Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Agnes Martin

Making Space for Women Artists and Remembering My Mother, Joan Sommers


No woman wants to be a “woman artist.” If you are a woman and an artist, you want to be judged on your work. Period. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”

Gender qualification in the art world carries the stink of second-class value or exception-to-the-rule accomplishment.  We shouldn’t need to gender qualify “women artists” but, of course, we do and MoMA’s revelatory new exhibit, “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction,” on view through August 13th, proves why.

Drawing exclusively from the museum’s archives, curators Starr Figura and Sara Meister, assisted by Hillary Reder, have put together a show of art by women created in that slippery pocket of time between the end of World War II and the emergence late-60s, second-wave feminism. Networks of support for women artists had yet to coalesce, and entrenched thinking in the art world was dismissive of women artists. While some women achieved exception-to-the-rule status, among them familiar names like Lee Krassner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Elaine De Kooning, all brilliant and all either lovers, disciples, or wives of the period’s male art stars, those outside the “macho mystique” orbit had little choice but to forge their own paths, make their own space.

With nearly 100 works presented by 50-plus women artists – some recent acquisitions to collection, others pulled from storage to be displayed on MoMA’s walls for the first time – “Making Space” reroutes the exclusivity of the white-men only narrative of modern abstraction with work by women that collectively amplifies the gender and geographic bandwidth of abstraction in late-20th art in profound ways.

Grace Hartigan, Shinnecock Canal, 1957

Opening the exhibit with a work by Grace Hartigan, an Abstract Expressionist from the New York School, positions us with a familiar reference point. Her Shinnecock Canal (1957) is a powerhouse painting, where brushstrokes collide with such combustible energy the canvas feels ready to burst.  And that is what “Making Space” does. It bursts with thrilling work that spans nearly 30 years and multiple evolutions of abstraction. By the end of “Making Space,” LIFE Magazine’s 1958 accolade of Hartigan as one of the “most celebrated of the young American Women painters” feels even more onerous in its exception-to-the rule implications.

(Ironically, Grace Hartigan’s “Shinnecock Canal,” originally featured as the opening painting for “Making Space,” was removed to make space for an exhibition on architects, despite the fact that “Making Space” runs through August 13th.)

Walking through the galleries, I was overcome with a vicarious, albeit bittersweet sense of vindication. My mother, Joan Sommers, a 1948 graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, like many of the women in this show, spent a lifetime fighting to assert her primary identity as an artist in a world that worked hard to subordinate that identity to her roles as wife and mother.  In the mid-50s, one reviewer wrote of her, “For most wives and mothers, the multiple duties and responsibilities of rearing children present challenge enough.  But not so for painter Joan Sommers…” No wonder my mother abhorred interviews.

MoMA’s exhibit illuminates what the curators call “the stunning achievements” of these artists, but read between the lines and the stories of how these women willed their art into existence emerge. Their art lives independently but, given the gender prejudice, their stories matter too and are inextricably linked to the passions that drove them.

Joan Mitchell, Ladybug, 1957

It was wonderful to take in Mitchell’s Ladybug (1957), but even more exciting to discover, directly across from Ladybug, Janet Sobel’s little-known gem, Untitled, (1946). In this small but stunning work, Sobel is the first to experiment with drip painting.  A self-taught artist and mother of five, who passed through Ellis Island from the Ukraine in 1908, it should be noted that Pollock, the epitome of Abstract Expressionism’s heroic male art star, discovered his signature innovation through her work.

Nearby is a piece by Alma Woodsey Thomas, an African American junior high art school teacher from Washington, DC whose retirement in 1960, at the age of 68, unleashed an outpouring of creativity. Working out of her kitchen, she created her most important work. In Untitled, (1968), strips of paper, filled with multiple splashes of color, build into columns and, at a distance, the work hints of flowers cascading down a wall. Get closer and you’ll discover the meticulous application of paint obliterates any reality-based reference. What remains is a sublime distillation of color. Michelle Obama had the vision to hang Thomas’s work in the White House.

