Celebrating Women Artists in “Her Voice”

Celebrating Women Artists in “Her Voice”

A selling exhibition at Sotheby’s East Hampton highlights the work and practices of women artists.
A selling exhibition at Sotheby’s East Hampton highlights the work and practices of women artists.

I nspired by Rebecca Morrill’s book Great Women Artists, which champions the ground-breaking work of female artists spanning 500 years, a selling exhibition at Sotheby’s East Hampton brings together a diverse set of female artists not defined by their gender, but by their distinct artistic practices. “Her Voice” actualizes the pages of Great Women Artists through the presentation of works by Helen Frankenthaler, Gertrude Abercrombie and Lynda Benglis, leaders who have set the foundation for next-generation stars such as Dana Schutz, Loie Hollowell and Jadé Fadojutimi.

Here are just a few of the remarkable works now on view at Sotheby’s East Hampton.

Helen Frankenthaler, Somnambulist, 1989

Helen Frankenthaler, Somnambulist , 1989. Acrylic on canvas, 74½ x 62 in (189.2 x 157.5 cm). Price upon request.

Belonging to neither the male-dominated Abstract Expressionist nor Color Field painting groups of her time, Helen Frankenthaler forged her own path in the arts. The artist’s work is distinguished by her mastery of space — she balances various techniques to produce rhythmic harmony on canvas. Frankenthaler effectively inherited the techniques of her collaborators, such as Jackson Pollock, and individualized them, infusing her works with lyrical gestures and poetic sleight of hand.

Somnambulist, meaning “sleepwalker,” is exemplary of Frankenthaler’s style, and was created in a significant year for the artist, as MoMA opened Helen Frankenthaler: A Painting Retrospective to the public. The artwork’s midnight black background contrasts with the captivating, vibrant pigments that appear in the foreground like a glowing apparition. These abstract shapes establish a compelling perspective within the work, creating depth and consuming the viewer as if they were a sleepwalker in a dreamscape.

The present owner purchased Somnambulist directly from Frankenthaler’s New York studio, and it has remained in the same collection for 25 years. Frankenthaler kept the painting herself for six years after its completion, during which time it hung over a Mies van der Rohe couch in her studio. In 1954, Frankenthaler’s friend and mentor Rufino Tamayo painted a similar work by the same title, which has stood in the permanent collection of the San Diego Museum of Art since 1964.

Gertrude Abercrombie, Figure Facing East, 1947

Gertrude Abercrombie, Figure Facing East , 1947. Oil on Masonite, 8 x 10 in (20.3 x 25.4 cm).

Inspired by the Surrealist work of René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, Gertrude Abercrombie developed an idiosyncratic visual vocabulary that combined elements of American folk art and subconscious experience into an uncanny strain of American modernism. The only child of itinerant Christian Scientist opera singers, Abercrombie traveled a great deal throughout her childhood before settling in Chicago, throughout which she developed a love of European languages (she was fluent in German) and jazz, as well as a deep connection to the Midwest.

As she noted in 1951, Abercrombie’s paintings are highly autobiographical: “My work comes directly from my inner consciousness and it must come easily. It is a process of selection and reduction.” Created during her most formative years, Figure Facing East is exemplary of the evocative landscapes that distinguish the artist’s work. In it, as in much of her work, a lone figure walks across a barren landscape, a solitary tree and deserted structure reflecting the sense of isolation the artist struggled with throughout her life. Permeating these psychological self-portraits is the dual motif of the witch and queen; though Abercrombie did not consider herself a great beauty, she relished the powerful artifice that came from embracing this two-fold persona.

While Abercrombie’s paintings have been historically undervalued, a comprehensive retrospective exhibition in 2018 helped her become one of the most desirable American women artists now on the market. Her work resides in the permanent collections of some of the country’s most important museums, including the Whitney, the Smithsonian and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.

Jadé Fadojutimi, Typhoon, 2015 

Jadé Fadojutimi, Typhoon , 2015. Oil on canvas, 31¼ x 32 in (79.4 x 81.3 cm).

