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Ab-Ex Heroines

Tue, 12/05/2023 - 08:47
An installation view of "Heroines of the Abstract Expressionist Era" at the Southampton Arts Center.
Jennifer Landes

Single-collector shows displayed in nonprofit museums or art centers can be both fascinating and problematic. 

They offer a direct insight into how someone has selected art to acquire over a period of time, taking into consideration market forces, availability, and, above all, taste. At the same time, the works benefit from the institutional imprimatur of being shown there, something that can be added to a provenance along with a possible increase in monetary value when the collector tires of the artwork and wants to sell. 

What was considered taboo a couple of decades ago, however, has surrendered to the almighty art market. As sturdy walls between art institutions and commerce became more permeable in the late 1980s and 1990s, famous and infamous shows like "Sensation," the traveling exhibition of the Charles Saatchi collection -- with stops at esteemed venues such as the Royal Academy in London and the Brooklyn Museum -- and the Guggenheim's "Art of the Motorcycle," underwritten by BMW, began pushing through them. Such shows have continued to do so since then in small and large museums all over the world.

So rather than clutch our pearls and tut-tut under our breath, it's probably time to let go of such lofty notions and enjoy "Heroines of the Abstract Expressionist Era" at the Southampton Arts Center for what it is, a decent showing of women artists long overlooked who have become much more part of the mainstream in the past couple of decades.

The collectors here are Rick Friedman and his partner, Cindy Lou Wakefield. The couple may be familiar to those who frequent art fairs or pay attention to their comings and goings. Mr. Friedman was one of the first to bring a summer fair to the South Fork, and has been back semi-regularly in different iterations during the past two decades. 

The center's show walks a delicate line between emphasizing the achievements of the artists on view and acknowledging the collectors who made the show happen.

The installation is actually reminiscent of an art fair's booths, with signage naming each artist above her work, each one shown individually rather than integrated throughout the galleries. It seems a wise choice in this situation. The artists don't always have a lot in common, at least in the selections on view here, and the eras on view can vary widely. 

In one case, Louise Bourgeois -- an outlier here under any circumstances -- is represented by works from 1993 and 1967, both well out of the heyday of the New York School. The untitled work from 1993 is a two-sided panel cut through near the center with a gash that might suggest a mouth or other orifice that is bordered with fabric "lips." Each side is treated similarly but in different tones and colors. It must be said that the paint on the panel that surrounds the cutouts is quite gestural in its handling. The whorls and swirls suggest they were made by direct hand contact with the acrylic paint, and there is a satisfying immediacy to the mark-making that is very appropriate in this context.

It's nice to see some artists who are still alive in this group. Audrey Flack's work here is prime Ab-Ex, in a tidy time frame of 1950 to 1953 or so. She mastered and then eschewed the style pretty early on in her career, and went on to much more realist and then even photorealist canvases and sculptures, borrowing subjects from Old Master paintings in as much sendup as paean. Yet it is this early period, one she has been ambivalent about, particularly the personalities involved, which has been recently and regularly featured in art fairs and other showings by galleries, vying for attention with her later and latest works. And Carol Hunt's two works, from 1969 and 1986, are each quite different but both allude to realist source material. 

Perle Fine, another artist associated with the East End and the New York School, doesn't seem to receive as much attention as her work deserves, at least compared to other female artists of her time (she died in 1988) such as Lee Crasher, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell. Here, she has a tiny retrospective with six works from 1949 to 1977, all pretty era-defining and evocative of those periods. 

The Janes, Freilicher and Wilson, are here, as they should be. Yet their works on view, while somewhat abstract, do not really read as Ab-Ex, even though they too had a period of painting in a classic New York School style. The show's subtitle is "From the New York School to the Hamptons." This gives the organizers some wriggle room, and they acknowledge as much in their introduction, but it does indicate the fog induced by working to define a show with a limited and subjective source of material.

There are some other figures with local ties who have become towering in recent years: Hedda Sterne, who has a knockout piece, as well as Charlotte Park and Mercedes Matter, both well represented in their works. 

Mitchell, mentioned previously, has five drawings on view, including two beguiling poem works. However, the poets, while signatories (Christian Larsen -- a relative? -- it's hard to decipher the signatures), are not identified on the wall labels. Also of note, amid her skyrocketing auction results in the past few years, two of the Mitchell works are for sale, as is discreetly noted on the wall labels. The art market wins again.

There are still plenty of other artists to name, but rather than offer a laundry list, suffice it to say there are enough here who are of interest, and are represented by interesting works, to go see before the show closes on Dec. 17.

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