By Cori Wilbur
September 15, 2019
Art can be used as the visual narrative of our nation’s history. The San Diego Museum of Art’s latest exhibits–first with Black Life and now Abstract Revolution–revisit some of this history (with respect to art) in a more expansive and diverse way.
For Associate Curator of American Art, Regina Palm, Abstract Revolution has a double-meaning. “The reason for the title is to express the impact that Abstract Expressionism had on the art world at its onset but also the re-evaluation that has taken place in the last decade or so.”
Abstract Expressionism is an American art movement which took hold in the 1940s, often associated with its celebrated male figures, primarily Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Abstract Revolution provides an addendum to the history and development of abstraction in general, one which finally acknowledges the strong female support that carried the movement forward.
“When we think of artists like Lee Krasner, we immediately think of Jackson Pollock. But when we think of Jackson Pollock, we don’t necessarily immediately think of Lee Krasner,” Palm pointed out. The intent of the exhibit is not to diminish the significance of the male artists that heavily defined Abstract Expressionism as we know it–but to reframe abstraction to include these women, independent of their famous relationships. “Contributions by artists like Pollock and his contemporaries should not be underestimated. But at the same time, we need to be more inclusive and give recognition where it is due.”
Revolution presents works on paper by notable female expressionists Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler and Deborah Remington, along with two pieces by contemporary artist Mary Heilmann. The collection teaches us that the masculine package in which society and art critics originally wrapped Abstract Expressionism in should be replaced.
Picador I (1973) and Taurus III (1973), both of which have never been on display before and that Palm indicated as her favorites among the collection, are the works of Elaine de Kooning. Inspired by her trips to Juarez, Mexico, de Kooning used the bullfights she witnessed as a recurring theme for her work. Picador, in particular, envisions the spectacle that ultimately impacted the artist. Though considered an abstract artist, de Kooning never fully abandoned figuration. De Kooning, according to Palm, can be considered a bridge between the two realms.
Palm enjoys working with the museum’s rotating galleries because she can “highlight [different] artists who have not had their due, been on view (or) been on display in a long time.” She says her ultimate goal is to showcase artists who have been underrepresented in some way.
During the height of Abstract Expressionism, individuals such as Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning did gain recognition for their work but were all but obliterated from art history–partly due to gendered language and preconceptions with respect to female artists that trickled into twentieth century art culture. Abstract Revolution does not celebrate these artists purely because they are female nor does the exhibit ignore the prejudices of the past.
“[I] won’t put an artist up on the wall if I don’t believe in their quality,” Palm affirmed. As a feminist art historian, her work is “not about filling a hole; it’s about finding those quality artists who haven’t been given their due because of the social structure of the time.”