Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Surface Work – Women Abstract Artists Shine in this London Show

May 12th, 2018
Victoria Miro, London

There are easily a dozen paintings in Victoria Miro’s latest sensational show  Surface Work that I wanted to smuggle home. Over 50 female abstract artists from across the globe over the past century are shown in this stunning, historical glimpse at what women painters were creating while names like Kadinsky, Pollack and Rothko were stealing the headlines.

The show’s title comes from the late  abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, who said

Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work.

The earliest work was made in 1918 by Liubov Popova, a commanding figure in early Abstract Expressions. She was born in 1889 in Russia, showed with Malevich at the age of 26 and died of scarlet fever in 1924, aged 35. I want, I want, I want.

the latest work in the show was made this year …

by Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão (b. 1964).  Azulejão (Moon) is one of Varejão’s celebrated ‘cracked tile’ works reference the history of Portuguese Azulejo tile work and the disturbing legacy of Brazil’s colonial past.

Every decade gets represented in Surface Work, which takes place across Victoria Miro’s two London galleries.  While bluechip names like Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Yayoi Kusama and Agnes Martin are all here – mainly at Miro’s Mayfair gallery – plenty of lesser-known talents, both old and young, get wall space.

Take African-American activist and artist Betty Blayton (1937-2016) who championed the arts in Harlem and was a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem (which is currently getting a massive new David Adjaye-designed headquarters).

Alma Thomas’s (1892-1978) untitled painting below was painted in 1971 and inspired by the Apollo moon landings. Thomas was the first African-American woman to receive a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1972.

I love reading the snippets about these artists almost as much as looking at their work.  British abstract artist Sandra Blow (1925-2006) used  things like tea, sawdust and sackcloth in her work. American Howardena Pindell (b. 1943) opted for  glitter, talcum powder and perfume. Japanese-Brazilian Tomie Ohtake  (1913-2015) painted while blindfolded. Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo  (1929-1989) is best known for her painting The Rose, a one-tonne, ten foot tall painting made up of layers and layers of oil paint applied to canvas. It was so heavy that it had to be removed from her apartment by a forklift truck.

Fast forward to now, American superstar Lynda Benglis (b. 1941) transforms chickenwire and glitter into something floating, lovely and slightly puzzling.

Victoria Miro’s Wharf Road space shows the younger, more affordable artists. Run don’t walk to Hoxton as this show closes May 19th and not all of the glorious works are sold, like this exuberant work from relentlessly inventive British painter Fiona Rae (b. 1963)…

Rae is a Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools, one of the first two female professors since the Academy was founded in 1768. Of this work, she says:

I’m inventing characters…  who exist only as abstract paint marks, but who might be wearing crowns, clouds, arrows, dresses, shoes, hats, feathers, stars… I think of these paintings as having a relationship to the way one presents oneself to the world; the way one might use costume and props as bits of language to hang off the body.’

Hungarian-American Rita Ackermann (b. 1968) painted this. I love the whirlpools of pink and red.

As Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) once said,

‘A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image.

 May, 2018

This article also appeared in The Women’s Room Blog and Almost Essential London