DIALOGUE: Gwen Chanzit

A new show at the Denver Art Museum highlights the significant, if often overlooked, contribution of women painters to the Abstract Expressionist movement.

“Bullfight,” 1959, Elaine de Kooning, Oil on canvas, 77 5/8″ x 131 1/4″
Vance H. Kirkland Acquisition Fund, Denver Art Museum. ©Elaine de Kooning Trust

At the Denver Art Museum, the department of Modern & Contemporary Art occupies the enormous galleries spanning the third and fourth levels of Daniel Libeskind’s Hamilton Building. This amount of exhibition real estate indicates the keen attention the museum pays to the art of the last century or so. A main player in the M&C department is Gwen Chanzit, the curator of Modern Art, who joined the DAM in 1980, and who has curated scores of exhibits during that time. Chanzit, who does double-duty as the director of the DAM’s Herbert Bayer Archive—the Bauhaus master having spent 30-years in Aspen, with close ties to Denver—has consistently looked to under-researched art historical topics to inspire the shows she organizes. Her latest effort, and arguably the most important work of her long and distinguished career, is the blockbuster, “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” which opens June 12 and will be on view in the Hamilton all summer long.

Although recently there seems to be a nation-wide craze for women-only art shows, Chanzit told me that when she originally came up with the idea for this project she knew of no others of the type on the horizon. “When I was in New York in 2008, I saw ‘Action/Abstraction’ at the Jewish Museum,” she recalls, “and there were artists there that I’d either never heard of, or knew very little about. On the plane coming home, I was thinking about this and realized that all the artists I didn’t know were women or men of color.” It was in that eureka moment that Chanzit conceived of the idea of mounting an exhibit devoted to Abstract Expressionists that were women. “I saw the show as a way to find out who had been left out of the narrative; to see how good their work was,” Chanzit says, “to see what we know about Abstract Expressionism, and to then go back and take another look.”

When she returned to Denver, Chanzit started doing research to see if anyone else was working on a similar effort. “I could not believe the show hadn’t been done before,” notes Chanzit, “because it was so clear that it needed to be.” Chanzit’s next step was to contact her fellow curators at institutions across the country to inquire about pieces that fit the parameters of her subject—paintings by women working in Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and ’50s—that might be held in their collections. “The subtext,” she adds with a laugh, “was that I was telling them that I was doing this show,” thus staking out her scholarly territory.

Certainly a major topic in art history over the last several decades has been the rediscovery of women artists whose accomplishments were heretofore largely ignored owning to sexism. This has been particularly true in the case of Abstract Expressionism, which has long ago been branded as a movement of hard-drinking, chain-smoking womanizers personified by the likes of Jackson Pollock. Chanzit’s exploration has revealed that this was not true when the paintings were new and still wet—at least not universally. So why are the women of the movement—typically regarded as America’s watershed moment in the history of paintingmostly forgotten today? “The answer is that women in general were not given the opportunities men were,” Chanzit says,”and the narrative has been focused on a very few male artists. The women were part of the circle, they were exhibiting with the men, going to the Cedar Bar, the critics knew their works, some were in classes with the men—those taught by Hans Hofmann on the East Coast, and on the West Coast by Clyfford Still and Hassel Smith—and yet they have not been given the same recognition.”

Having cast her wide net, doing research, and contacting other experts in the field, she came up with a list of more than 100 artists who qualified for inclusion in her show. This list was then pared down to the 41 who are profiled in the catalogue, and ultimately a tight list of only 12 who are featured in the exhibition itself. “It was very tough to limit it to just a dozen, but it was important to me to not just have one of, one of, so instead, with just 12, every artist has her own space and you will come away from the exhibit knowing who these artists are.”

Though the point of the show is to rediscover forgotten artists, about half of the included artists are actually already well known and highly regarded, at least to those that are interested in the history of mid-20th century painting. In this category are Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Jay DeFeo, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning. However, it’s undeniable that even the most famous of this group are not nearly as famous as the men active in Abstract Expressionism, as revealed by looking at some of their better known husbands, with Frankenthaler having been once married to Robert Motherwell, Krasner to Pollock, and de Kooning to (of course) Willem de Kooning. The other six included artists—Mary Abbott, Perle Fine, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher—are essentially unknown, with Chanzit’s show being meant in part to correct that oversight.

Among the paintings that Chanzit included, few are as famous as Krasner’s The Seasons (1957), an acknowledged masterpiece that’s the size of a billboard, measuring nearly eight-feet tall, and almost 17-feet long. Using oil and house paint, Krasner covered the horizontal surface with loosely painted curvilinear shapes that are interwoven, and that have been carried out in a limited palette dominated by rose, green, black and cream. Krasner’s sense for line recalls not just the Abstract Surrealism of her already then-deceased husband, Pollock, but also that of Picasso.

An interesting aspect of this show is the way that Chanzit forces the viewer to see some of these artists in a new way. Frankenthaler, for example, is typically seen as a post-painterly bstractionist, as opposed to an abstract expressionist. Chanzit does this by including not only examples of Frankenthaler’s early paintings which clearly are abstract expressionist, but also by recasting those that were formerly considered something else, like Western Dream (1957), which shows off her great discovery—staining raw canvas with thinned-out pigments. If you think about it, this technique is the polar opposite of the expressive handling of paint that partly gives the style its name.

It’s a different kind of redefining that Chanzit subjects de Kooning to. Best known as a figural abstractionist, Chanzit uncovered a body of abstract expressionist paintings that she was creating simultaneously, but which have until now been little known. A prime example is the monumental Bullfight (1959); in a signature de Kooning, the bull and matador would be obvious despite the lively handling of the brushwork, but in this piece, the viewer really can’t make out the subjects, which have been reduced to nothing other than slashing marks of color.

Beyond the exhibition itself, the art world connections Chanzit has made in preparing the show has allowed her to bolster the DAM’s permanent collection in the subject, which despite a hoard of 20 Motherwells, has few other examples of Abstract Expressionism. “As the exhibit has come into being, we’ve used it to improve the collection,” she says, “and we’ve made a priority of collecting this kind of material.” The first work acquired, soon after Chanzit began the project, was the aforementioned Bullfight, and the DAM has subsequently accessioned another half dozen abstract expressionist paintings by women including a Gechtoff, a Remington and a Schwabacher.

Though Chanzit is quick to say that she does not intend the show to be a feminist statement, she does believe that women still have a ways to come before their work is regarded in the same way as men’s, and she notes that art history is filled with quotes by men ridiculing the very idea of women being artists. This was especially true in the ’50s when these paintings were created and when sex roles were so clearly defined. “Women of Abstract Expressionism” is one of many shows that have recently zeroed-in on the topic of women artists. “Exhibits of art by women are important,” mused Chanzit, “but I hope that someday women will be so accepted in the art world that in the future there will be no need for shows like this.”