Often working on a large scale, Jadé Fadojutimi’s practice is distinguished by its emotive and dynamic nature. Fadojutimi harnesses the depth of daily emotions through chromatic palettes and exaggerated lines, and establishes relatability within abstraction — viewers experience themselves through her work.

Typhoon is a compelling, formative example of Fadojutimi’s work. Like a composer of color, the artist references marine landscapes, microbes and plant life with vivid brushstrokes. These emotional landscapes facilitate a moment of escape, encouraging their audience to reconnect with the naturalism that surrounds them and embrace a type of venerability.

At only 29, Fadojutimi is represented by two of the world’s most recognized galleries: Pippy Houldsworth and Gagosian. Fadojutimi graduated with a BA from the Slade School of Art, London, and an MA from the Royal College of Art, London, where she received the year’s Hine Painting Prize. The artist’s formal path mimics that of fellow Slade alumni Rachel Whiteread, David Hockney and Margaret Calvert.

Lynda Benglis, Blansko, 1997 

Lynda Benglis, Blansko , 1997. Hand-blown glass, 5 x 34 x 5 in (12.7 x 86.4 x 12.7 cm).

Since her beginnings in the post-Minimalism movement in the 1960s, Lynda Benglis has pushed the boundaries of painting and sculpture, and established her voice as one of the most formative women artists of the latter half of the 21st century. Benglis’s artistic practices have been recognized for their organic approach to abstraction — she produces ecstatic forms that feel youthful in nature.

In Blansko, Benglis honors the rich history of glass blowing — which dates to the 1st century BC, when Syrian artisans exported luxury goods throughout the Roman Empire — and re-frames it in a contemporary artistic context. Exhibited at the artist’s acclaimed 2009–10 exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Blansko presents glass not as a fragile, sharp and dangerous medium, but as soft, supple and playful. The work embodies the artist’s interest in an array of art-making techniques and her interest in pushing viewers to embrace a more comprehensive collection of textures and form.

Often regarded as an antidote to male-dominated Minimalism and art-process movements, the artist’s work imbues forms with color and sensuality. Regarding her approach to materials as an extension of her body, she told art historian Tracy Zwick, “My work is an expression of space. What is the experience of moving? Is it pictorial? Is it an object? Is it a feeling? It all comes from my body.”

Dana Schutz, Suicide, 2002

Dana Schutz, Suicide , 2002. Oil on canvas, 49 ⅝ x 58 ½ in (126 x 148.6 cm).

Over the past two decades, Dana Schutz has become widely known for her psychologically charged, often striking abstracted figuration. Marked by an identifiable style, her constructed perspectives uniquely reflect society and its manifestations in the artist’s inner world.

Schutz’s works are often loosely tethered to a narrative or to one of her invented figures; in some circumstances the figure is bodily, and in others the artist’s landscapes, still lifes or abstractions suggest the presence or relation to a figure, often to the artist herself. Schutz’s character Frank — introduced in 2002 exhibition, “Frank from Observation” — is based on the premise that he and Schutz are the last people left on Earth. Paintings from this series, including Suicide, recall scenes from a desert island. In this case, however, Schutz’s role as a painter is as prominent as Frank’s onshore: she has described how Frank, as both a figure and an idea, can be killed and brought back to life. The artist holds the upper hand in the manipulation of Frank’s reality.

In Suicide, both the title and the painting’s horizon line suggest a point where the landscape extends infinitely beyond the markers of time. The painting depicts a record player stuck in the sand, which Schutz explained in a 2006 interview with Mei Chin: “I also started painting objects that would wash up from the world: things that would no longer have a clear function if they were broken.” Schutz’s post-apocalyptic mirage comes together as a nonhierarchical vanitas. The record player, the abstracted conch lying among refuse and the breaking waves suggest the death of Frank, the end of humanity or perhaps even the end of Schutz’s imagined narrative series. But like the surrounding forces of nature, the artist’s agency as a creator continues on.

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