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Labyrinth of Forms: Women and Abstraction, 1930–1950

Under the voluminous skirts of the effusively praised Jasper Johns retrospective on the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, on the level usually reserved for educational programming, is a show of 30-or-so small works of art by women. Those represented, including better-known names like Lee Krasner and Louise Nevelson, belong to a generation of artists that broke with early-20th-century realist tendencies to engage in the kind of formal experimentation that laid the groundwork for the lions of abstract expressionism—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning—who in turn facilitated the enormous success, and thus, the enormous retrospective, of Johns. In regards to the schedule of the museum, the whole thing is almost too perfect: the potent but unremembered seed and the mighty oak it grew are simultaneously on display. 

Organized by Sarah Humphreville, Senior Curatorial Assistant, the title of the show borrows from the name of a print by the Connecticut-born artist Alice Trumbull Mason, who was a student of Arshile Gorky’s in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The full title of that work, which is included in the show, is Labyrinth of Closed Forms (1945). An intaglio print that is barely a foot across, the artwork is an archipelago of biomorphic—and some more geometric—shapes composed largely of negative space. Several of these contain their own kidney-like forms, one is punctured by a hole, a pair intersects each other, and still others are tinted by a lighter grey than that which makes up the print’s background. But all of these are, as the title ensures, closed, which is to say that they are circumscribed by ink. If Trumbull Mason’s labyrinth—it bears noting that this vaguely Cubist print arrived just a decade after Picasso, already renowned, began obsessing over depictions of the Minotaur—is entailed by this darkness, her forms’ negativity, their material emptiness, paradoxically imbues their wholeness. 

The full title of the Trumbull Mason work is important because the show in which it is included is not so labyrinthian as it is defined. The artists and artworks that make it up constitute not only a community—albeit one marked as much by divisions and disagreements as by consensus—but also an aesthetic and political enclave facilitated by a feminist willingness to embrace both figuration and abstraction during a time as defined by humanity by its appalling absence.

Such is emblematized by Untitled [Airplane Cockpit] (1949), a monotype by the Romanian-born artist Hedda Sterne. Here, Sterne—who had been in with the European surrealists, and followed her first husband to New York only after living through and escaping (Sterne was Jewish) the Bucharest pogrom—employs the messiness of the monotyping process, in which no etchings are made on the plate, to deliver a form that is at certain glimpses mechanical, and at others biological, like a skull. The medium is tasked with conveying the inseparability between human-driven technological advancement and the technological destruction of human life: neither the military vehicles of the Allies nor the gas chambers of the Nazis sprung to being on their own. The work’s rust-ish palette—indicative both of metal and blood—underscores this troubling and poignant connection. 

This is not to say that all of the works in the show are particularly concerned with the global horrors of the interwar, World War II, or immediate post-War periods. On the contrary, a 1950 screenprint by the Bay Area artist and world-traveler Dorr Bothwell—who exhibited under that forename as opposed to her given and decidedly feminine one, Doris—entitled Corsica, is cheery: an abstract rendering of that French island’s beguiling colors. And other earlier works, like a collection of lithographs by members of the New York-based organization the American Abstract Artists (AAA), including Ray Kaiser—who later married and seems to have been swallowed up by the furniture designer Charles Eames—and Rosalind Bengelsdorf Browne—who later married the painter Byron Browne—testify to the influence of the German painter and pedagogue Hans Hoffman, who experimented with a variety of avant garde styles, on the lives and careers of this group of women. Nevertheless, the exhibition tells the story of women artists triply daring for their time: first, for insisting on being artists at all, second, for interrogating realism without dismissing it completely, and third, for doing so in a time in which reality was nearly impossible to construe.

Many of these women artists have now disappeared from the story of modern art is the consequence both of sexism, and of the related capitalistic forces that created today’s art market, which is as responsible for entrenching artists like Johns as is his prodigious talent. The decision to resurrect the work of many of these women, and reinforce the art historical relevance of others in coincidence with a show as sprawlingly marketable and marketably sprawling as Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror strengthens that premise. I would not go and see one without the other.