Aeroplat by Helene Herzbrun, 1970
Aeroplat by Helene Herzbrun, 1970

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Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun: Reframing Abstract Expressionism quickly addresses its truths: Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun never shared a studio, didn’t work together, weren’t friends, and didn’t live in the same town. The two also had scant communication. On a couple of occasions Herzbrun wrote Hartigan to entice her to teach at American University, which Hartigan rejected. And, in 1974, Herzbrun sent Jack Rasmussen, then a student, to Hartigan’s Baltimore studio to curate a show for American University’s now defunct Watkins Gallery. As Rasmussen recalled, Hartigan curated her show. 

These are not artists whose bodies of work were in dialogue with each other. And, given the scope of the works in the exhibition, dated from 1956 to 1981, these are artists on opposite poles of Abstract Expressionism. The reason they are paired together at the American University Museum is, as exhibition curator Norma Broude deftly explains in wall text, because of gender and geography. Given these realities, it’s no surprise to see stark dissimilarities between the works within the exhibition. 

Grace Hartigan’s work is large and imposing. The smaller of her paintings are dark, with heavy-handed paint pushing, alternating with faster linear strokes of color. It’s the larger canvases approaching 80 x 100 inches that draw greater attention, and not necessarily because of their size. For “Summer Street,” the earliest painting in the show, it’s the color and the departure from abstraction. The composition clearly features a figure among what appear to be food stand items. The presence of recognizable forms and figures is a consistent element in the works selected to represent her output in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. For example, “Beware of the Gifts,” an enormous blue composition, overlaps black-outlined suggestions of trains and foliage, with other elements that resemble the heads of monsters, and the silhouettes of microscopes or lamps. Even the word “Mama” is visible on a can-like shape near the center of the composition. It’s less like an Ab Ex exercise in paint throwing, and more like a Stuart Davis civic landscape. It’s also this direction in the work—the inclusion of the representational and figurative—that critics constantly derided: from Clement Greenberg in the 1950s to Mary Gabriel’s 2018 book Ninth Street Women. While the abstraction is not pure, and the mark less expressive, the foundations remain.

By contrast, the paintings of Helene Herzbrun are smaller. With the exception of the occasional horizontal suggestion of a landscape, they nearly all seem to eschew anything that might be considered representational, unless the title gives it away. They are a pure struggle, in color, of the progression of Ab Ex after it had lost its commercial zenith in Gotham. Her paintings from the late 1950s are patches and squiggles of quick and energetic brush strokes. By the mid 1960s, they slow down into loose but composed geometries. Into the 1970s, the works are further reduced. A work like “Aeroplat,” her largest in the exhibition, seems content with two diagonal bars of phthalo blue which frame blocks of red, green, and yellow. The colors confidently touch, but feel little need to overlap. Although Herzbrun had a chance to gain a toehold in New York—at Stable Gallery in 1958 and at Poindexter in 1960—it’s one she couldn’t climb from. The tide had turned toward Pop Art. It didn’t dissuade her from continuing to create.

Despite the differences apparent in the bulk of the work represented, the exhibition doesn’t feel uneven. The space of the gallery allows each artist to inhabit their respective corners in view of the other’s work, but not interfering with it. In two instances—a pair of smaller works on paper near the third floor elevator of the museum and a coupling of abstractions from 1960—their work is nearly indistinguishable from one another, making it seem like more than gender and geography unify them. 

At the American University Museum to Oct. 20. 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. (202) 885-1300.