Exploring Abstract Expressionism at the AU Museum

Helene Herzbrun,  Like Thunder,  c. 1965. American University Museum Collection.

Helene Herzbrun, Like Thunder, c. 1965. American University Museum Collection.

When you think of Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s, a New York-centered, male-dominated movement comes to mind. Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, and Mark Rothko’s Color Field works redefined New York City as the center of the art world during this period.

Currently on view at the American University Museum is an exhibit curated by Norma Broude that explores the works of two second Abstract Impressionists, Grace Hartigan (1922-2008) and Helen Herzbrun (1922-1984) — Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun: Reframing Abstract Expressionism  https://www.american.edu/cas/museum/2019/grace-hartigan-and-helene-herzbrun.cfm.

These two women artists, working in the years after Pollock and Rothko, found that their artistic careers were limited not only by the popularity of the succeeding minimalist generation, but their gender as well. As such, they found refuge in the Baltimore and District area art scene. Here, they were free to experiment with Abstract Expressionism without the expectations of conforming to the New York art market, according to Broude. 

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Spanish Thanksgiving

Grace Hartigan

The exhibition highlights a period in these artists’ careers in which both their creative voices fully developed. It begins with two paintings mounted side by side, illustrating each artist’s signature style. Herzbrun’s Like Thunder (c. 1965) celebrates her dedication to pure abstraction of natural forms and landscapes, while Hartigan’s Spanish Thanksgiving (1961) sees her effective use of figurative abstraction.

Because of the unique shape of the American University Museum, the round gallery walls allow the eye to sweep across the entire exhibit, highlighting the similarities and differences of the modes in which these artists worked. The main gallery showcases Hartigan’s mural-sized abstract representations of people from history and pop culture. One immediately turns to her portraits of Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, titled Greta (1981) and Marilyn (1962) respectively. Broude argues that, rather than glorifying the personas that these women embodied, Hartigan emphasizes the work that goes into creating such a persona. In the case of Marilyn, Hartigan presents the actress as a disembodied collage of the elements that make up her appearance: red lips, blond hair, white teeth, and smoky blue eyes that reveal exhaustion. The exhibition touches on a somber note related to the legacy of each artist. 

American University Museum / Installation view, courtesy of Greg Staley.

American University Museum / Installation view, courtesy of Greg Staley.

Curator Norma Broude, a professor emerita of Art History at American University, reiterates in the show and the accompanying catalog that while these two artists were working during the peak of second-wave feminism, they refused to join the discussion. She explains that the artist’s experience working and learning under the male-dominated, first-generation of Abstract Expressionists changed how they experienced the era. Instead, the artists focused on their personal craft and careers, making the best for themselves. Despite their hesitation to be labeled feminists, Broude says, “it may be feminists who will be instrumental in preserving, promoting, and defining the totality of [their] work and [their] importance to art history—beyond New York, and as far more than just another token woman in the masculinist Ab-Ex era.”

Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun: Reframing Abstract Expressionism

American University Museum

September 3-October 20, 2019


Michael Quituisaca is an M.A. candidate in Art History at American University, specializing in 19th century American painter Thomas Cole. He received a B.A. in Art History from Marymount Manhattan College in 2017. He has held internships at the Museum of the City of New York and for the National Trust for Historic Preservation at Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York, and worked as a 2017-2018 Cole Fellow at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. He is currently a fellow for the Alper Initiative for Washington Art at the American University Museum.