DU Alumni

Museum studies director curates groundbreaking female abstract expressionists show at the DAM

“Women of Abstract Expressionism” features 51 paintings by 12 artists, including Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Mary Abbott, Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning. Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum

“Women of Abstract Expressionism” features 51 paintings by 12 artists, including Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Mary Abbott, Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning. Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum

The Denver Art Museum (DAM) made history in June when it opened “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” the first museum exhibit to focus on the female artists of the postwar art movement.

Curated by Gwen Chanzit, the DAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art and director of the museum studies master’s program in DU’s School of Art and Art History, the show features 51 paintings by 12 artists, including Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Mary Abbott, Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning. After it leaves the DAM walls on Sept. 25, the exhibition will travel to North Carolina’s Mint Museum in October and to the Palm Springs Art Museum in February.

The University of Denver Magazine spoke with Chanzit about the exhibit and about the DU alumnae who helped put it together.


Q: What was the genesis of “Women of Abstract Expressionism”?

A: I laid claim to the exhibition in 2008. I was in New York, and I had seen an exhibition centered around the critics of abstract expressionism. It was mostly the usual suspects, but there was an area that just mentioned some of the people we don’t know very well — and it made me think. I have a PhD in art history, I know a lot about this time period, and these were names I hadn’t heard. It really bothered me. On the plane ride home, I began to realize that though there were several men I didn’t know — particularly men of color — there were a bunch of women I didn’t know. I thought, “Wouldn’t that make a great exhibition?” I got home and I started researching, and I discovered that no major museum exhibition had ever been mounted on women of abstract expressionism.


Q: What was it important to you to get across about the role of women in the abstract expressionist movement?

A: This movement has always been defined by what we sometimes call “the paint-splattered man.” It’s been a macho movement. It’s post-World War II; there’s a lot of excitement; it’s really the first truly American art movement where people were developing all kinds of new techniques. People have said, “Oh, those women, they were followers,” but the works in the show don’t go through the ’60s and ’70s. They are early — ’40s and ’50s predominantly. And that was really important to me in formulating the exhibition. It just didn’t make any sense to me to show works that were later, because I wanted to really prove that the women were right there. They were there in the same [art] classes as men, and they exhibited [their work at galleries]. Something that I discovered as I was starting to really formulate the exhibition is that there are very few untitled works in the show. The women painters tend to let you know what it was that was affecting them and interesting them and what they were responding to, whether it’s a place, a person, a season, nature, a dance movement, a book, poetry — it doesn’t matter. In some ways, the women in this exhibition were willing to let us in.


Q: The exhibit has been very successful both with critics and with the public — will any of these pieces have a permanent home at the Denver Art Museum after the show ends?

A: Exhibitions are ephemeral; they’re here for a short time and then they’re gone. I felt that we really wanted to leave a legacy of this exhibition, and so I’m very happy that to date, the Denver Art Museum has been able to acquire eight new paintings [as a result of this show], and three promised gifts. We’re making a commitment to this material. I hope in years to come people will come to the Denver Art Museum to see paintings by women of abstract expressionism.


Q: Jesse Laird Ortega and Renee Miller, alumnae of DU’s museum studies program, which you direct, were involved in putting this show together. Can you tell me more about their contributions?

A: I’m very proud of the fact that almost every one of our students finds good jobs — in fact, at any given time, we have at least a dozen of them working in positions at the Denver Art Museum. When I first began this project, I was able to hire Jesse as my project assistant. She was still a graduate student, and she had done her internship with us. She worked with me for quite a long time, helping with the research, helping putting together files, communicating with people who owned works of art — we surveyed well over 100 artists for this exhibition. It was a part-time job, and it was contract and it was temporary, and I always hope that eventually [positions such as that turn] into a full-time job. About a year ago, Jesse applied for the job of curatorial assistant for the New World Department. She got that job, and I was thrilled for her. Renee is the curatorial assistant working with me in modern and contemporary, and she has a hand in everything. Our curatorial assistants do the kind of professional work that curators do in smaller institutions, so she’s been a great help. She has really picked up a lot of the responsibilities for this exhibition working with me again. She did all of the image rights for the catalog — that was a big thing. The two of them had a lot to do with making this exhibition real.





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