Making Space in Abstraction

John Haber
in New York City

Making Space and William T. Williams

Maybe MoMA is finally getting the point. It has begun focusing on its collection, which got short shrift in its 2004 expansion. It has done so with special exhibitions to illuminate movements in modern art. And now it headlines not a period in history, but women in abstract art.

While "Making Space" pays only token attention to African Americans, take heart: William T. Williams was ripping through many of the same years. In 1969, fresh out of grad school and a newcomer to New York, Williams entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA must have thought it knew what it got. (Hey, a watchword of late Modernism was "what you see is what you get.") It did not, for already the African American artist was challenging the mainstream. Magdalena Abakanowicz's Yellow Abakan (Museum of Modern Art, 1967–1968)

Getting the point

"Making Space" does not try to pick winners in the contemporary scene—although women have done plenty to drive the resurgence of painting. MoMA has been picking winners for a long time, but that is starting to look more suspect in a hot market with a short memory. Rather, it tackles the glory years of postwar abstraction and Minimalism. With "Women of Abstract Expressionism" in Denver or Carmen Herrera at the Whitney, maybe other institutions are getting the point, too. The display of the collection quite generally will be changing as well—and the changes are rubbing off on men.

The show calls attention to past practices as well. When critics object to a paucity of women in museums, they almost always mean MoMA. Recently women have seemed to be everywhere, but here mostly as Marina Abramovic staring off into space. The good news is that more than third of this show consists of fairly recent acquisitions. The bad news is what that says about the last forty years, after paintings by Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Agnes Martin shaped a generation's understanding of postwar art. With shows like this, they could shape a new generation's understanding now.

Not that MoMA was ever out of the picture. It says as much with the exhibition title, which recalls the standard history of abstraction as formalism, as well as the need to make room for women. It says so, too, in mentioning exhibitions going back to 1951. It cites "Abstraction in Photography" when it comes to Barbara Morgan and Gertrude Altschul, "The Responsive Eye" when it comes to Bridget Riley and Op Art, and "Wall Hangings" when it comes to Sheila Hicks and Anni Albers—who had served as acting director of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus. It opens with big gestures in red, blue, and green by Grace Hartigan, whose work toured the country in "New American Painting" starting in 1956. She was the sole woman present.

Coming late to the game has its advantages at that. Like prior shows of "Dadaglobe" and "The Revolutionary Impulse," it allows the curators, Starr Figura and Sarah Hermanson Meister, to bring history up to date. They devote nearly a room to Latin American art, including Altschul, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Gego. They incorporate design with ceramics by Lucie Rie and again with tapestry in a room for "Fiber and Line," including a grand cape of rumpled sisal by Magdalena Abakanowicz. They can even distance themselves from formalism by calling the last room "Eccentric Abstraction"—for such figures as Lee Bontecou, Jay DeFeo, Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, and Eva Hesse. The very first room bows to globalism with Etel Adnan, born in Lebanon, and to African Americans, with Alma Thomas.

A revisionist history is bound to bring surprises, even with work acquired long ago. That first room counters the epic scale of Abstract Expressionism with collage by Anne Ryan and Janet Sobel, perhaps the first drip painter. The show leaves out Hesse's large work in favor of hanging paper-mâché and cord, created at an abandoned German textile factory. I already hear cries to move all this immediately to the regular galleries, displacing as many men as possible, to get a revisionist history going there, too. That would be a mistake. This is not a zero-sum game at the expense of men who changed the rules—and it is not another round of puffery and pop stars.

Does MoMA have a distinct vision of women in art? Maybe or maybe not, and either can be the point of giving them their due. One can argue that all along, as with Mitchell or Krasner's Gaea, they have rooted abstraction in both subjectivity and nature. One can again argue for riffs on craft, such as polyurethane Belly-Cushions by Alina Szapocznikow. One can also argue for women as outsiders, including Jews who escaped Europe—with Szapocznikow a Holocaust survivor. Male immigrants like Arshile Gorky would understand.

From Billie Holiday to Proust

Those first broad bands of conflicting color by William T. Williams, separated by thin outlines, look straight out of Frank Stella—or do they? Stella had introduced his Protractor paintings just two years before, and they are still among his biggest, brashest, and most recognizable works. Seemingly everyone then wanted to be the next great white hope, and no doubt MoMA was looking for him, but Williams? Hardly. His bands run every which way, straightening out, fanning out, snaking out, or overlapping. Tall, narrow paintings like Harlem Angels from 1968 seem cut off by the edge of the canvas, as if glimpsed through a door.

Sometimes what you see is not what you get. Those thin outlines are white, not bare canvas, because Williams does not derive his image, like a proper formalist, from the art object, but rather from experience. Shows have given pride of place to black abstract artists—like Jack Whitten, whose tiles of dark acrylic just ran elsewhere. And the door-like paintings are six feet tall but barely forty inches across, like a painter standing tall. Their freewheeling style and flirting with illusion also recall white artists who did not quite play by the rules as well, like Al Held and Jack Tworkov. They may still, though, have other stories to tell.

Born in 1942, Williams remembers quilting in rural North Carolina, and his next series took him to near monochrome built from cross-hatching. (Its metallic colors, while still acrylic, return in the show's most recent work.) He also thinks of jazz with a title like Strange Fruit, after the Billie Holiday song about a lynching. He must think of race, too, in a series from the 1980s. Its colors build to a greater darkness, and the brushwork resolves into hands raised as if scraping against a wall in the throes of death. Paintings from 1988 to 2002 rely on a patchwork of rectangles, maybe an echo of wood siding.

William T. Williams's Mercer's Stop (Michael Rosenfeld Art, 1971)Better not, though, take anything too literally. Williams had his MFA from Yale and fell into a busy New York art scene. The one remaining past series, from the 1970s, divides canvas into just two or three areas, like early Brice Marden. Some paintings have Marden's muter tones as well, although deepened by contrasts between fields. Flat areas may lie alongside looser brushwork, richer colors, or more quilting. When it comes down to it, Williams is always setting approaches to art side by side, just as in deconstructing Stella. He calls one painting of hands A Note to Marcel Proust.

He does have at least one thing in common with Stella: each time he takes a series to its next step, it changes altogether. His twenty-eight paintings in Chelsea, start with his latest—in part to give the largest and squarest early paintings enough space in back. Paintings since 2007 fit comfortably by the entry. Their approach to calligraphy, with dry and broken marks in yellow or white over closely matched fields of blue, almost demands close quarters. Yet the reverse chronology also insists that he did not begin in New York or quit in 1971.

Not every gallery can transform a tight show into a serious retrospective like this one, and not every series has equal weight. The best do the most to explore a vocabulary for painting, a bit like formalism after all. The early band paintings still do it best, like palettes or color wheels flying across the room. The paintings from the 1970s do it more subtly. The paintings spanning the 1990s do it, too, with a return to bright colors and distinct brushwork in every patch. One can see why, by their dates, each took Williams more than a decade.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through August 13, 2017, William T. Williams at Michael Rosenfeld through June 3, and Jack Whitten at Hauser & Wirth through April 8.

 

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