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The Beat Goes On

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Girls rock -- right? Well, some women artists over the course of the 20th century never got no satisfaction no matter how good they were at rocking out in their preferred medium. Not until the feminist revolution of the 1960s and '70s was it possible for some talented women to assume their rightful place in museums and galleries, and this True Grit show at Newcomb appears, at first blush, to celebrate some of the more audacious spirits among them.

And indeed it does, but that True Grit title also celebrates more than just steely resolve and a determination to plow onward, damn the torpedoes. In fact, it would appear that the title is rather literal, for these works are often distinctly gritty, not only in tone but also in appearance. And for good reason; many were influenced by not only the abstract expressionism of the 1950s, but also by the consciously gritty beat movement, which is remembered more for its literary achievements than its influence on visual art. So this show explores the role of some audacious women in a beat-inspired form of modern art that was once a big deal but has since vanished through the memory hole.

Few are more representative of this marriage of abstract expressionism and beat sensibilities than Jay DeFeo. Based in the San Francisco Bay area, DeFeo in 1954 founded the artist-run Six Gallery in a former car repair shop. There, legend has it, Allen Ginsberg's public reading of his epochal poem Howl launched the "San Francisco renaissance" beat poetry scene. DeFeo herself was known for starkly ambiguous paintings such as Lotus Eater #1, a near black-and-white, silhouette-like form that melds the ovoid grace of a Grecian urn with the deadly aerodynamics of a falling bomb. We don't know what it is, but it's simultaneously seductive and disturbing. DeFeo's recent revival is based on in no small measure on The Rose, her magnum opus, a very large painting (not seen here). She labored obsessively on The Rose between 1958 and 1966; so much so that it ended up with so many layers of pigment and other applied materials that, by the time it was finished, it had morphed into a wall sculpture, a massively heavy bas relief or assemblage. Sadly, her mystical approach to modernism had gone out of style by then, so it spent decades in storage until it was recently restored and shown at the Whitney Museum in New York City.

Beyond starkly enigmatic paintings and drawings, sculptural assemblages were also a favorite medium of the beat modernists, and this show certainly has its share. While DeFeo was all but forgotten until fairly recently, others such as Louise Nevelson have been major figures in the art world for years. Still, it helps to see Nevelson's assemblages of cast-off wooden dowels and refuse in this True Grit context, where they seem more at home than they do on most museum walls. Another perennial is Louise Bourgeois, whose witty, surrealistic, sexually charged works have become such art world staples that it's shocking to learn that no one would take her seriously before the 1970s. And while Nancy Grossman and Nancy Spero are also somewhat well known, their works, like Nevelson's, appear in a new light in the context of this show. (Grossman's Ali Stoker assemblage of swatches of leather shoes and jackets with radiator and other hoses pushing through them like snakes, phalli or ruptured intestines, is especially effective.)

Still, it is the more obscure works that are the revelations here. Claire Falkenstein's welded wire mesh Sun, circa 1960, is a marvelously webby ovoid like the abstract metal equivalent of some sleekly convoluted John Coltrane composition, an amalgam of science fiction and modern jazz. And Lee Bontecou's welded metal and canvas assemblages from the same era -- asymmetrical tan and brown concoctions reminiscent of craters, caves, giant vacuum cleaner attachments or the gaping maws of minotaurs -- are just plain weird. But also very beat, very ab-ex and not unlike the far-out graphics of certain 1960s modern jazz albums. Ultimately, this show marks a resurrection of not only the work of some remarkable women, but also of a worldview and a style that may have been a little too messy for all those art historians and curators who, for whatever reason, conveniently overlooked them.

Louise Bourgeois' works, like Germinal - (pictured), have become such a staple in the art - world that it's hard to believe she wasn't taken - more seriously before the 1970s.
  • Louise Bourgeois' works, like Germinal (pictured), have become such a staple in the art world that it's hard to believe she wasn't taken more seriously before the 1970s.

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