Review Action, Gesture, Paint at the Whitechapel Gallery – a true journey of discovery


of the crowded field, it could be argued that the oft-told story of post-war abstract painting is the most obfuscating in art history. Contemporary American painter Amy Sillman put it best when she described it in Artforum magazine as “bad politics welded around a chassis of machismo”, where “the stroke of paint… is equivalent to a phallic spurt, to [Jackson] Pollock whipping out his dick and pissing in [art dealer] Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace”. That myth is not only about men, but about American men – no, New York men.

This exhibition and the accompanying book are welcome; revisits Abstract Expressionism from a feminist and international perspective, with around 150 works by 80 women artists working in abstraction around the world. Many of them were portrayed and written about during her lifetime, without denying them a presence in official histories. Others have never received this level of recognition and other shows are now starting to give it to them.

It shows that in one of the most turbulent geopolitical periods in human history, the 1940s to the 1970s, a non-sexualized painterly language emerged in multiple global art centers. He focused on an often spontaneous emotional expression (or series of gestures) that used the canvas not to create an image or representation of something but as a space – the term often used is “field” – to perform actions.

Miriam Schapiro, Idyll II, 1956


Although it is a survey, it is also a collection of 80 voices, which is both its strength and its weakness. It manages to convey the breadth of the abstract experiment with real intensity. Japanese artist Yuki Katsura produced fields of color with almost vein-like textures, South Korean Wook-kyung Choi created densely colored and densely layered paint collages; both brought their singular language to New York.

Sarah Grilo, an artist from Argentina, made paintings as walls with graffiti. A wide range of US artists are present and run the gamut of possible styles and moods, from the lightness and insanity of Helen Frankenthaler to the expressive lyricism of early Joan Mitchell and the tumbling movement of Lee Krasner’s collages and canvases.

Grouping so many artists by theme rather than by location allows for a productive correspondence across geography, be it the soaring poetics of Sarah Schumann in Germany and the Chinese artist Lifang, or the earthy darkness of Marta Minujin in Argentina. Sandra Blow in the UK. and Juana Francés in Spain.

But it also has a limit; too often we only glimpse an artist’s achievements. There is only one work by Alma Thomas, one of the great abstract painters, for example. It could be argued that the catalogue, with all its context, is more enjoyable than the show, which would have benefited from a sharper and deeper focus on fewer artists.

Christian Levett Collection

There are also just too many works, so the hanging is quite tight. I understand that the curators might be trying to disprove another orthodoxy here: that abstract art needs a lot of white space to work its magic. But when works are rattling the walls with jaws, they don’t breathe as they should – sometimes they destroy each other. Worse than that, Rufus Mitchell’s Rock, a stunning collection of heavy black and blue paint with hints of violet, is tucked into a small space near the exit door.

There is a lot to love about this project. It is truly expressive, a true journey of discovery for any visitor. But from being so comprehensive, and having so much to say, the White Temple gave us a cacophony; an unfortunate flaw, if understandable.

Action, Gesture, Paint, Action Gesture, Performance is a small related show where we see the expressive qualities within the painting of the period released across the canvas. Among the highlights is Ana Mendieta’s video, Butterfly, where she is seen as a winged figure, almost an illusion of morphing color.

There’s also footage of Niki de Saint-Phalle’s shotgun painting, where she shoots bags of paint stuck to collage canvases, and two great films of Martha Graham’s choreography, which continues to impress even old, nearly century-old films. forward.

Whitechapel Galleryfrom February 9 to May 7;

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