So sexist? Here’s kaleidoscopic proof that abstraction was anything but

Untitled (detail), by Wook-kyung (1960s) – Wook-kyung Choi Estate/ArteCollectum

At the opening of the Whitechapel Gallery’s Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-1970 there is a 4m long canvas. Helen Frankenthaler’s April Mood (1974) is a riot of pure colour: a large block of pale blue in the middle melts into purples, pinks and oranges, while brushstrokes of green and dark blue settle on top. Its scale is enough to stop any gallery visitor.

Frankenthaler was one of the second-generation Abstract Expressionists, a movement that began in the 1940s in New York and was made famous by a small group of artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. The movement is often remembered as unmistakably masculine, with its distinctive focus on large macho canvases and “action painting”. In his early years, female artists were far from welcome: Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner was told by one critic that one of his paintings was “so good you wouldn’t believe it was done by a woman.” This masculine element was combined with an unlikely variety of American nationalism: the CIA’s involvement in promoting artists has long been the subject of rumors and debate.

But, as this kaleidoscopically varied display reveals, this period of abstraction was far from confined to a small group of American men. With more than 150 paintings, the exhibition showcases the work of 80 women artists from around the world, from Palestinian artist Maliheh Afnan’s calligraphic canvases to Polish artist Franciszka Themerson’s expressive works on paper (made, like Pollock’s canvases , pouring paint from a height).

Of the Americans, there are works by Lee Krasner (including his symbolic 1955 collage Bald Eagle), Elaine de Kooning, and Sonia Gechtoff (whose pair of dark canvases, The Queen and The Map, are a terrifying highlight of the exhibit). And from Britain, there are early canvases by Gillian Ayres and bold, tactile collage-like works by St Ives artist Sandra Blow.

The show isn’t limited to the English-speaking world: Bright, colorful canvases by Korean artist Wook-kyung Choi sit alongside tangible, near-apocalyptic mixed-media works by Peruvian artist Gloria Gómez-Sánchez.

The Bull, by Elaine de Kooning (1959) - Levett Collection/EdeK Trust

The Bull, by Elaine de Kooning (1959) – Levett Collection/EdeK Trust

The exhibition includes many women whose work has never before been shown in the UK and proposes a shared global heritage of female abstraction. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and the show succeeds in bringing attention to many women who have unfairly faded into obscurity. But, by including so many artists, there’s a distinct sense that some of their individual context is lost.

Are these artists linked solely by their genre or by a shared conception of abstraction? It’s a question the exhibition doesn’t answer, but the sheer variety, from color field paintings to smaller watercolours, architectural works and quasi-figurative canvases, certainly opens up a much broader and more exciting definition of post-war abstract art.

From February 9 to May 7. Tickets: 020 7522 7888;

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