So macho? Here is the kaleidoscopic proof that abstraction was anything but

Untitled (detail), by Wook-kyung (1960s) - Wook-kyung Choi Estate/ArteCollectum

Untitled (detail), by Wook-kyung (1960s) – Wook-kyung Choi Estate/ArteCollectum

A 13-foot canvas is on display at the opening of Whitechapel Gallery’s Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-1970. Helen Frankenthaler’s April Mood (1974) is a burst of pure color: a large, light blue block in the center merges with purple, pink and orange, while green and dark blue brushstrokes sit on top. The scale is enough to stop any gallery goer.

Frankenthaler was one of the second generation of abstract expressionists—a movement that began in 1940s New York and became famous through a small group of artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. The movement is often remembered as unmistakably masculine, with its signature focus on large, macho canvases and “action painting”. In the early years, female artists were far from welcome – one critic told Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, that one of her paintings was “so good you wouldn’t believe it was done by a woman”. This masculine element was accompanied by an unlikely kind of American nationalism: the involvement of the CIA in promoting the artists has long been the subject of rumor and debate.

But, as this kaleidoscopically diverse exhibition demonstrates, this period of abstraction was far from confined to a small group of American men. With more than 150 paintings, the exhibition showcases the work of 80 women artists from around the world – from the calligraphic canvases of Palestinian artist Maliheh Afnan to the expressive works of Polish artist Franciszka Themerson on paper (made, such as the canvases of Pollock , by paint from a height).

Among the Americans, there are works by Lee Krasner (including her 1955 symbolic collage, Bald Eagle), Elaine de Kooning, and Sonia Gechtoff (whose pair of dark canvases, The Queen and The Map, are a haunting highlight of the exhibition). And from Britain there are early canvases by Gillian Ayres and bold, tactile collage-like works by St Ives artist Sandra Blow.

The show isn’t limited to the English-speaking world: Korean artist Wook-kyung Choi’s bright, colorful canvases sit alongside tangible, almost apocalyptic mixed-media works by Peruvian artist Gloria Gómez-Sánchez.

The bull, by Elaine de Kooning (1959) - Levett Collection/EdeK Trust

The bull, by Elaine de Kooning (1959) – Levett Collection/EdeK Trust

Featuring many women whose work has never been shown in the UK before, the exhibition represents a shared, global heritage of female abstraction. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and the show manages to draw attention to many women who have been unjustly forgotten. But by including so many artists, there’s the unmistakable sense that some of their individual context is lost.

Are these artists linked only by their gender or a shared conception of abstraction? It’s a question the exhibition doesn’t answer, but the sheer variety – from colourfield paintings to smaller watercolours, architectural works and near-figurative canvases – certainly opens up a much broader and more exciting definition of post-war abstract art.

From February 9 to May 7. Tickets: 020 7522 7888;

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