Spotlight on Denver Art Museum's Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibit

By Paulette Beete
abstract expressionist work by joan mitchel in blue, white, and mustard tones

Joan Mitchell, Hudson River Day Line, 1955. Oil paint on canvas, 79 x 83 in. (200.66 x 210.82 cm). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Museum: purchase with funds from the Tobin Foundation. © Estate of Joan Mitchell

“The arts are a reflection of individual people as thinking, feeling, responsive beings. Experiencing the arts helps make us all more human.” – Gwen Chanzit

As you're making your summer vacation plans, you might want to include a trip to the Denver Art Museum for their exhibit Women of Abstract Expressionism, opening June 12 and supported by a grant from the NEA. While Abstract Expressionism brings to mind artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Robert De Niro, Sr., only a few women painting at the same time garnered any name recognition, and even so, for many, this recognition came far later in their careers. Some, such as Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, devoted themselves to managing their husband's careers at the expense of their own. Others worked outside the major art hubs far from the attention of critics. Thanks to the Denver Art Museum, many more of these prodigiously talented women will take their place in the spotlight. While the exhibit itself only includes 12 of these woman artists, an accompanying catalog will feature work by 41 artists. We spoke with Denver Art Museum Curator of Modern Art Gwen Chanzit to learn more about why a show like this is necessary, how they decided who to include, and what she hopes visitors will take away from the experience.


an abstract expressionist work by Mary Abbott in shades of green and blue

Mary Abbott, All Green, About 1954. Oil paint on linen, 49 x 44 in. (124.46 x 111.76 cm). Denver Art Museum: Gift of Janis and Tom McCormick, 2013.250. © Mary Abbott

NEA: We hear the word “curator” a lot these days. How do you define the word/task for yourself?

GWEN CHANZIT: Not so long ago, few people knew what a curator was. But it seems today in popular vernacular, “everyone is a curator” whether of food, wine, or experiences. I think in these everyday contexts a curator is someone who is an arbiter of taste, a critic, one who sorts through the morass of things to find the very best.

But for me, a curator is someone who goes beyond tastemaking. A curator not only selects but also makes explicable for others. As a curator, I value my role as researcher, as gatherer of works to be seen through filters (not only of quality, but also of relevance) and then to put in context with other works in order to make some sense of a broader whole that includes essential qualities as well as its story—to offer others a coherent and meaningful experience.

NEA: Why this particular show at this particular time? What story are you trying to tell with this show?

CHANZIT: While there have been other shows highlighting women artists, I think Women of Abstract Expressionism is especially relevant because these women participated in the development of not only the first American-grown modern art movement, but a movement always characterized by its male-ness. It’s a movement whose story has been all about the heroic paint-spattered man. We want to amend that story. Our exhibition shows women painters as full participants in the formative years of the movement and it’s time we correct the unevenness in the history. Women of Abstract Expressionism is the first full-scale museum exhibition to position women artists squarely within the context of abstract expressionism and to celebrate the special contributions of these individuals.

NEA: What exactly is abstract expressionism?

CHANZIT: On the heels of World War II, the center of the avant-garde shifted from Europe to the United States with the development of this first fully American modern art movement. Abstract expressionism is not about one style. Instead, artists looked to individual expression and a freedom to experiment with materials and processes. Color and form in abstract expressionist works are not representational. Many include direct gesture, loose brushwork, over-all composition, and an emphasis on surface rather than depth. Unlike with some other movements, there are no formulas for making an abstract expressionist painting. It is primarily about the response of an individual. 

the abstract expressionist work Bullfight by Elaine de Kooning

Elaine de Kooning, Bullfight, 1959. Oil paint on canvas, 77-5/8 in. × 10 ft., 10-1/2 in. (197.17 × 331.47 cm). Denver Art Museum: Vance H. Kirkland Acquisition Fund, 2012.300. © Elaine de Kooning Trust

NEA: How many artists and how many artworks are featured in the show? What was your criteria for inclusion?

CHANZIT: Of the many women who might have qualified for inclusion in this exhibition based on style, artistic and social circles, and geographic location, this exhibition focuses on twelve painters working in New York City and in San Francisco in the late 1940s and the 1950s. In order for the exhibition to make sense, we wanted each artist to be represented by a group of works so that each would be understood as a distinct individual. Narrowing it to 12 was difficult, but necessary for a meaningful, manageable installation and an optimal visitor experience.

The first step was to survey works by female painters from the key decades. Then—as word spread—letters, phone messages, and e-mails kept arriving about women artists from every part of the country who had come to study and take up abstract expressionism with such teachers as Hans Hofmann in New York and Hassel Smith and Clyfford Still in San Francisco. Though most never achieved recognition beyond their local communities, a case might be made for several more well-developed and well-connected female abstract expressionists. As I said, it was difficult to select this limited number of artists who stand in for the many. The exhibition is large and takes over an entire floor of our spacious Hamilton Building, designed by Daniel Libeskind. It includes over 50 mostly large-scale paintings by these 12 artists. The exhibition catalogue, published by Yale, will be a permanent record of 41 artists, including the 12 in the exhibition. The Denver Art Museum is also producing a 14-minute video to accompany the exhibition, featuring interviews and film clips of the 12 artists, as well as interviews with some children of artist-mothers.

NEA: Do you have a favorite work (or works) in the show?

CHANZIT: While my “favorites” tend to change from day to day, I am particularly happy to show some outstanding women painters who have not gotten much recognition. There are a handful of women abstract expressionists fairly well known, but there are also several surprises in the show. Even among art enthusiasts, there are painters to be discovered.

NEA: What do you hope that visitors take away from the show? What ideas? What questions?

CHANZIT: I hope visitors will be overwhelmed by the visual impact of these large, impressive canvases. And I hope they will take away an understanding that process and experimentation with materials weren’t exclusive to men; they are also evident in paintings by women.

Many female painters also responded to personal triggers in their own first-hand experience; some abstractions might even be thought of as interior, emotional gesture. In taking a fresh look, we’ve discovered some qualities not typically associated with abstract expressionism. While individual expression is key, several themes recur in the works of these women painters. These include responses to place, to people, to personal experience, nature, literature, music, and dance. These thematic ties broaden our understanding of abstract expressionism as a whole. 

NEA: Sometimes it can be difficult to appreciate abstract work as there doesn’t seem to be an explicit narrative. How do you suggest visitors approach the exhibit and enter into dialogue with the artwork, so to speak?

CHANZIT: I think because so many of the works in the show are artistic responses to something personal, visitors will begin to understand that these individuals were responding to their own experiences. We hope visitors will also experience works on a visceral level and will find their own interpretations. It’s interesting how many of these works have titles. When Helen Frankenthaler was asked why she titled her paintings, she said it was because a title has to have a meaning.

NEA: How important is NEA support to this exhibit?

CHANZIT: NEA support is very important to this exhibition. Beyond much needed dollars provided by an NEA grant, NEA support says that a project is deemed significant. Having NEA backing validates a project and lets us know that it meets the high standards of those who see many worthy projects. NEA support is a critical measure of quality for those of us in the field.

NEA: Tell us about an exhibit at another institution that you’re really excited about.

CHANZIT: I’m interested to see the upcoming abstract expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy, London. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing such an exhibition from a British point of view.

NEA: Please finish the sentence: The arts matter because…

CHANZIT: The arts matter because the arts are about humanity. The arts are a reflection of individual people as thinking, feeling, responsive beings.  Experiencing the arts helps make us all more human.

Interested in more stories about women artists? Check out our Art Talks with Debra Cartwright, Amanda Williams, and Sarah Sense.