Alma Woodsey Thomas, Untitled, 1968

The extensive inclusion of Latin American women signals the exhibits’ international scope. Most of these artists are unfamiliar. A series of recently acquired of photographs (1952) by Brazilian artist Gertrudes Altschul, alluring in their organic sensibility, turn shape, light and shadow into sensual abstractions. Uruguayan painter and sculptor Maria Freire, a leading figure in her country’s art concrete movement, is represented by Untitled (1954), a flat work, devoid of the emotionalism of the New York School but strangely soothing to contemplate. A major work by Brazilian artist Lygia Pape, Orange (1955), on view for the first time at MoMA, is yet another revelation. As the exhibit notes explain, women in South America, especially Brazil, had an easier time of it. Why that was so is not exactly clear.

Gertrudes Altschub, Untitled, photograph, c. 1952

Agnes Martin and Ann Truitt are but two of the talents that anchor the minimalist gallery, or as the curators call it reductive abstractionism. Faint influences from the east shadow their work. Truitt’s Sumi drawings, created in Japan in 1966, pit the austerity of vertical stripes against the softness of Sumi-e ink, resulting in a yin-yang effect of cold and warmth, while Martin’s The Tree (1964), with its painstakingly contoured grid, unifies, as you step back, into a transcendent oneness.

Other works to pay special attention to are Bridget Riley’s Current (1964); its synthetic polymer painted lines magically ripple across the canvas in real time. And Yayoi Kusuma’s two works, Infinity Nets (1951) and No. F (1959), along with Jo Baer’s Primary Light Group: Red, Blue, Green (1964-65), make irrefutable the case that women were key players in the divergence from gestural abstraction to minimalism.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled, 1955

By the mid-sixties, a conscious feminist intent to elevate marginalized women’s disciplines, like weaving and crafting, took hold and yarn and wire became materials of choice. Among the works to look for are Shelia Hicks Prayer Rug (1965), Magdalena Abakanowicz’s hefty Yellow Abakan (1967-68), and Ruth Asawa’s hanging wire sculpture Untitled (1955). Of course, Anni Albers, Lygia Pape and Yayoi Kusuma had been creating textiles since the forties and fifties and those presented in the exhibit are stunning.


I left the exhibit with mixed emotions. Exhilarated by the work, amazed at the paths these women travelled, and deflated that 40-years after the rise of second-wave feminism, shows like this are still necessary.  Of course, I applaud MoMA’s efforts to rethink the deficiencies in their representation of women artists but am impatient with the pace. As with so many narratives of inequality, the reality, especially when it comes to women, is that turning the corner is a process that never ends.

Anne Ryan, Collage 585, 1949

There were two artists I couldn’t stop thinking about. One was Anne Ryan.  For me, she was the standout discovery.  So was her story. Born in 1889 in New Jersey, she was a printmaker/poet and first-generation Abstract Expressionist. In 1948, at the age of 57, she came across Kurt Schwitters’ collage work and saw the potential to visualize her poetry through this new medium. For the last six years of her life, she focused exclusively on collage, producing around 400 pieces with magnificent effect.  Mastering a new medium at that stage in her career is reminiscent of Matisse conjuring cutouts during his final years.

The other artist I couldn’t stop thinking about was my mother, Joan Sommers. Like so many of the women in “Making Space,” she forged her own artistic path, but did so by taking a dramatically different turn. A classmate of Joan Mitchell, my mother was a full scholarship student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating a year after Mitchell. Although friends, they were not close. Both mid-western girls, they shared a talent for ice-skating. Mitchell won the Midwest Junior Pairs Championship; my mother toured professionally with Shipstead & Johnson’s Ice Follies. They both embraced Abstract Expressionism. But that’s where the similarities ended. Mitchell was a Chicago debutante and steel-heiress with a combative personality, well suited for New York. My mother, the daughter of a machine engineer in Duluth, was averse to confrontation but her graceful countenance masked steely resolve.

First row, far right: Joan Sommers, Art Institute of Chicago, 1947

For most of the 50s, she remained in the Midwest, balancing her art with marriage and motherhood. However, both my parents bristled under the constraints of suburban life. My father, a poet and town manager, sought a bigger stage. My mother, straightjacketed by the conformity of American domesticity, longed to escape. When, in the early 60s, an opportunity arose for them to move to Southeast Asia, they jumped at the chance and never looked back.

Joan Sommers, Untitled, oil on canvas,1954

For someone who had never been abroad before, the move to Thailand was simultaneously a journey into the unknown and, unexpectedly, the start of a harmonizing of her artistic identity. The eastern aesthetic held deep resonance for her and offered a kind of artistic rebirth. She traveled extensively – Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan, Indonesia, and eventually China – but it was her encounter with Chinese calligraphy and painting that redefined her evolution as an artist.  Through Bangkok’s Chinese community, she found a revered master willing to teach her the ancient techniques of calligraphy, and so began a life-long practice.

