A woman dressed in black spilling paint from a paint can onto the floor, which already has paint spills in orange, blue, and yellow.
American artist Lynda Benglis works on a commissioned project for the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, Rhode Island, 1969. The work involves poured latex paint for an installation at the university. © Adagp, Paris 2021 (Photo by Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Women in Abstraction: An Interview with Curator Christine Macel

The Terra Foundation-supported exhibition Women in Abstraction, on view through August 23, 2021, at Centre Pompidou, considers contributions of women artists to abstraction. With more than 500 works on view dating from the 1860s to the 1990s, the exhibition focuses on women who have often gone unrecognized for their contributions to movement.

The foundation’s exhibition grant program supports exhibitions that increase the understanding and appreciation of historical American art worldwide.

This interview with Christine Macel, chief curator at the Centre Pompidou, was translated into English by Katherine Bourguignon, the Terra Foundation’s curator.

Can you describe the chronologic and geographic scope of the exhibition and its impact on the traditional canon of abstraction?

The exhibition begins in 1862 in England with the first watercolors and gouaches on paper by Georgiana Houghton, works that were rediscovered a few years ago. These works demonstrate how an abstraction linked to spiritualism appeared much earlier than previously believed. It is still a representational abstraction, linked to the transcendental. The exhibition ends in China with the works of Irene Chou from the 1990s, which combine the tradition of ink painting, Taoism, and Abstract Expressionism. The spectrum is therefore very open, both chronologically and geographically, which in effect broadens the aesthetic canons of abstraction.

In what ways does this exhibition disrupt the history of abstraction?

I could speak of an extended approach to abstraction as a plastic language or “expanded abstraction.” First of all, it means looking beyond painting, to think about how this abstract language can bring about dialogue between the so-called major and minor arts, removing the hierarchy of practices, in particular in relation to the so-called decorative arts. I also include dance and performative abstraction, which began as early as the end of the nineteenth century with the serpentine dance of Loie Fuller, as well as photography and film.

I look at the “impure” influences of abstraction, moving away from the canons established by Alfred Barr in 1936 with the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art or by the group Abstraction-Création in France. The exhibition considers abstraction linked with theosophy—abstraction thought of as a geometrization of the body, abstraction linked to textile practices and everyday arts, etc.

Why do you think it is important or necessary to dedicate a major exhibition to women artists in 2021?

I would clarify that the exhibition is devoted to women artists who have been rendered more or less invisible in the history of abstraction (which does not mean they are invisible), or whose unique contribution has not been sufficiently explained. It is not simply an exhibition on women artists but a reinterpretation of the history of abstraction, which puts these artists in their proper place with their distinctive features and originality.

Can you tell us about the American artists in the exhibition? What were the artistic, personal, and professional strategies they deployed to contribute to the plastic practice of abstraction?

There are a lot of them. In fact, they are the majority. Modernist abstraction has been essentially European and American, and moreover too often reduced to a Western canon when, in fact, several cultural areas have reinvented or hybridized it. Whether one thinks of Loie Fuller from 1892, of Georgia O’Keeffe’s watercolors of the 1910s, or of artists lesser known in Europe, such as Mary Ellen Butte, Janet Sobel, Hedda Sterne, Ruth Asawa, Marie Menken, Howardena Pindell and Harmony Hammond, American women artists have dominated the history of abstraction by the sheer number of them. And yet their visibility was generally less than that of their male colleagues, with the exception perhaps of Louise Bourgeois or Eva Hesse, for example.

The strategies have always been unique and linked to constantly evolving sociological contexts, with the specificity for American women of having been pioneers in matters of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. The Anglo-Saxon world has been a leader in this regard, and art history taught in Europe has lagged far behind on these issues. These women have paved the way for both artists and art critics, from Linda Nochlin to Lucy Lippard. They were fighters, even in the face of the most violent misogyny. When Hans Hoffman wanted to compliment his pupil Lee Krasner in 1937, he said something like: “this painting is so good you would not think it was created by a woman.” Fortunately, the page has been turned, but the history of art must continue to be rethought and revisited, in all genres and art forms.