Women abstract artists

[21 May 2021]


They were daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, muses… but above all, artists

A special focus

The Pompidou Center in Paris has just reopened (19 May) with a major exhibition that highlights the contributions of a hundred female artists to the field of Abstract Art up until the 1980s (with a couple of unprecedented forays into the 19th century).

Entitled Elles font l’abstraction (a clever title vaguely alluding to the lack of recognition of women in the field of Abstract Art), the exhibition proposes an alternative history of this artistic current via the somewhat eclipsed careers of a number of female artists. Particular attention is given to the specific conditions which have favored or – on the contrary – limited the recognition of these women, in contexts that are both educational and social, but also institutional. Until 23 August at the Pompidou Center (then from 8 October to 30 January 2022 at the Guggenheim in Bilbao) the exhibition will show nearly 500 works by a total of 106 women artists, from the origins of abstraction in 1860 until 1980. The entire top floor of the famous Parisian museum will be dedicated to the show.

No medium has been left out of this highly diverse exhibition which includes painting, photography, cinema, decorative arts and even dance. There are of course works by big name artists like Georgiana HOUGHTON and Judy CHICAGO among others, but, the exhibition reveals, above all, the work of artists who were unable to reach beyond the borders of their home countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

Georgiana Houghton_doyenne de l'exposition au centre Pompidou_Album of Spirit Art

Georgiana Houghton, senior of the exhibition at the Pompidou Center, Album of Spirit Art

This magnificent tour de force has been put together by Christine Macel, the show’s General Curator, and, by shining a spotlight on art history’s forgotten female artists, it transgresses a number of social and artworld-specific codes and questions a number of widely accepted clichés, notably, the standard male-dominated historical narrative that appears to have congealed around the Abstract Art movement.

Towards reassessment and veritable recognition

From Kasimir Malévitch to Donald Judd, from Vassily Kandinsky to Jackson Pollock, from Piet Mondrian to Mark Rothko… The most well-known figures of 20th century Abstract Art are as present in private collections as they are in museum around the world. The general tendency to believe that art is above all a masculine affair has resulted in the majority of women artists being left out of Art History. The latest historiographical advances – as reflected in numerous publications, solo exhibitions and recent ‘special focus’ exhibitions – has allowed a reassessment of the importance of women’s contributions to the various currents of Abstraction. Even if some, like Sonia DELAUNAY, Bridget RILEY or even Barbara HEPWORTH managed to get their names written into Art History, they represent only a tiny minority of a much vaster phenomenon.

In reality, many women remained in the shadows of male figures. Sophie TAEUBER-ARP and Elaine DE KOONING, for example, are much less famous than their husbands Jean Arp and Willem de Kooning. Lee KRASNER, too, was long eclipsed by her husband Jackson Pollock and was only recognised after the latter’s death… giving her a somewhat uncomfortable form of recognition.

Liubov Popova _Design tectile 1924-1925

Liubov Popova _Textile Design 1924-1925

The women-only ranking below illustrates the extent to which the male-domination of the art world is being toppled in today’s art market.

 Rank Artist Sales product Lots sold Best result
1 Joan MITCHELL (1926-1992) $ 70,952,857
50 $ 14,462,500
2 Yayoi KUSAMA (1929) $ 66,065,482
632 $ 4,985,889
3 Tamara DE LEMPICKA (1898-1980) $ 37,603,202
39 $ 21,303,860
4 Helen FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011) $ 31,601,078
74 $ 7,895,300
5 Georgia O’KEEFFE (1887-1986) $ 25,150,750
35 $ 6,870,200
6 Cecily BROWN (1969) $ 23,277,638
20 $ 6,136,595
7 $ 16,518,921
97 $ 3,320,000
8 Lee KRASNER (1908-1984) $ 15,152,277
14 $ 9,034,300
9 Bridget RILEY (1931) $ 14,020,157
101 $ 3,516,223
10 Agnes MARTIN (1912-2004) $ 12,090,051
47 $ 5,218,650
11 Dana SCHUTZ (1976) $ 10,581,787
20 $ 6,456,499
12 Vija CELMINS (1939) $ 10,127,705
22 $ 6,585,450
13 Marlene DUMAS (1953) $ 9,078,900
51 $ 4,060,170
14 Remedios Lizarraga VARO (1908-1963) $ 8,247,722
7 $ 6,186,800
15 Mary CASSATT (1844-1926) $ 7,907,543
46  $ 4,376,000
16 Barbara HEPWORTH (1903-1975) $ 7,611,832
43 $ 2,540,000
17 Ayako ROKKAKU (1982) $ 7,441,253
82 $ 416,880
18 Gabriele MÜNTER (1877-1962) $ 6,591,160
50 $ 679,263
19 Genieve FIGGIS (1972) $ 5,125,129
56 $ 569,000
20 Jenny SAVILLE (1970) $ 4,647,824
4 $ 3,981,869

Top 20 Female Artists by Auction Product in 2020 ©artprice.com

Until very recently, there were very few women artists at the “high-end” of the art market. Today, lots of female artists are generating eye-watering results in auction sales. Examples are Alice NEEL’s recent record at over $3 million during Christie’s May 13 evening and the new records for Barbara Hepworth and Grace HARTIGAN which are more or less in the same price ballpark as those of their male counterparts!

Nowadays women are much more present in the global population of living artists than ever before; it therefore only natural that they should also be more present on the secondary market. Among the top 20 women in this ranking, nine are still alive and they rank among the best performers based on their 2020 auction turnovers.

Nevertheless, in price terms, the most sought-after remain ‘20th century’ artists, and, among those whose works fetched the highest prices last year, it is interesting to note that a majority evolved in the field of Abstract Art: Joan MITCHELL, Yayoi KUSAMA, Helen FRANKENTHALER, Lee Krasner, Bridget Riley and Agnes MARTIN.

In short, it is now abundantly clear that Abstract Art is not (and was not) an ‘essentially male’ art form… and the recent enthusiasm of collectors seems to confirm this reality!