The Gender Trouble of Abstract Expressionism

Judith Godwin, Series 5, No. 5, 1955, oil on linen, 131.1 x 183.2 cm. © Judith Godwin Foundation. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London and Berry Campbell, New York

After several shows about women and abstraction, Judith Godwin’s new exhibition promises a fresh look on gesture and motion

‘Maleness, [the] heroic machismospirit’ of artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, ‘has become a defining characteristic of the expansive, gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism’ says Gwen Chanzit, curator of the 2016 exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum. Clement Greenberg, the American critic often associated with Abstract Expressionism, called Janet Sobel a ‘primitive’ painter, who ‘was, and still is, a housewife’, as if that designation made her work less-than. The sexism of such comments would render Sobel a footnote in the story of Pollock, save only for the fact that Pollock himself acknowledged the influence that Sobel’s Milky Way (1945) had on his own paintings. Without Sobel, there might be no Pollock as we think of him now, but that is not what the narrative of art history has traditionally suggested. Abstract Expressionism has been in gender trouble for quite some time.

The past few years have seen an attempt to excavate the artists that history, criticism and the canon left by the wayside. Whether it’s in the Denver Art Museum group show or more recent efforts like The Whitechapel Gallery’s Action, Gesture, Paint (2023), curators and institutions are making a conscious effort to change the way Abstract Expressionism is perceived, bringing female artists to the front of a movement that has often sidelined them. Judith Godwin’s exhibition Expressions of Life at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery shows another female Abstract Expressionist artist whose work suggests a way out of the shadow of the narrow, masculine canon. Godwin’s work has a complex relationship to the world and art of Abstract Expressionism; while it might be tempting to look at the dark shapes that define her earlier work, such as Into the Depth (1957), as a reaction to the gender issues of Abstract Expressionism, this would do her work a disservice. Godwin’s art is animated through an emphasis on gesture; by zeroing in on explosive, cathartic moments – of violence, of movement – her paintings have a remarkable sense of clarity, taking something complex, or unsettling, and crystallising it, for all of its contradictions, into a single moment. Elegy to a Slain Deer (1978), for example, is defined by a specific, violent brushstroke – a long, deep line of black, almost like a gash across the canvas, with brown and red on its periphery. In this final, fatal gesture, Godwin not only presents the act of violence, but also the elegy that ensues; Godwin presents the final, fatal gesture that has slain the deer she’s now making an elegy for.

Judith Godwin, Elegy to a Slain Deer, 1975, oil on canvas, 127 x 106.7 cm. © Judith Godwin Foundation. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London and Berry Campbell, New York

Movement looms large in Godwin’s approach to artmaking, in which the gesture functions in both a painterly way – how her brushstrokes capture and lead the eye – and, fittingly, in a way that might be called more abstract. The paintings themselves take on the quality of a gesture; pointing the viewer towards a potential meaning, but never spelling out explicitly what that could be. In Betrayal (1976), physical movement is transformed into something else using paint. There is cursive quality to the brushstrokes, as colours collide and overlap one another, as if the steps of a dance have been transposed onto the canvas; the deep, emphatic black like something fluid captured in a moment of stillness.

This emphasis on movement – and how to capture it – is entwined with Godwin’s relationship to dance as an art form, and with American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in particular. The pair first met when Graham performed at Mary Baldwin College, where the artist was studying. After Godwin moved to New York, the two developed a lifelong friendship; Godwin said of Graham ‘I can see her gestures in everything I do’. This relationship in mind, it’s possible to look at Godwin’s work as a painterly echo of Graham’s choreography. In Godwin’s 1959 painting Black Cross, the  tall, angular shape of its centrepiece is reminiscent of Graham’s El Penitente (1940), in which a dancer, dressed in black and standing at a low angle, is helping to support both the body of another dancer and a wooden cross. In Godwin’s painting, shades of white and blue flank the cross, flecks of paint that too seem to be straining under the crucifix’s weight.

The impact of works like Black Cross and Elegy, which can be defined by the power of specific brushstrokes, serves as a reminder of the presence of the artist herself, just as we might associate the presence of Pollock with the act of drip painting, and the way he would loom over the canvas, lashing it with paint. Godwin’s work often challenges the idea of pure abstract form: her shapes and gestures – the body of a dancer, a wounded animal – suggest an approach to abstraction that captures the wider world, looking beyond the interiority and mental landscapes of painters like Pollock or Mark Rothko. Godwin’s Spirit – Ode to Martha Graham (1959), in which she captures her relationship with her friend and collaborator, grounds Godwin’s work in the material world; a painting like Spirit carrying a political dimension of female artistic collaboration that even now, decades later, feels both relevant and necessary.

Judith Godwin, Betrayal, 1976, oil on canvas, 127 x 121.9 cm. © Judith Godwin Foundation. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London and Berry Campbell, New York

In her autobiography, Blood Memory (1991), Graham wrote that ‘movement never lies’, and perhaps this is what she meant; that the gesture an artist makes lives on in the work long after it’s completed, a reminder of the body, of a physical presence that stubbornly refuses to be erased. This deep sense of physicality and embodiment is made abundantly clear in Godwin’s paintings, like the deer in Elegy which lingers like a ghost, in an act of stubborn refusal. Expressions of Life reveals that this refusal, a desire to push against the limits of an artistic movement, was abundantly present in Godwin’s work. Her collaborations with Graham are vital to this – two women working together feels essential even now, a challenge to the still-present idea of Abstract Expressionism as a boys’ club, full of men looming canvases, covering them with monuments to their individuality. Godwin’s work offers another alternative to the assumptions that have been made about Abstract Expressionism for decades by pushing up against the deeply individualist idea of the movement – and the art historical narrative that has gone on to surround it. Godwin creates an urgent, vital image of the world itself: the beauty and violence of nature, the power of dance. Her work challenges not only the gender concerns of Abstract Expressionism, but the kind of art it could create.

Sam Moore is a writer, artist, and editor. They are one of the co-curators of TISSUE, a trans reading and publishing initiative based in London

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