From the warm exuberance of Martha Jungwirth’s colour explorations to the cool and meticulous pencil studies of Agnes Martin, Surface Work brings together a stellar, cross-generational exhibition of great women artists. Each decade reveals artists who have shaped, questioned and pushed the boundaries of abstract painting, but are often overlooked in the movement.
This ambitious exhibition at Victoria Miro, London is spread across both gallery sites; and includes work from more than fifty global artists ranging from some of the most prominent names of the 20th century, to exciting ones to watch.
The American painter Joan Mitchell explained, ‘Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work.’ This sentiment lends the exhibition its title and speaks to the ways in which the collaborators explore, manipulate, subvert and sometimes entirely reinvent the medium of painting. In Wall with Incisions à la Fontana, Adriana Varejão slashes a large canvas whose eggshell blue tiling recalls the floor of a swimming pool, revealing the sanguine ‘innards’ within. This work explicitly references Lucio Fontana in its title and offers itself as a viscerally engaging counterpart.
The youngest artist in the show, Dala Nasser, revels in taking the process of painting and subverting it with her choice of materials. In the work It’s Only A Party If You Sniff It Nasser coats the shiny surfaces of a emergency trauma blanket with latex and marble dust, evoking both the trauma of destruction and the benign detritus of an artist’s studio.
Abstract is not a style, I simply want to make a surface work
Reaching further back, her predecessor Dorothea Rockburne – alumnus of Black Mountain College – brings together interests in dance and mathematical concepts by visually resolving equations in her work. In Parallelogram with two Small Squares (from Vellum Curve series), Rockburne uses smooth sheets of vellum to create folded geometrical shapes, that hint at corporeality with their translucent and fleshy surfaces.
Yayoi Kusama, who has enjoyed considerable exposure during her career and continues to create at a prolific rate, is represented here by a subtle but powerful example of her work. The iconic Infinity Net painting explores her signature motif of repetition, albeit in a more subtle rendition of white textural marks dotted serially on a white background. As with many other works in the show, these marks are delectably three-dimensional and leap from the surface teasing you to run a finger over their spiky peaks.
Louise Fishman’s paintings on the other hand are unabashedly outspoken and carry broad and sweeping smears of paint across the canvas, applied using scrapers and trowels. Bearer of the Rose created only last year by the 79 year old artist, is a playful and dynamic work with its toothpaste-hued strokes that have the lived appearance of having been applied only seconds before.
The shows cover much ground in the genre’s timeline and shines light upon the extent to which many female artists contributed to Abstract Expressionism. At its height it was perceived and promoted as an almost entirely masculine endeavour, dominated by the familiar names of Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky. Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning. Despite their equally innovative and questioning approaches to the medium, few – apart from Joan Mitchell – got a look in. The rest of the movement’s female counterparts were rarely given the same exposure in their lifetimes. Many were toiling away alongside the biggest names only to be relegated to footnotes in accounts of the movement.
Surface Work is a welcome start and for many, will be perhaps a first introduction to a canon of work rarely shown together. One can detect the parallels between work separated by decades and the subtle ways in which the baton of experimentation has been passed on (whether knowingly or not) from one generation to the next. The exhibition where every work retains a sense of authority; and every work is created by a woman echoes a current trend for overlooked female artists to be ‘rediscovered’ and rightfully inserted back into the historical narrative of art of the 20th century. It is an exciting survey of artistic output, female or otherwise and perhaps most pleasurable in its open invitation to test, explore and ultimately tear apart the fabric of the familiar.
Surface Work runs at Victoria Miro Wharf Road and Victoria Miro Mayfair, London; until 19 May and 16 June respectively.