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Gazelli Art House's 9th St. Club

An exhibition seeking to undo the stereotype of abstract expressionists as 'macho' men

Resisting the underestimation of women in the movement commonly termed ‘Abstract Expressionism’, the 9th St Club exhibition at Gazelli Art House (January 17, 2020 - February 23, 2020) reinterprets the original 1951 exhibition Ninth Street Show by choosing to exhibit the works of female artists alone. The shocking proportion of men to women artists in the 1951 exhibition - 70 male artists in comparison to a mere 11 female artists - contributed to the formation of the movement’s ‘ultra-macho’ image. Seeking to dismantle the mainstream interpretation of the abstract expressionist movement as hyper-masculine, this exhibition features works from Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Mercedes Matter and Perle Fine, highlighting their importance in the New York art scene. This is the first time these works have been shown together in the UK, following on from the Lee Krasner retrospective at the Barbican and the opening of a new room devoted to the work of Helen Frankenthaler at the Tate Modern, both in 2019.

Grace Hartigan, Study for Montauk Highway, 1957, collage on paper, 56 x 71cm (Image by Saga Sjöberg)

The exhibition, partly inspired by Mary Gabriel’s 2018 novel Ninth Street Women, departs from the reductive association of abstract expressionist art with anger and toxic masculinity. Instead, the works displayed reveal the new and unique use of paint introduced by abstract expressionism and a commitment to a liberation of style. Through paintings, lithographs, papier-collé, and sketches by seven female artists, the exhibition captures the depth and breadth of the New York School’s aesthetics. These women fought to exhibit and even exist among their more revered male counterparts. The energy and daring nature of the works thus reflects the audacious efforts of these women to rise to recognition, not as muses but as artists in their own right.

The daring deep red and gestural brushstrokes of Grace Hartigan’s 1965 work Untitled display a freedom of style that came to define the abstract expressionist movement. The painting as papier-collé—with sections cut out and pieces of paper layered on top of one another—adds both literal and metaphorical layering. The ambiguity of the hen-like red form, coupled with the literal layering of paper and the assertive brushstrokes, strike a balance between obscurity and certainty. The medium of watercolour on paper is surprisingly capable of lending itself to such a powerful work that makes for an arresting visual experience.

Lee Krasner, Primary Series: Pink Stone (also called Rose Stone), 1969, Lithograph, 55 x 75cm (Image by Saga Sjöberg)

The only issue with the exhibition is the fact that it features only three works dated before 1950, and instead includes several from the 80s and 90s, despite the self-professed intention of presenting these women as crucial figures in the formation of the abstract expressionist movement. The exhibition could thus be seen as having failed to demonstrate the necessary role played by these women in the formation and shaping of the movement. Though a successful exhibition with beautiful works, more might have been done to ensure that the message the viewer walks away with is a powerful one, one that would reflect the striking nature of the works exhibited.

Find more information and the press release on the Gazelli Art House website.


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