A Sparkling New Exhibition in New York Surveys the Overlooked Women of Abstract Expressionism

The show is drawn entirely from the collection of Richard P. Friedman and Cindy Lou Wakefield.

Joan Mitchell in her studio in Vétheuil, 1983 Photo by Robert Freson, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives, ©Joan Mitchell Foundation.
Joan Mitchell in her studio in Vétheuil, 1983. Photo by Robert Freson, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives, © Joan Mitchell Foundation.

Since the 2018 publication of Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel’s widely praised account of the women of the Abstract Expressionist movement, a number of museums and galleries have turned their energies to showcasing these artists’ works.

This summer, the Parrish Museum of Art in Water Mill, New York, held an exhibition devoted to Helen Frankenthaler. And just recently, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced that they would be organizing a joint exhibition of work by Joan Mitchell scheduled to open in fall 2020.

Elaine de Kooning, Standing Bull (1959). Courtesy of the Fenimore Art Museum.

Elaine de Kooning, Standing Bull (1959). Courtesy of the Fenimore Art Museum.

In the meantime, “Heroines of Abstract Expressionism,” a new show at the Fenimore Museum of Art in Cooperstown, New York, is offering one of the most diverse looks at the era through an exhibition of works by 19 women drawn entirely from the collection of Richard P. Friedman and Cindy Lou Wakefield. 

Installation view "Heroines of Abstraction" (2019). Courtesy of the Fenimore Museum of Art.

Installation view “Heroines of Abstract Expressionism” (2019). Courtesy of the Fenimore Museum of Art.

The show of more that 30 works includes paintings and drawings by Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler; sculptures by Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois; and works by lesser-known artists including Perle Fine, Mary Abbott, and Dorothy Dehner. 

Lee Krasner, September Twenty-third (1980). Courtesy of the Fenimore Art Museum.

Lee Krasner, September Twenty-Third (1980). Courtesy of the Richard P. Friedman and Cindy Lou Wakefield Collection.

The scope of the show is a testament to the couple’s collecting prescience.

“What stood out to me was the number of women artists represented,” said Chris Rossi, the museum’s director of exhibitions. “Rick and Cindy Lou were on the forefront of collecting modern women artists who were just being rediscovered by the art world and the public. The collection includes a large number of women artists, and possibly the widest array of acclaimed women artists of that era.” 

Helen Frankenthaler, Orient Express #5 (1977). Courtesy of the Fenimore Art Museum.

Helen Frankenthaler, Orient Express #5 (1977). Courtesy of the Richard P. Friedman and Cindy Lou Wakefield Collection.

Among the show’s highlights are Lee Krasner’s vibrant September Twenty-Third (1980), a dazzling mix of collage and painting; a selection of pictures by Elaine de Kooning that straddle representation, action painting, and abstraction; and examples by less-famed artists such as Charlotte Park, whose untitled 1970 painting is a colorful synthesis of natural elements and physical movements.  

“The quote ascribed to Hans Hofmann in reference to work by his student, Lee Krasner, really said it all in terms of what these women were working against: ‘This is so good, you would never know it was made by a woman,’” Rossi said.

“I hope visitors will leave the exhibition understanding that there were women in the Abstract Expressionist movement making work every bit as groundbreaking and worthy of celebration as their male counterparts.”

Heroines of Abstract Expressionism” is on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, through December 31, 2019.


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