In retrospect, her embrace of calligraphy seems destined. Whether carving the ice of frozen Duluth lakes with her skates or letting her “chi” flow from hand to brush, her innate sense of line was intrinsic to her physical being. And in Chinese calligraphy’s abstract quality and gestural capacity, she saw possibilities for innovation that would move her beyond the conventions of western abstraction.  Her experimentation resulted in black ink paintings that balanced ideas of western abstraction with the spontaneity and controlled brushwork at the heart of Chinese calligraphy.

Joan Sommers, Cat’s Cradle, ink on rice paper with undercoat, c. 1990s

As she remarked years later, “It is that tension between East and West that has been my inspiration; the desire to blend and balance ideas of contrast and similarity, continuity and disruption.” Overtime, she applied these ideas to black ink, collage, landscapes, oil, and even the hot-wax techniques of batik.

Joan Sommers, Indonesian Night, hot wax batik technique, 1976

As an adult, I spent hours with her in her studio, watching her work and dissecting her process.  By nature, she was not a particularly verbal person, but I pushed and over time our discussions went deep. A bond formed between us, one that transcended the vicissitudes of our mother-daughter relationship. I like to think that our friendship during those later years took the edge off her feelings of isolation. She was fully confident in her vision, extremely self-critical and experimented endlessly. Having grown up in Asia myself, her trajectory felt natural to me. But discussing her art with others was exhausting, filled as it was with unexpected twists and turns.

Joan Sommers, Bamboo with Enso, ink on rice paper and collage, c. 1990s

A gifted ice skater, she quit the Ice Follies in favor of art school. A fervent Abstract Expressionist, she turned her back on New York in favor of the East. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, she thrived most while studying at the China National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, China. Her identity as an artist was paramount but she was the mother of six and her marriage a love story that lasted a lifetime. She worked simultaneously in multiple mediums but Chinese calligraphy was her sustenance, her daily practice. Hers was a contradictory narrative, with so many moving parts, that explaining it to others left me at a loss.  Predictably, my mother had no interest in explaining anything to anyone.

Joan Sommers, Sudden Landscape, ink on rice paper, 2002

In December 2013, a mere three weeks after she passed away on Thanksgiving Day, a show opened at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that struck me like a lightning bolt.  “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” was a landmark exhibit by contemporary Chinese artists who used their artistic heritage to create contemporary, non-western, global art.  Lingering in the galleries, I could feel my mother’s ideas echo throughout the exhibit. And my jaw dropped when I saw work by two of the show’s major artists: Wang Dongling and Wenda Gu.  These were her friends. Artists she had painted alongside and shared ideas with, artists she had learned from and bonded with. How often and passionately she had spoken to me about their work.  Before that moment, their names were just that, names, lodged in my memory with no visual reference, no larger context.  Now, here they were, the full glory of their work on display in a show that was one of the most exciting art experiences of my life.  Finally, I had a context for my mother’s work and journey as an artist.

Second from left: Wang Dongling, Joan Sommers, and William Sommers

Later, I learned from my father that before my mother passed away, they made a final trip to Hangzhou and paid a surprise visit to Wang Dongling, universally revered as China’s greatest living calligrapher and an art star on the contemporary global stage.  His joy upon seeing my mother was immediate and a feast was quickly arranged. Their last photograph together is one I treasure and symbolizes the wholeness of her journey.  My mother, the ultimate outsider, had been welcomed back to Hangzhou as an insider and shown respect by an artist who mattered most to her.

Photos of Joan Sommers and images of Joan Sommers’ work courtesy of Daria Sommers; All other images courtesy of Museum of Modern Art.

Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction
Museum of Modern Art
Now thru August 13, 2017

An Artful Weekend, Hamptons Style


Artists, art lovers and arts journalists, like me, have long been drawn to the East End of the south fork of Long Island, known collectively, colloquially, and around the world as “The Hamptons.”  There are countless reasons to visit, but the lure of two art fairs bringing over 100 international galleries tipped the scales, and meant it was time for Adel Gorgy, my artist husband, and me to make a trek to New York’s summertime sixth borough.

