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An Historical Correction Needs To Be Seen

Charmion von Wiegand (1896-1983), Untitled, c. 1942. Collaged paper, opaque watercolor and pen and ink on paper, 8 1/2 × 8 1/16 in. (21.6 × 20.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Alice and Leo Yamin 91.84.5. © Estate of Charmion von Wiegand; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

The week that The Whitney Museum of American Art’s new location opened in 2015, they tried to make a statement. On the seventh floor, the first thing someone exiting the giant freight elevator saw was a mammoth painting. Any painting 7.5 feet high and almost 17 feet long demands attention, but this one was special. Its colors were almost entirely green and rose, complementary in name but tense in presentation. It was abstract, but all of the shapes were familiar: an unsettling, corporeal composition. It was peaches, a nutsack, a leaf, a palm tree, four almonds, a breast. It was nothing. But also it was clearly growth, a burgeoning arrival of something sat just behind the colors on the raw canvas; a thread of paint dripping on the left heralded a new beginning. The curly, uncomfortable brown lines, outlining and defining and alluding spins your eyes across and down and around. It was to me then, and is to me now, a mesmerizing piece. 

The painting is by Lee Krasner, an American Abstract Expressionist. It is called The Seasons and was completed in 1957. It is still hanging on the seventh floor, though no longer in such a privileged position. The location, the prominence, the honor given this piece, news reports said, would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. The argument, of course, was that because the painting had been made by a woman, no one would have given it the time of day. Other museums, The Whitney indicated publicly, would have placed a work by Krasner’s husband, Jackson Pollock, there instead. In an interview with Bloomberg in 2015, then-chief curator Donna De Salvo said, "We're not putting these artists in the narrative purely out of some sense of obligation ... It's because there's something to look at, something really interesting and exciting."

This was a talking point in the museum's early PR campaign: that inside this new, beautiful, hollow shell of a building, The Whitney would return to its roots, would remember its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who bought her immense collection by purchasing art from artists who had trouble exhibiting and selling their work. This is mentioned in the first paragraph of the Whitney’s own History page. It’s part of their self-made lore. 

I visit a lot of museums. Despite not living in New York, I have seen most of The Whitney’s major exhibitions since the new museum opened. I love most museums, but I have a soft spot for The Whitney. I like that the new building has big terraces that you can stand on after meandering through a floor of work and take a deep breath of fresh air before diving back in. I like that the pace of the museum is slower, that the walls are usually arranged to allow you to linger instead of (like the Louvre or the Met) to rush you through. I like that I have found more artists to love inside their walls than almost anywhere else I frequent. The Whitney curators always find something to inspire me. Which is why, when I heard that The Whitney was showing an exhibition called Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950 from Oct. 9 until March 22 of next year, I was thrilled. 

“The latest welcome challenge to the old heroic-male-painter story,” the New York Times wrote of the exhibit. “A much-needed step toward setting the record straight,” Vulture’s Jerry Saltz wrote. “Hell yeah,” I said to my dear friend as I asked her to come with me. 

The Whitney has, in recent years, been a kind of lightning rod for the problems artists have with modern museum infrastructure. In 2019, a board member resigned after protests by artists and activists over his ownership of a company that creates tear gas and other weapons of war. Then in 2020, the museum again misstepped, purchasing work by current black artists for far under market value when the artists had discounted their works to support more egalitarian art sales. The outcry from the artists themselves led to the cancellation of the planned show the works were bought for. All of these issues—the undervaluing of work by people of color, the powerful positions held by very rich immoral people, the prominence of art that has always held power—exist in the friction between the people currently making and adoring art and the art market which exists mainly to harbor money for the ultra-rich. Looking at their current slate of exhibitions, I felt excited. Jennifer Packer, a young black painter whose figurative work drips with emotion, has an exhibition currently. The one I was more excited about, though, was about Abstract Expressionism. Generally, I prefer group shows. 

