You wouldn’t think it to look at the history books (or most of the big blockbuster exhibitions) but there were women abstract artists in the twentieth century. There really were, they were just hidden away and passed over in favour of the blokes like Rothko and Pollock.
That’s what this huge, sprawling show (150 paintings! 150!) wants to address: the international women of abstraction who have been ignored for decades. Not that it’s a new idea; museums, galleries and writers have been turning the spotlight away from the dominant male figures of modern art history for a while now (there was a huge Lee Krasner show at the Barbican in 2019 and a great Helen Frankenthaler show at Dulwich Picture Gallery last year) but you can’t have too much of a good thing, and this show is full of good things.
It starts with an amazing, vast, hazy washed-out Frankenthaler, like a sunset beach landscape has atomised and effervesced. There are more gorgeous, airy Frankenthalers around the corner, then a handful of brilliant, brutishly composed Gillian Ayres paintings, then a couple of genuinely excellent Lee Krasners. It’s fantastic, it really is.
But, hey, that’s my personal taste. You might love mud paintings
But those are relatively big, familiar names. What’s special about this show is the artists that are way less famous. There’s the throbbing purple masses of Tomie Ohtake, the dense porcelain field of Aiko Miyawake, the swirling colour tornadoes of Buffie Johnson, the awesome clash of splash and stripe of Wook-Kyung Choi, the searing reds of Ethel Schwabacher, and on and on.
There are also, as you’d expect in a show with one hundred and fifty paintings, a lot of duds. I don’t need to see the scratchy stencilling of Sarah Grillo, the formlessness of Chinyee, or any of the vast number of paintings that look like mud ever again. But, hey, that’s my personal taste. You might love mud paintings.
The real issue is that with this amount of painting (I’m sorry, but again, one hundred and fifty is absolutely nuts) you just go abstraction blind eventually. It all starts smudging into one. It’s not helped by the thematic curation: everything in the ‘performance’ section looks exactly like everything in the nature ‘section’. It just needed editing down, drastically.
So they got a bit over-excited and went a bit too far. But with paintings this beautiful, and stories this desperately in need of telling by artists so unfairly ignored by history, who can blame them?