The journey east can be accomplished by public or private transportation, and, unless you’re among those who can helicopter out, all will take between two and three hours from the city.  The Long Island Railroad offers service from Penn Station, and the Hamptons Jitney and other luxury bus lines pick passengers up in several Manhattan locations. We drove, and even that offers a few choices.  Traveling on the Long Island Expressway (the Distressway to locals) is fast but unlovely – four lanes packed with cars and trucks and little to see. But arriving at the end of the road means you can head south on Route 24 via the small town of Flanders and see the Island’s top roadside attraction, the Big Duck, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Built in the 1930’s as the storefront for a duck farm, the twenty-foot high canard convinced immigrant artist, Hedda Sterne, “that the United States was more surrealist, more extraordinary, than anything imagined by the Surrealists.” An alternate route, the Southern State Parkway to Route 27, closer to the shore and breezier, features mostly strip malls till you reach eastern Suffolk County, where it’s lined with trees and leads into the Pine Barrens, Long Island’s last remaining significant wilderness area.


Corn fields and mansions line Montauk Highway, the main route through the Hamptons

Most of the island was settled in the mid to late 1600s. The Hamptons fight to preserve some of that sense.  The highways end at the western edge of Southampton, and rural roads and farms mingle with perfectly manicured hedges hiding luxurious estates.  Small towns feel homey and quaint.  300-year-old windmills, lovingly maintained, dot the sides of the roads, along with clapboard churches with pointy spires, the tallest buildings to scrape the clear blue ocean swept skies.  Everything is spotless, picture-book perfect.


Historic windmills are a common sight in the Hamptons

The main streets of Southampton, Watermill, Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Amagansett and Sag Harbor all boast upscale shops and restaurants where it can be hard to tell the heiresses, movie stars and business moguls, many in flip-flops and shorts, from the organic farmers and local chefs.  But we were hunting different quarry: an extraordinary first-hand art experience.

Since the 1800s when William Merritt Chase opened a painting school here, the area has lured artists like Winslow Homer, Milton Avery, Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and her husband Robert Motherwell, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Andy Warhol.  The area’s initial draw was, ironically, bargain-priced real estate, but it’s still home to art stars, like Richard Prince, Eric Fischl and his wife April Gornik, Julian Schnabel and Donald Sultan. A trip to either of the two stellar local museums, the Parrish Art Museum or East Hampton’s Guild Hall, will almost always reward with major works by local artists of the past and present. This summer, at the Parrish, Connections and Context highlights Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelley, Dorothea Rockburne and Donald Sultan among others, and, starting in August, Guild Hall’s museum focuses on Minimalism with a special exhibition including Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, and Gerhard Richter.


Main Street, Bridgehampton serves up shops, galleries and out of this world pies 

Arriving well before the opening of the art fairs allowed us a walk up Main Street in Bridgehampton and stops in Kathryn Markel Fine Arts and Chase Edwards Gallery.  Both exhibit the work of contemporary artists, while Julian Beck and Mark Borghi Gallery offer museum-quality modern masters.

Since even artists don’t live by art alone, and a long night of art partying awaited, it was necessary to fortify our bodies to fuel the soul, i.e., time for something to eat. Bobby Van’s steakhouse is a popular spot, but we opted for a cozy booth at World Pie, which specializes in an extensive menu of wood-fired pizzas. A crispy, hot Patti’s Pie with mushrooms, onions and roasted garlic, mozzarella and tomato sauce arrived in minutes. The crust was thin and smoky, the cheese melted perfectly, and a glass of Italian red made us think we’d slipstreamed to Naples. Dinner for two, around $50.

As the sun slid behind the hedgerows and the blue of the sky deepened, we headed to Nova’s Ark, a 95-acre park featuring monumental sculptures by a local legend known simply as “Nova.” It brought to mind a grassy version of Monet’s Giverny. Though the property is open to visitors, its Cinderella moment is the four days each summer it hosts a Hamptons art fair. Crews arrive, gently coaxing horses and sheep off their usual grazing grounds, to raise an enormous, air-conditioned, museum-lit, catered construction that can only be called a tent if you’re willing to call the QE2 a boat.

