ANDOVER — “Women and Abstraction: 1741-Now,” at the Addison Gallery of American Art, delights in a pair of contradictions. For years, most artistic genealogy — a contentious field — would trace abstraction’s genesis to a bunch of 20th-century men: Kazimir Malevich in 1915; František Kupka in 1912; Wassily Kandinsky in 1911; Francis Picabia in 1909, and a handful of others laying claim.
In a lovely twist, the debate appeared to be settled much more recently when fresh interest in the Swedish landscape painter Hilma af Klint revealed that it was most likely she — yes, she — who owned the title of the mother of abstraction, with paintings of delicately exuberant arcing forms she started making in 1906 that bore no relation to the real world at all. A triumphant survey of her abstract work at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2018 helped confirm it; abstraction may have been coopted by the Abstract Expressionists, a gang made up mostly of American men in the middle of the last century, but its genesis was with her.
Being first hasn’t meant being best known, though, and women artists have always had an uphill climb for recognition. “Women and Abstraction” recasts abstraction, a mostly modern notion, as much less masculine and time-bound.
The exhibition explores not just underexamined art history but the history of the Addison itself. It reminds us that collecting, frequently, is about placing bets, and that abstraction contains multitudes, less a unified movement than a sprawling category. That last fact makes it inevitably uneven.
The show opens with “Sunflowers III,” 1992, a big, beautiful lithograph by Joan Mitchell, one of few women in the AbEx cohort to find fame comparable to her male peers. Its two bundles of chaotic, earthy-toned scrawls snarl into knots that feel to me like anxious fury. Look left to the exhibition’s big main space and your eye can’t help but be caught by Deborah Remington’s huge “Axios,” from 1971, a crisp, silvery prism hovering amid soft forms in blue, red, and black. Painted in gradient dark to light, it feels almost back-lit; I don’t mean this as a compliment. It’s bold, I’ll give it that.
The show draws almost entirely from the Addison’s formidable collection, bringing out Indigenous basketry and weaving from centuries past to make clear that non-representational art is hardly a recent phenomenon. Its titular “1741″ work is a woolen bed rug in black and deep blue by weaver Phoebe Denison Billings
I’ll put aside for the moment that Billings’s work isn’t really abstract — snaking tendrils of vine and stem bloom in distinct floral form; after all, the show is about expanding boundaries, not hewing to them. But more than a few of the 144 works here are a reach. Amid admirable intentions, the show indulges in a cleaning-out-the-closet randomness that undermines its good vibes.
The exhibition sings, though, with small revelations of overdue justice. It was a pleasure to see the rough wooden assemblage pieces from the 1960s and ‘70s of Betty Parsons, whose day job was as the dealer for such big-name artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, and Saul Steinberg. Across the room hang three miniature woven tapestries by Sheila Hicks, whose towering career as a textile artist has long been undervalued. Her work’s crafty sensibility didn’t satisfy the strictures of so-called high art, as defined by those who got to decree such things (hint: mostly men).
The rest of the show — and there’s plenty — unfurls in the intimate, smaller galleries that ring the main space. They’re full of wonder, but reveal the challenge of hanging an exhibition with a unifying notion so broad as to be unruly. The work seemed to be grouped as much by tonal affinity as anything. In what I noted as the “grayscale room,” Sue Fuller’s “String Composition #203,” 1960, a delicately woven pale grid like space-age macrame, centered the space; “Black Painting,” Shirley Goldfarb’s enormous piece as deep and heavy as tar, dominated an entire wall. Beside it, a little predictably, was what I called the “color room,” with Georgia O’Keeffe’s dark and moody “Wave, Night,” 1928, snug up against the exuberant, oily smears of Louise Fishman’s “It Is Good to Know Certain Things,” 2015.
“Wave, Night,” isn’t abstract at all: It’s a seascape, with horizon and sky. A good many others share the same not-quite-abstract distinction. This, perhaps, is its own point: Narrow definitions have always left too much by the wayside. But I think it’s fair to say the show’s expansive nature leaves significant pieces feeling buried amid the avalanche: The delicacy of Alma Thomas’s “Ruth Kainen’s Amaryllis,” 1976, for example, all soft daubs of pink and green, feels cut adrift in the deluge, one of many.
I had hoped for pointed explorations of historical Indigenous techniques and their Modernist corollaries, but they, too, felt lost in service of a kitchen-sink effort that flicks at resonant moments but doesn’t linger to contemplate. Thomas’s piece is hung in a room with brightly intricate floral beadwork on bandolier bags by unknown Anishinaabe artists. Virtuosic basketry woven in geometric patterns by Clara Neptune Keezer, a Passamaquoddy artist, shared a room with an exuberant, chaotic abstract canvas by Joan Snyder (“I am not the same person,” 1998).
I was left to wonder if a smaller, more focused effort might have been more revealing, not to mention more coherent. “Women and Abstraction” isn’t one exhibition, but two, or three, or more, teasing at multiple paths mostly untrammeled. It’s past time to explore them.
WOMEN AND ABSTRACTION: 1741-NOW Through July 30. Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy. 3 Chapel Ave., Andover. 978-749-4015, www.addisongallery.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.