Women in Abstraction
October 22, 2021 – February 27, 2022
Women in Abstraction sets out to write the history of the contributions made by female artists to abstraction in the 20th century, through to about the 1980s, with a few incursions into the 19th century. In accordance with the terms chosen for the title, the artists are presented here as players and cocreators in their own right, of modernism and its legacy. The exhibition reveals the process of invisibilization that marked the work of these female artists, while still presenting their positions, with all their complexities and paradoxes. Many of these artists adopted a non-gendered identity while others laid claim to a “female” art.
This history aims to be open, embracing dance, the decorative arts, photography and film. The perspective is also intended to be comprehensive, including the modernities of Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, while not forgetting African American women artists and Spanish artists, some of whom have not had international recognition, in order to recount a multi-voiced history and reach beyond the western canon.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents Women in Abstraction, an exhibition sponsored by the BBVA Foundation that shares a new vision of the history of abstraction from its origins to the 1980s through the works of more than one hundred female artists that span visual arts, dance, photography, film, and decorative arts. Through a chronological analysis, the exhibit highlights the processes that led to the invisibility of female artists and points out some of the milestones that marked the history of abstraction, while questioning esthetic canons, without defining a new one.
Women in Abstraction goes beyond the idea that art history is a succession of pioneering practices, and by according female artists a new place within that history, it proves how complex and diverse it is. This can be seen at the very beginning of the exhibition which opens with an unprecedented foray into the 19th century presenting the rediscovery of Georgiana Houghton’s work from the 1860s, undermining the chronological origins of abstraction by tracing it back to its spiritualist roots. Houghton’s work illustrates “sacred symbolism,” one of the themes explored in the exhibition. The spiritualism in vogue in the 1850s constituted a major pathway into abstraction. Women were its precursors in the 19th century: they were the first to invent an abstraction that was not conceptualized as such, defined as a sacred symbolism drawn from a desire to represent the transcendent.
The exhibition also shines a spotlight on key figures through mini monographs highlighting artists who have been unfairly eclipsed or rarely shown in Europe. In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the specific educational, social, and institutional contexts that surrounded and encouraged or, conversely, hindered the recognition of women are brought to light. The exhibition reveals why many women artists did not necessarily seek recognition. It considers the positions of the artists themselves, with all their complexities and paradoxes. Some, like Sonia Delaunay-Terk, adopted a non-gendered position while others, like Judy Chicago, laid claim to a feminine art.
This female version of history challenges the limitation of the study of abstraction to painting alone, which is one of the reasons that many women have been excluded, given that such a modernist approach rejected the spiritualist, ornamental, and performative dimensions of abstraction. The perspective is also a global one. The energy of the Parisian scene in the 1950s is underlined by examples of surprising stylistic combinations, with the works of the Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair, Cuban-American artist Carmen Herrera and Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid. The exhibition also explores the modernities of Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, not to mention the African American artists whose multiple voices only benefited from certain visibility from the early 1970s onwards to tell their story with several voices and reach beyond the Western canon.
Another theme explored in the exhibition is the role of textiles in the history of abstraction. From the early 1960s onwards, certain artists, mainly from Eastern Europe and the United States, made what were often monumental textile works that did not have a relationship to the wall, but rather dominate the space, like sculpture. The term “New Tapestry”, which assigned these works to the realm of crafts, was progressively abandoned in favor of “Fiber Art” and “Textile Art”. The “Wall Hangings” exhibition was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1969. It was the first time that textile works were exhibited in an art museum. The Catalan artist Aurèlia Muñoz’s work makes an important contribution to this theme.
The exhibition’s scenography includes documentary spaces devoted to founding exhibitions, key women actors of abstraction, and celebrated critics, particularly within the feminist struggles of the 1970s and their postmodern interpretation. Landmark publications and other written materials are included in the exhibition, continuing the multi-disciplinary lens through which the subject is explored.
Women in Abstraction also raises several questions. The first concerns the very term of the subject: what exactly is abstraction? Another deals with the causes of the specific processes that made women invisible in the history of abstraction that still prevails today. Can we continue to isolate “women artists” in a separate history when we would like this history to be polyvocal and non-gendered? Lastly, the exhibition establishes the artists’ specific contributions, whether pioneers or not, but in all cases stakeholders in this original and unique history.