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Radical Abstraction

Margate, UK

Turner Contemporary’s first historical retrospective is an energetic survey of postwar abstract art made by women, full of provocation, experimentation and possibility – as well as tales of underlying discrimination

Left to right: Pilloo Pochkhanawala's Atomic Couple; Lenore Tawney's The Path and Acanthus; Sheila Hicks' Entrance to the Forest

“We intentionally haven’t used the words ‘women artists’ in the title. Because, for decades there have been shows with male artists, and no one felt the need to say that,” says Flavia Frigeri, curator of Turner Contemporary’s latest show. Beyond Form: Lines of Abstraction 1950 –1970 (until 6 May 2024) is a global survey of postwar abstract art, and although the title may not be explicit about who is making that art, the female viewpoint and experience is very much a theme.

Standing under Marisa Merz’s Untitled (Living Sculpture) (1966) a large hanging piece made from stapled-together aluminium strips, Frigeri explains how it was made in Merz’s kitchen since she had no studio, which is extraordinary given its size: it still has the grease-stains on it from when it was stored hanging above the kitchen table, tucked out of the way while she prepared dinner for her family.

Lenore Tawney at work in her New York studio
Marisa Merz with Untitled (Living Sculpture), 1966

This is the Margate gallery’s first historical show since it opened in 2011, and it offers a different narrative to the prevailing art movements of the postwar years – the mechanical repetition and modularity of minimalism, and the brash, consumer-obsessiveness of pop art. A material-led, hand-made approach lies at the show’s heart, from Polish artist Maria Teresa Chojnacka’s Lancuncy (Chains) (1973), three waterfall-like hangings of chain-linked sisal, to Louise Bourgeois’ bulbous plaster and latex Avenza (1968-69).

Frigeri explains how women embraced plastic, not just because it was the futuristic wonder material of its age but because it was “unencumbered by the male traditions of marble and bronze – no one had made it their own yet.” Found objects hadn’t been claimed by the patriarchy either, and so Lee Bontecou made sculpture from metal frames covered in recycled mail sacks, laundry bags and conveyor belts; and Louise Nevelson’s wooden wall pieces are assemblages of furniture legs, chair spindles and whatever else could be salvaged from the streets around her New York home, sprayed a uniform colour (gold, in the case of Royal Tide III in this show).

This was a time when craft was not considered radical, and artists used this to push against the grain of what art could be
Lancuchy (Chains) (1973) by Maria Teresa Chojnacka
Pilloo Pochkhanawala's Atomic Couple (c.1974)
Louise Nevelson's Royal Tide III (1961)

Many of the artists on show here used materials and techniques associated with the decorative arts, as a sort of Trojan horse for radical expression. Speaking of Chojnacka’s work, Frigeri says that “this was not a time where Polish artists had freedom in terms of painting and sculpture, but craft was not considered radical, and artists used this to push against the grain of what art could be.”

For a show about abstraction, there’s a lot of figurative work here, or at least work that blurs the boundary between the two. Indian sculptor’s Pilloo Pochkhanawala’s Atomic Couple (1974) is another work made from found objects, with rough, rusty machine parts contrasting with smooth stones to create a pair of figures, one of whose arms are raised to the side of their face – in horror, surprise or pleasure, it’s not clear. Jordan-born Mona Saudi’s Fertility bronze (1971) and Motherhood (1972), made from a stalactite, reflect the sculptor’s concern with the female body, distilling the fundamentals of life into semi-abstract forms.

Left to right: Ewa Pachucka's The Open Man; Louise Bourgeois' Avenza; Ilona Keserü's Slit; Maria Bartuszová's Untitled (Drop)
Left to right: Novera Ahmed's Le Djinn and La Petit Naga; and Daniela Vinopalová's Spatial Study III
Habuba Farah's Sem Titula (Untitled) (1972)

The yearning to break away from convention comes through in almost every work in this show, and each room radiates a palpable feeling of the possibility and experimentation of the age. This is set against the reality of being a female artist in those post-war years, juggling the expectations of family life and motherhood (and often, as with Marisa Merz, not having a dedicated studio in which to work) and battling the prejudices of galleries and the art market. “This is the thing I find most moving,” says Frigeri. “Some had recognition, but many didn’t – and they still carried on for year after year.”