Europe Reopening: ‘Women in Abstraction’ at the Centre Pompidou Paris

Images by Audrey Laurans

For the decade following its founding in Zurich in 1916, women played a greater role in the provocational goings on of dada than they had in surely any art movement that had come before it (admittedly, the equality bar was set pretty low.) But as the likes of Cubism and Surrealism followed, the avant-garde had quickly reverted back to being a mostly all boys club, as apparently changing the way we see the world didn’t include the tearing down of the misogynistic barriers that had long held creative women back.

But a new exhibition at Paris’ Centre Pompidou seeks to decisively exalt the role that the XX chromosome played in pushing against all the old bourgeois tenets of the art establishment. Indeed, Women in Abstraction gathers the work of so many of the most important female artists of the 20th Century (it takes us up into the 1980s), those who have sought to communicate their ideas by more non-representational methods. The intention is surely to make a point – or several of them – about their monumental role in reshaping our sense of visual possibility.

It’s an incredibly ambitious survey, to say the least, with more than 110 artists represented – which makes one immediately think of an Artsy headline from 2016 that joked 11 Female Abstract Expressionists Who Are Not Helen Frankenthaler. Ms. Frankenthaler is represented here, but the show concentrates much more on thematic concepts than individuals, for instance focusing on the astonishing achievements of the women of the Russian Avant-Garde, with Constructivist Lioubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic (1917) seeming to go her more famous male contemporary El Lissitzsky even one better.

And the section At the Bauhaus recalls how founder Walter Gropius actually insisted upon total equality between the sexes – though curiously when one of thinks of the groundbreaking art school now, it is always the men who are remembered, Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy. Yet the Pompidou has a go of emphasizing the considerable contributions of the likes of Anni Albers, Benita Koch-Otte, and the cheekily provocative Gertrud Arndt.

Moving chronologically ahead, Frankenthaler is joined here by her fellow Abstract Expressionists Janet Sobel, Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, the latter two who toiled in the shadows of their celebrated, hard-living, characteristically macho spouses. Also spotlighted in the exhibition are Orphist painter Sonia Delaunay-Terk, who would extend her artistic purview by opening a namesake couture house in 1925, and the radical Swiss multi-disciplinary artist Sophie Tauber-Arp, both of whom were upstaged in terms of proper recognition by their famous husbands (Robert Delaunay and Jean Arp, respectively), but who ultimately received their proper due, the former well into her 80s, the latter more than a decade after her death.

The marquee names abound, Hilma af Klint, Vanessa Bell, Natalia Goncharova, Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, even Georgia O’Keefe, whose posthumous mainstream acceptance perhaps belies just how radical she was in her own time. And with sexism still lingering on in the contemporary art world, Women in Abstraction is a timely, nay exigent reminder of the essential artistic contributions of the better sex over the last hundred-plus years – and a truly enlightening reason to return to Paris after sixteen months of COVID-imposed travel restrictions.

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