Fabulously dressed Hamptonites tiptoed across the field to avoid what was left by the equine occupants and joined the VIP opening filled with music and noise, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. For some, people spotting and partying was the point, but for us, the payoff was lining the walls of over 70 room-sized booths where top-notch galleries from around the world presented their best.  We saw an extraordinary early painting by Robert Delaunay at London’s Trinity House Gallery, delicate watercolors of cranes and owls in flight by Karl Martens, sculptures by Jeff Koons and Lynn Chadwick at Taylor Graham, and a whole booth filled with fish paintings by Academy Award winning actor, Adrien Brody.  While opening night crowds may be raucous and fun, they don’t encourage thoughtful responses to works that artists have pondered, sweated, loved and labored over.  We decided to return the next day at a quieter time for the second of our targets, the Market Art + Design fair.


A quiet Sunday morning in the Hamptons

If you’re lucky enough to have friends in the area as we are, nothing beats watching the night fall and a low hung crescent moon reflected on Peconic Bay as crickets chirped and fireflies put on a dazzling display.  If not, there are many charming, historic B&B’s in the Hamptons, or, if they’re not within your budget, Riverhead to the west and Montauk to the east also offer family-friendly motels at more down-to-earth prices.

A late breakfast or early lunch is easy to find at either one of the branches of Citarella, which has a great selection of baked goods and on-the-go meals, or the Golden Pear (one in each town).  Of course, it’s possible to dine your way through the Hamptons, but that would just keep us away from the art.


Dia Bridgehampton, a one-man museum for Long Island artist, Dan Flavin

Before heading into Market Art + Design on the Bridgehampton Museum grounds, we stopped just across the street at one of the most moving, enriching, exciting and plain fun art experiences available on Long Island, or anywhere.  The Dan Flavin Art Institute, housed in a former Baptist church, just off Main Street, was built by the Dia Art Foundation in the 80s to exhibit some of Flavin’s greatest works.


Fields of a different sort at the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton

His candy-colored fluorescent light sculptures create clouds of ethereal hues the viewer steps into, becoming one with art, drenched in their glow. It’s transportive and transformative.  Dia associate curator Alexis Lowry, said, “Part of the reason it’s not in New York City was to try to get you into of the mindset of going to travel to a site to have this dedicated experience.  It’s part of the package.”


Market Art + Deisgin, 2016, over 40 international galleries and hundreds of contemporary artists exhibiting under one roof.   

Market Art + Design brought a smaller group, with over 40 exhibitors, but it was expertly curated to include international, national, and even local galleries presenting fine art and design under one roof.  Eclectic, energetic works from up-and-coming creatives contrasted with the more established artists seen at Art Southampton, and gave the fair a hipper vibe.  Even between two ends of tiny Bridgehampton, there was an uptown/downtown feeling of contrasting sensibilities.


Compositions made of individually carved, one-of-a-kind signature stamps or chops at Able Fine Art NY Gallery

Sundaram Tagore Gallery opened the show with a strong collection of sculptures, photographs and paintings. Three outstanding gelatin silver prints by world renowned photographer, Sebastião Salgado were a highlight. At Able Fine Art NY Gallery, director Michelle Yu explained the painstaking process used by Kwanwoo Lee to create his Condensation series where a single image is composed of hundreds of unique, hand-carved stamps.  Hector Leonardi’s colorful abstractions at Walker Waugh were gently powerful and evocative.  At Galerie Fledermaus, Jerry Suqi presented a rare collection of collotypes by Gustav Klimt. They were created by the artist to document his paintings, in an edition of 230.  Miniature masterpieces, each perfectly reproduces a major work. To see Adele Bloch-Bauer, (the Woman in Gold) along with so many other iconic works all lining one wall, in a booth, in a tent, in a small town, on Long Island was mind-boggling, in itself.  It also offered a brush with history.


A rare collotype from Gustav Klimt’s Das Werk at Galerie Fledermaus

We headed to the Hamptons hoping for a unique experience of art.  We left having had several. From pastoral fields, to a one-man museum, to tents filled with old masters to contemporary treasures, all were moving and exciting. The weekend had come to a close, and it was time to head back, though I’ve learned from sharing my life with Adel that you take the art with you.  As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Music is perpetual, and only the hearing is intermittent.”  Sometimes, a journey brings it closer, but it’s always there, if you listen.

All photos by Adel Gorgy

Top Photo:
Roy Lichtenstein’s Tokyo Brushstroke I & II outside the Parrish Art Museum announce your arrival at an enclave of art in the Hamptons   Photos by Adel Gorgy