Kaiserslautern, Germany

“Abstract Expressionism in America”


FOR FANS OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM, the journey to the small southwestern town of Kaiserslautern was worth the effort. There, the Pfalzgalerie played host to work little seen in Germany, by Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning, and Hedda Sterne. At first, the fact that the exhibition consisted entirely of women artists seems to have been downplayed by the curators, Britta E. Buhlmann and Annette Reich. The show's title made a gender-neutral impression; or was the curators' gambit simply to declare these artists central to the movement in order to draw more attention to the works themselves? The sheer number of well-selected pictures—thirty-eight in all—seemed to suggest the latter.

Here, what was emphasized was the accomplishment of a figure like Sterne, long known in art history as the (notoriously) lone woman in the famous 1951 Life magazine group photograph “The Irascibles.” As far as her work was concerned, however, little could be discovered, at least in the relevant New York School literature. At last we had the opportunity to see a number of canvases, spanning a period of three decades. In the 1960-61 Studio Diptych, with its almost graphic quality and the thin charcoal lines running through it, the image of stacked canvases seems to overlap with an abstracted cityscape. Having a studio—an absolute prerequisite to be considered a serious artist at the time—is the celebrated subject here. Surprises were in store elsewhere. The black and yellow palette of Roads, 1957, could have been godfather to Markus Lüpertz's famous “helmet” paintings; and Moonlight, 1946, along with other horizon studies, pushes the kitsch envelope à la late Georgia O'Keeffe. Most surprising was Sterne's Diary, 1976, insofar as it documents a possible continuity between the expressive self of AbEx and the confessional self of '60s feminist art. As oppositional as these artistic movements seem, the fixation on the self is one they share. The pictorial space created in Diary evokes an unfurled papyrus scroll covered with tightly bunched sentences, attesting to a predilection for hieroglyph-like texts cultivated earlier by Krasner in her “little images,” likewise on view here.

This exhibition was interesting with respect to how Sterne, Krasner, et al. approached the dominant art discourse of the time, a “law” they themselves helped shape. Subsections of that code included a commitment to abstraction, gesturalism, and the notion that the artist must give in to the rhythm of the painting. Frankenthaler—represented here primarily by watery canvases from the '70s whose nearly oxidizing surfaces, on which the occasional crusty splash or drop “crawls” like a crustacean, are surprisingly anticipatory of Sigmar Polke's splashed “resin paintings”—developed the greatest loyalty to this law, particularly its criterion of originality, through her invention of the “soak/stain” technique. But more decisive for her reputation as the doyenne of Abstract Expressionism was the fact that male artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland—directed by Clement Greenberg—embraced her technique. By contrast, Elaine de Kooning's comparatively meager institutional recognition as an artist can be attributed to her conscious flouting of the AbEx framework External factors like her marriage to Willem de Kooning and her role as an Art News critic exacerbated the lack of recognition as an artist, and her adherence to portraiture certainly entailed artistic isolation at that time. From today's point of view, her series of sitting, faceless men seems particularly successful in that it shows the tension between recognition and misrecognition of those portrayed: The more she attempted to represent her male sitters, the more “empty” their faces became. For Willem de Kooning, though, portraits were nothing more than “pictures that girls made.” Bad conduct and equally harsh words were considered good form. No wonder Joan Mitchell fled to France at the end of the '50s where, no longer subject to the constraints of the New York School milieu, she could develop her own self-confident, striding touch.

If Mitchell's early paintings indicate a greater inner tension than her “more independent” later work, the opposite holds for Krasner. That her pictures enter a dialogue with Pollock has been pointed out often enough, but one would do well to discuss her work according to its own conditions. Her paintings from the late '40s demonstrate how she developed painterly signs for spontaneity, translating gestures into an artistic order. Well into the '70s she was honing a collage technique in which the elements served a purely painterly purpose. The most successful of these is a 1974 collage in which silhouette-style cutouts, sprinkled with rose paint, are applied so that their forms dynamically mimic the curve of a painted black arc. These paintings look like a happy signature. The euphoria of the work is matched by the liberating blow she delivered in 1957, a year after Pollock's death, with Sun Woman II—a picture that inserts the lightness of Matisse's cutouts into the AbEx code.

All five of these artists had comparable starting points. They were each offered solo exhibitions, and most participated in the legendary 1951 “Ninth Street Show.” Being a core member of the avant-garde, however, is clearly no ticket to institutional recognition; after all, there is still a world of difference between the status of Frankenthaler and that of Elaine de Kooning. At the same time, the phenomenon of Abstract Expressionism not only attracted an astonishing number of women artists: it also made real careers possible for them. The achievement of this exhibition is to have generously presented these artists' works on their own terms. If only one could have viewed them without the extremely suggestive wall texts, which refer almost compulsively to male counterparts and contradict the curators' ambition to let the works speak for themselves. In Mitchell's case, the crudely biographical relapse of the wall text was so extreme that it seemed nothing worth noting happened to her after she separated from the French artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. Which is not to say that excluding these personal relationships as totally irrelevant would be any more reasonable. It is simply that, by themselves, they cannot account for the aesthetic success of these paintings.

Isabelle Graw is editor of Texte zur Kunst and a Berlin-based critic.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.