Yes, They Went There: ‘The Feminine in Abstract Painting’

The exhibition has, apparently, been in the works for six years. One would hazard to guess that discussions between the organizers have increased in complexity given the evolving nature of contemporary political discourse.

Via Nathalie Karg Gallery, New York. Charles Benton
Lisa Beck, ‘Coming Together,’ 2023. Via Nathalie Karg Gallery, New York. Charles Benton

Several thoughts hurtled through my head when clicking on the announcement for “The Feminine in Abstract Painting,” an exhibition at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation on the Lower East Side, the primary of which being: Who on earth is crazy enough to mount a show with a title like that?

Following quickly on the heels of that question was an observation prompted by a perusal of included artists: “Hey, there are guys in this thing.” Fob these off as the reactions of a clueless baby boomer and you wouldn’t be altogether wrong, but given the fracas within progressive circles about the state and nature of womanhood, any curator treading into that particular pool of water is tempting the sharks.

To make matters more perilous, the organizers of “The Feminine in Abstract Painting,” artist Andrea Belag and critic Jennifer Samet, state from the outset that their show “explores the feminine through aesthetics, not identity or gender.” The exhibition has, apparently, been in the works for six years. One would hazard to guess that discussions between Ms. Belag and Ms. Samet have increased in complexity given the evolving nature of contemporary political discourse.

This may explain why the curatorial rationale for “The Feminine in Abstract Painting,” at least as set out in the press materials, drifts into the anodyne. “Painting that seduces, rather than declares … is a kind of ‘soft power’ I associate with the feminine,” Ms. Samet  writes. Later, we learn that the feminine aesthetic is about “artistic choices … being the utilization of an open-ended process and vulnerability.”

To which one can only respond, à la Bertie Wooster: Er, I say, what? The above standards are open-ended enough to include any serious artist who has applied her (or his) craft since our species was daubing bison on cave walls. Granted, as of the lead time for this review, the exhibition catalog was not yet available for purchase, and I wasn’t able to read the attendant essays that might articulate just how thoroughly femininity can be embodied in abstract painting.

That is too bad, given the track record of the show’s organizers. Ms. Samet is well-traveled in the New York scene, her regular column for the arts website Hyperallergic, “Beer With a Painter,” being a highlight of its pages. Ms. Belag is a veteran painter whose work has been exhibited internationally, collected widely, and garnered significant awards. “Painting and its Others: In the Realm of the Feminine,” a 1991 essay by the painter Shirley Kaneda, serves as a touchstone for both curators.

Still, having once witnessed a fist fight between panelists at an academic conference in which the subject of femininity and art was broached, I like to err on the side of prudence when treading into matters of this kind. As it is, “The Feminine in Abstract Painting” occupies two floors of the Foundation and includes 20-some artists of varying levels of renown. How easily one’s name rolls off the tongue fame-wise is, of course, no gauge of quality; rather it’s to point out that Ms. Samet and Ms. Belag have been catholic in their choices.

Al Loving, ‘Elliestrip,’ 1974. Via the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

In terms of installation, the pride of place is given to a man. “Elliestrip” (1974), an irregularly-shaped paper collage by Al Loving (1935-2005), is a boisterous effusion of pink, purple, and emerald green that serves as an anchor for the exhibition. Chroma keyed high and dispersed with an eye toward ornament is a leitmotif here. 

Candida Alvarez, Pam Glick, Clare Grill, Erika Ranee, and Jiha Moon pull out the stops coloristically and do so with a command that is nothing if not firm.

Ms. Kaneda’s silky meditation on figure-and-ground, “Furtive Prominence” (2022), is a stand-out, as is “Coming Together” (2023), a quirky diptych in which Lisa Beck literally paints herself into a corner. Why the klutzy formalism of Mary Heilman continues to be taken seriously is a mystery for finer minds to moot, as is the exclusion of Pat Adams, whose paintings are the subject of a splendid exhibition up the block and across the street at Alexandre Gallery. 

Differences in taste are inevitable when considering an exhibition such as this. Still, if Ms. Samet and Ms. Belag haven’t altogether illuminated their thesis, they have mounted an exhibition that is, on the whole, fetching and fulsome.

“The Feminine in Abstract Painting” at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, 87 Eldridge St., until July 15. Hours are Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

“Pat Adams: Large Paintings” at Alexandre Gallery, 291 Grand St., until April 22. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.


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