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10 Best New Art Shows to See in NYC in Fall 2021: ‘Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950’

Whitney Museum of American Art, opens October 9
In the early part of the 20th century, as European artists belched out manifestos calling for the end of painting and museums, white America was just starting to feel great about itself. It looked around and saw skyscrapers, flappers, jazz bands, Hollywood — everything except, of course, its racism. That’s when Europe began to self-immolate and abstract artists such as Piet Mondrian, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Marcel Duchamp, Max Beckmann, and waves more immigrated to our shores. They triggered a chain reaction; an American art world came into being, a sort of international American Baroque and Classicism. Art history was rewritten. Imperfectly.

The modest show “Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction” is a much-needed step toward setting the record straight. Here is an exhibition of mostly smaller works on paper made in America by women. We all know the figurative painting and social realisms of male painters like Edward Hopper, but abstraction was much slower to take root in this country. Women artists everywhere must have sensed that the doors of other American genres were already closed to them and so moved into the vacuum.

You will recognize some of the names: Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Hedda Sterne (the only woman pictured in the famous photograph published in Time of the otherwise all-male Abstract Expressionists). Other names may be new to you: Blanche Lazzell, Alice Trumbull Mason, Charmion von Wiegand. These artists seeded the pluralism that began in the 1970s and that has never stopped adding to art’s multiplicity. They weren’t hampered by the dictatorial, mostly male proclamations calling for unwavering aesthetic fealty to one cockamamie thing or another. Even as they were passed over for gallery and institutional support in favor of the Rothkos and Pollocks, these women explored the untended shores of biomorphic, geometric, hard-edged, and allover abstraction — mapping new territories, forming a nutrient-rich tidal pool of artistic life.