So macho? This is kaleidoscopic proof that abstraction was anything but

Untitled (detail), by Wook-kyung (1960s) - Choi Wook-kyung Estate/ArteCollectum

Untitled (detail), by Wook-kyung (1960s) – Choi Wook-kyung Estate/ArteCollectum

Opening at Whitechapel Gallery’s Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-1970, it is a 4m long canvas. Helen Frankenthaler’s April Mood (1974) is a riot of pure color: a large block of blue in the center melts into purples, pinks, and oranges topped with green and dark blue brush marks. Its scale is enough to stop any gallerist in their tracks.

Frankenthaler was one of the second generation Abstract Expressionists – a movement that began in 1940s New York, and was popularized by a small group of artists including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. The movement is often remembered as a masculinist unconscious, with its characteristic focus on large macho canvases and “action painting”. In the early years, female artists were not welcome – a critic told Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, that one of her paintings was “so good you wouldn’t believe it was done by a woman”. This masculinity was combined with an unlikely strain on American nationalism: the CIA’s involvement in promoting artists has long been the subject of rumor and debate.

But, as this kaleidoscopically diverse exhibition shows, this period of abstraction was not limited to a small group of American men. With more than 150 paintings, the exhibition shows the work of 80 female artists from around the world – from the calligraphic canvases of the Palestinian artist Maliheh Afnan, to the expressive works of the Polish artist Franciszka Themerson on paper (made, like Pollock’s canvases, through paint to pour out. height).

From the Americans, there are works by Lee Krasner (including her symbolic 1955 collage, Bald Eagle), Elaine de Kooning, and Sonia Gechtoff (whose pair of dark canvases, The Queen and The Map, are formidable exhibition highlights). And from Britain, there are early canvases by Gillian Ayres, and bold, tactile collage-like works by St Ives artist Sandra Blow.

The show is not limited to the English-speaking world: the bright, colorful canvases of Korean artist Wook-kyung Choi sit alongside tangible, almost apocalyptic mixed-media works by Peruvian artist Gloria Gómez-Sánchez.

The Bull, by Elaine de Kooning (1959) - Levett Collection/EdeK Trust

The Bull, by Elaine de Kooning (1959) – Levett Collection/EdeK Trust

The exhibition includes many women whose work has never before been shown in the UK, and celebrates a shared global heritage of female abstraction. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and the show succeeds in drawing attention to many women who have been unfairly marginalized. But, with so many artists included, there is an unmistakable sense that some of their individual context has been lost.

Are these artists linked only by their gender, or partly by the concept of abstraction? It is a question that the exhibition does not answer, but it certainly opens up a much wider and more exciting definition of post-colours, due to the great variety – from the colors of field paintings, to smaller water colours, works architecture, and canvases that are close to figures. art of war free.

From 9 February – 7 May. Tickets: 020 7522 7888;

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