jackson, who maintained lifelong ties with her hometown, represented the two artists when interest in their work declined. (Jackson’s son, David Anderson, inherited the gallery, now named in his honor, eventually moving it to this location.)

Therein lies the nucleus of a fascinating exhibition. Jackson wasn’t the only champion of these two artists, but she was for a time a vital one. But it wasn’t the male-dominated art community they were all resisting; it was the spectacular rise of Pop Art.