Plus, I have been in a bit of a phase with the women of Abstract Expressionism for the past few years. It started, I think, unbeknownst to me, with that Krasner painting on the seventh floor and only ramped up from there. The Denver museum showed a full exhibition on the women of Abstract Expressionism in 2016. I could not go, but I ordered the hardcover catalog. I poured over the colors, lavish and polluted, and direct. In a world short on wonder, I could always find a hit inside its pages. I began to read, to learn, from art historians like Ann Eden Gibson, Griselda Pollock, and Anne M. Wagner, who have all devoted their research to redefining and expanding our understanding of the Abstract Expressionists. I read Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel and loved it. I read Fierce Poise and hated it. After a lifetime of disinterest in abstraction I fell into a love affair with the energy of these canvases, the confidence of the lines, these artists who worked their whole lives and watched so many other people’s work be elevated and lauded and kept working: their tenacity. 

Despite my excitement, when I arrived at The Whitney I did what I always do: I started at the top. We took the elevator to the eighth floor where I was greeted by the gorgeous Jennifer Packer show, which I loved. We worked our way down. I did not look at the map of which galleries were where. I knew I would walk through them all eventually, so what did it matter? There are 50,000 square feet of gallery space in the main exhibition floors (eight, seven, six, and five). By the time we left the sixth floor, I was questioning myself. Where was the exhibit I wanted to see? The fifth floor is 18,000 square feet—the largest open-plan gallery in New York City. In it is the headlining exhibit of American artist Jasper Johns, who is most well known for his paintings of American flags and maps. The exhibition does a good job of challenging this, of situating Johns (over his entire career) into the many movements (Neo-Dadaism, modern art, pop art, and abstract expressionism) he’s occupied space in. There are hundreds of works in the show. So many it quickly becomes overwhelming. My eyes, filled with Jasper Johns, could take no more. 

Maybe, I thought, I had misremembered. Maybe the exhibition I wanted to see wasn’t on view yet. We took the stairs down. This is worth noting because most people take the elevator from the fifth floor to the lobby because the fifth through eighth floors are presented as the main gallery space. The heralded 50,000 square feet of gallery space does not include the small, tucked away gallery on the third floor. This gallery is situated next to some conference rooms and other administrative rooms. To be frank, the door into it from the stairs is one I would not feel confident pushing through if I hadn’t been in there dozens of times. Here is the museum's layout of floors five and three. 

Screenshot: Whitney Museum map

That wide hallway on floor 3 is a gallery, and it is where Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950 lives. 

The two gallery walls (the one in front of the bathroom and the one beside the elevator bank) were painted a soothing blue-gray. After the top four galleries, where the soaring ceilings create space to breathe, the 12-foot ceiling of the third floor felt claustrophobic. On the day we visited, a Saturday, the museum was also conducting an interactive activity on this floor. The activity was mainly being done by children, but a few adults were participating as well. Visitors had been given a rubber stencil sheet of shapes and a pencil and paper to create their own art inspired by the work on the walls. I have no problem with this. I think museums should be more interactive! I think they should encourage children and adults alike to interact physically with the work they see. But it was a shock, to transition from the floor above where Jasper Johns held 18,000 square feet and adults walked solemnly and carefully between sections, reverently taking photos and pointing, to one where a baby was screaming and we had to step over people drawing on the floor. 

Installation view of Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930-1950. (Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art)

The exhibition itself is a real triumph for the space it was allotted. Sarah Humphreville, senior curatorial assistant, curated the collection and did a stunning job. The pieces on display are almost all small works, no giant canvases, no mammoth frames. There’s no space for them. But within the parameters she had, Humphreville did something more interesting: She showcased the breadth of women’s contributions to Abstract Expressionism. There are just more than 30 works made by 27 artists. Instead of centering the story on women deemed retrospective giants of the field (Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine De Kooning, Joan Mitchell, etc), Humphreville motioned toward the greater field of work that exists. Here are 27 artists, all of them worthy of exhibition in one of America’s leading museums. How can you deny the contributions of this many people in a movement? You can’t. 

Many of the works are small drawings, some of which even have a loose sketch quality to them. I found myself drawn to one in simple ink on paper, the linear quality varied and intriguing. There’s a guitar, a boat, a seal, a martini glass, a steppe, an egg with an eye, a window, a slug. The centered drawing is bordered with straight lines, but provoked by small jettisons that draw the viewer’s eye inward from the edges. The artist, I learned from the wall placard, was Rosalind Benglesdorf. It was a print, from 1937, Untitled. It was hung in a cloud of other drawings and still it stood out. My friend and I both pointed at it. Lovely, provoking, exciting. Somewhere in the wide hallway gallery, a child shrieked and its voice echoed off the print.

