Abstraction and Australian women artists

Dorrit Black Air travel 1: Mud flats and islands, 1949, linocut, printed in colour inks, from multiple blocks, 25.1 x 19 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 2015

The National Gallery of Australia’s Lara Nicholls (Assistant Curator – Australian Painting and Sculpture) discusses the touring exhibition Abstraction: Celebrating Australian women abstract artists, now showing at Newcastle Art Gallery.

Imprint: How has the role of women played out in the history of abstraction, and what have been the challenges in restoring a more balanced story to public view?

Lara Nicholls: Historically speaking, where abstraction bloomed, women artists have almost always played an integral part in its proliferation. The evidence of this NGA exhibition, and that of a range of other current international exhibitions on the subject, suggests that women artists were very actively involved in the pioneering of a number of stylistic waves of abstraction in the 20th century and beyond.  In Australia, it is doubtful that Abstraction could have emerged as it did without the pioneering teaching and exhibitions of Dorrit Black, Grace Crowley and Anne Dangar.  The greatest challenge to inserting women artists into the narrative is the absence of easily found documentation and the lack of publications on the subject.  One of the great joys in preparing the exhibition was unearthing hitherto unrecorded exhibition histories for some of the paintings but of course this was a bittersweet experience as it is also one of the reasons that the women have remained less recognised than their male counterparts.

Imprint: Who are some of the most significant women who have used various aspects of printmaking in their work with abstraction?

Lara Nicholls: In America, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler are among the most highly regarded abstract printmakers of their generation and the NGA has over a thousand of their works collectively.  In Australia, Margaret Preston was one of the first women printmakers to actively exploit the graphic quality of woodblock printing to abstract the landscape and our indigenous flora.  We start the exhibition with three magnificent early examples of her woodcut technique where she cleverly flattens out a jumble of robust material, such as fighter planes in flight in The aeroplane or a bouquet of native blooms in The red bow, into a dynamic and powerful image that is anchored in the principals of abstraction. Her friend fellow South Australian artist Dorrit Black, who studied at the Grosvenor School with Claude Flight, was a master of linocut printmaking.  Flight regarded her as one of his best students.  In Air travel 1: Mud flats and islands she creates an elegant reduction of the brackish mudflats as seen from an aerial perspective.  Made in the Japanese manner, she has brushed inks onto the block resulting in a painterly effect on the impression. This work is the closest she ever comes to non-presentational abstraction.

Imprint: What are some of the key printmaking works in the exhibition and how do they fit into the broader story?

Lara Nicholls: The early examples by Margaret Preston are among the most important works in the exhibition.  However, there are other sublime examples from artists who are normally associated with other media.  I included three lithographs by Janet Dawson, which she made in the Atelier Patris in Paris in 1960.  She went there after the Slade School in London especially to learn how to mix colour and prepare the stones.  She ended up becoming Patris’s main studio assistant and in gratitude he gave her free reign to make a suite of lithographs.  In this series, Dawson uses the organic quality of the stone impression and the watery application of the inks to create magnificent images of ethereal nature.  Her experience there lead her to take charge of the print works at Gallery A in Melbourne upon her return to Australia.

Imprint: Is it evident in the exhibition that gender somehow informed the approach or the results of artists grappling with abstraction?

Lara Nicholls: I am often asked this question – is a work of art gendered?  Is there a difference between the abstract work of women in comparison to men? I think if you lined up the works in this exhibition and showed them to someone unfamiliar with the artists, they might struggle to assign gender to the works.  However, having worked with the material for so long now along-side the work of their male counterparts, I do feel women bring a different sensibility to abstraction.  This is quite evident in the forms of geometric abstraction. Virginia Cuppaidge’s geometric abstractions of the ’70s, while they rely on colour, line and scale, just like many of the men painting at the time, there is a restraint and a subtlety that I don’t think the men pursued at the time.  Another example would be Agnes Martin (not in this show, however), whose minimalism is in a whole other land to, say, Barnet Newman.  The methodology might be similar but the application and the intention are on other planes.  In terms of the early days of Cubism and avant-garde painting in Australia, it was by and large the women who embraced it and painted in this fashion, seeking new horizons for its development, while the more conservative forces of the art establishment were painting nationalist landscapes and respectable portraits.  It is a bit of a generalisation, but I think that disparity holds true for the early decades of Abstraction in Australia in the 20th century. – Andrew Stephens

Abstraction: Celebrating Australian women abstract artists is at Newcastle Art Gallery until 23 July. www.visitnewcastle.com.au