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Art show too male? At times, this cry makes no sense

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“Abstract expressionism,” wrote poet and curator Frank O’Hara, “is the art of serious men.” The bad boys of this great American art movement, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, shifted the centre of western art from Paris to the US in the 1940s and 1950s and, more precisely, to New York, where they were well known for drinking and brawling in the bohemian Cedar Tavern. Lee Krasner, the American abstract expressionist painter, and Jackson Pollock’s wife, rarely joined them. “I loathed the place,” she said. “The women were treated like cattle.”

Abstract expressionism moved art away from the figurative and explored darker sides of our nature, irrationality and vulnerability. The art is tremendous and of its time – monumental, paint-spattered pieces, an expression of individual freedom, much of it brash and bold. Were these artists serious? Without question. Men? Most definitely: too much so, apparently.

The first major survey of abstract expressionism since 1959, which has just opened at the Royal Academy, has been accused of displaying too much testosterone. Commentary developed on social media from early visitors asking: “Where were the women?” A prominent critic complained that there was “not enough work by the few female artists” and took issue with the exclusion of Hedda Sterne, an artist who appeared in a well-known 1951 Life magazine photograph of the movement’s major figures.

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But what exactly were they expecting? The telling word from the critic is “few”. There were not many women in the movement to be included in the first place: Hedda Sterne may have been in that photograph but she didn’t share the rough posturing of the others and she painted in a variety of styles. Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell, to name two women artists associated with the movement, are included in the show. But a significant a number of women painters are not on the walls because they never existed. They cannot be conjured out of thin air.

In these hypersensitive times, this sort of response to an exhibition should not surprise anyone. However, the question “But where are the women?” is one that won’t always produce useful answers or reassessments. It is also one that fails to appreciate that, in the past decade and more, there has seen a forceful attempt at gender rebalancing in exhibitions and collections.

Tate is at the forefront. In the opening display at the new Switch House, half of the artists who are given solo displays are women, while, overall, 36% of the works on display are by female artists. There has been a healthy run of shows by female artists in the last couple of years, including those dedicated to Agnes Martin and Yayoi Kusama. Tate Modern is run by a brilliant woman – Frances Morris – who was instrumental in the shaping of the collection and helped to secure the giant metal spider by Louise Bourgeois for its opening in 2000.

It is an insult to be included on the basis of having a uterus rather than merit
But while some of this has brought fresh and exciting results, there are limitations to the attempts to shoehorn more women into the canon: not all of the art is strong enough. The Sonia Delaunay exhibition at Tate Modern last year was delightful and she has been somewhat overlooked; it was thus a break from the tried and tested. But her work didn’t justify the scale of the show.

No doubt there are plenty of below-par male artists who have received similar treatment, and received a temporary but unwarranted boost, but there is more to this feminist turn than a few extra hangs. There is a danger of art history being rewritten through the prism of gender rather than achievement and that is doing a disservice to art and our understanding of art history.

Take Denver Art Museum’s Women of Abstract Expressionism, the first show to focus on the topic, which ran through the summer. Ambitious and revealing, it showed the work of 12 female painters with pieces such as Helen Frankenthaler’s glorious green and peach coloured Jacob’s Ladder from 1957. But look a little closer and you will see that the women included are not exactly abstract expressionist artists.

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Of course, a membership card was not required, but much of the work featured seemed only loosely aligned: Frankenthaler did her own thing and developed her own techniques. The exhibition is guilty, then, of expanding the idea of the school precisely, it seems, to include the women.

While, no doubt, many involved in challenging the canon believe in the artists they champion, too often they talk about the sex of the artist, the problem of art history in ignoring them and, less often, the work. And what about the feminist cause? If anything, the rewriting of the artistic canon to include more women sets it back. It is an insult to be included on the basis of having a uterus rather than merit. Frankenthaler would have hated to be introduced as a “woman” artist.

Canons are flexible. They can and should be challenged and reshaped. But so often with feminist art history, what you see is a display of bad faith, a disregard for the achievement of great artists and a failure to understand why women often did not participate.

The first time the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” was thoroughly asked and answered was in 1973 and the questioner was the academic Linda Nochlin. “There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black America.”

Nochlin argued that this was mostly due to the fact that in the past women were second-class citizens. They were prevented, sometimes actively, but also by expectations and circumstances, from making art.

That’s not an entirely satisfactory explanation; there have been some notable exclusions and convincing reassessments, such as with Georgia O’Keeffe (on show at Tate Modern until the end of October), whose work still commands less at auction than a comparative male artist. Then there’s the brooding and brilliant Artemisia Gentileschi, who has rightly been written back into art history.

But Nochlin was broadly right: when women were treated as unequal and barred from many art practices, of course there were fewer women artists. The shortage of great women artists in our galleries or art history isn’t a result of a conspiracy to write them out of history – they were not there in the first place.