Almost all of the more than 30 works in Humphreville’s exhibition come from The Whitney’s own collection, but they represent a mere slice of the Abstract Expressionist work owned by The Whitney. In their online catalog, I found: 11 works by Helen Frankenthaler; two by Perle Fine; 31 by Jay DeFeo; two by Sonia Gechtoff; seven by Grace Hartigan; 10 by Lee Krasner; 11 by Joan Mitchell; five by Deborah Remington; two by Ethel Shwabacher; eight by Iris Rice Pereira; two by Dorr Bothwell; 12 by Alice Trumbull Mason; eight by June Wayne; six by Rosalind Benglesdorf. These are just the works by the women of Abstract Expressionism whose names I know. Many of the pieces not included in this exhibition and not currently on view in the museum are large canvases, huge, imposing works. Lee Krasner’s The Seasons is still on the seventh floor, but so many of these paintings are not, are stored somewhere else. None of Frankenthaler’s work, for example, is currently on display. 

Humphreville’s choice to stick with smaller, more linear work is a wise one. With only a couple walls to work with, why would you show the titans of the movement? It’s more effective and really brilliant to instead show the breadth of talent ignored. “More work remains to be done, but Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950 and this essay are steps toward expanding and correcting the historical record,” Humphreville wrote in the essay that accompanies the exhibition

That sentiment is exactly what is frustrating about this exhibition. Here is a beautiful, well-curated, smart collection of art by often overlooked artists in history with an immense amount of talent, who have been relegated to a tiny not-main gallery while 18,000 square feet on the floor above are devoted to Jasper Johns in a dual-exhibition that is also taking up a huge amount of space in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a curatorial choice by The Whitney to prioritize the already popular, the already known, the marketable. It’s not that the Jasper Johns exhibition isn’t good (it is!), it’s that it’s indicative of a bigger problem. 

Here’s what Will Fenstermaker wrote for Frieze Magazine in a review of the Jasper Johns exhibition

A look down the East Coast reveals the cynical calculus American museums are making. The Guggenheim Museum’s yearlong exhibition ‘Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle’ (2021–22) creates a literal hierarchy in the rotunda, with the Russian mystic at its peak, supplemented by a rotating roster of three ostensible protégés: Etel Adnan, Jennie C. Jones and Cecilia Vicuña. Finally, factor in the National Gallery of Art’s decision to delay its retrospective of Philip Guston indefinitely because they feared the criticism inherent in his figures resembling Klansmen would be lost on audiences. Each of these exhibitions is part of a conservative tactic designed to reinforce the supremacy of entrenched artists – and, in fact, specific holdings – whose status in the consecrated halls is perceived to be threatened.

I understand that in a capitalist society even art museums must make decisions about what they show based on what they think will bring in ticket sales. I also understand that after the economic disaster of last year, which resulted in very little support for the arts in general, these concerns are greater than ever. Of course, I want the world to be different, for curators to be able to display whatever they’re excited about regardless of what the general public thinks is worth posting on social media. But even in this real world, it is frustrating to see what is happening here, the disparity between what The Whitney itself says this exhibition is for (to recognize “overlooked” artists) and their positioning of that work (on a non-primary floor). 

This didn’t feel like a rewriting of history or a way to drive these artists to more prominence. Because of the show’s position it feels, well, overlooked, which is a shame because it’s so good. Already, I want to see what Humphreville has done again, to relish in the small drawings she’s chosen, to return at a time when perhaps that floor is a little more serene. But I can’t stop wondering what wonder she could have created in a larger space, what version of the past she could have told with a little more rein. Doesn’t a correction of historical inaccuracy deserve a place of prominence? 

Correction Tuesday, Nov 30 (9:21 a.m. ET): Arshile Gorky was incorrectly included in a list of women abstract expressionist artists held by the Whitney Museum. Gorky is a man.

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