Contributed by David Carrier / Revisionist arguments about who should be counted among the artistic elite, whether they be old masters or modernists, provide essential stimulus in the art world. They proceed in an established manner. Some reasonably influential figure contends that a significant artist has been unjustly excluded from a particular art canon. Commentaries are published and shows organized making the case for supplementing it. The recent amendments to the predominantly white male Abstract Expressionist elite have proven especially tricky, as issues of gender and race enter the picture. Does Alma Thomas belong? Norman Lewis? What about Ethel Schwabacher? With “Woman in Nature (Paintings from the 1950s)”, Berry and Campbell argue energetically, though not entirely convincingly, that she deserves a place.
The show certainly reveals that Schwabacher was a very good painter. Many of her abstractions are loosely based on organic forms. Prometheus, yellow and orange against a blue background, has a boldly organized visual structure and is as good as some of Helen Frankenthaler’s work. The colors and composition of the splendid Return and Departure evoke Joan Mitchell. And Seasons and Days: July plays red and orange panels in a push-pull arrangement reminiscent of Hans Hofmann at his best. In fact, all of the pieces are strong. But they don’t build on one another, such that the whole body of work is merely the sum of its parts. This raises doubts about their originality and their collective impact.
Lyrical Abstract Expressionism was a collective creation in which Frankenthaler, Mitchell, Hofmann, and perhaps also Schwabacher played a role. Isolating their individual contributions now is devilishly difficult, and there’s tendency, unfair but inevitable, for art critics to exalt more familiar artists to the detriment of those for whom anointment is sought. But a key aim of art criticism is to look for yourself without undue regard to consensus. This requires strong faith in your own aesthetic judgments, however fallible.
I thought of these complex problems when I saw Willem de Kooning’s black and white Painting (1948) at MoMA. Not one of his most famous works, it is still a note-perfect composition. Look at how effectively he locks together the black-outlined-in-white shapes. And consider how, two years lager, in Excavation he achieved the same effect on a larger scale. Finally, observe how in Door to the River (1960) he creates the same unity with color. The unity of his visual thinking is impressive. By comparison, Schwabacher, as represented by the art in this show, seemed to me merely a very good painter. One never quite escapes the sense that her markings in color are superimposed somewhat arbitrarily. But perhaps this little formal analysis would be corrected were we to see more of her works.
“Ethel Schwabacher: Woman in Nature (Paintings from the 1950s),” Berry Campbell, 524 W. 26th Street, New York, NY. Through May 26, 2023.
About the author: David Carrier is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton University; a Getty Scholar; and a Clark Fellow. He has lectured in China, Europe, India, Japan, New Zealand, and North America. He has published catalogue essays for many museums and art criticism for Apollo, artcritical, Artforum, Artus and Burlington Magazine. He has also been a guest editor for The Brooklyn Rail.