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1987 The Overlooked Inventiveness of Women's Abstraction

In his review of the 1987 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition for The Observer, the critic William Feaver reported back on a scenario which he felt had become comfortingly rote and predictable: “At the Academy we find artistic reassurance.”1 The familiarity of the styles and subjects presented by artists such as Ken Howard, Ruskin Spear, and John Bellany, he observed, made for an “easy recognition factor. After a few years of identifying [Hugh] Casson vignettes, [Elizabeth] Blackadder dainties, Carel Weight’s shrubbery furores and the sheer colourfulness of Philip Sutton even the most unobservant can feel acquainted.”2 On this occasion, he wrote, abstract painting was confined to a single gallery, where it was “segregated for its own good”.3 Yet Feaver’s somewhat jaded view of the Exhibition, and of abstraction’s role within it, obscures the significant inroads and achievements made by artists working in abstraction during the 1970s and 1980s, especially women practitioners such as Sandra Blow.

Explore the 1987 catalogue

By 1987, Blow had been an Academician for just under a decade, following her election in 1978.4 At this point, she was one of only a handful of women Academicians, reflecting the drastic gender imbalance that had long characterised the Academy, with women excluded for well over a century after the initial involvement of two women founder members, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser.5 For the 219th Summer Exhibition, Blow presented a striking, highly confident and powerful canvas composed from roiling waves of blue acrylic paint, titled Swimmer (Fig. 1). By this stage, Blow had exhibited frequently at the Academy Summer Exhibition, and, two years before, in 1985, had been invited to display four paintings based on a flower motif at the Academy, in conjunction with a major Marc Chagall show.6 In 1979, Blow celebrated her appointment with an exhibition of experimental collage constructions using PVC in the Diploma Galleries at Burlington House. Blow’s visibility at the Academy in the late 1970s and 1980s resulted from cultural shifts informed by feminist activism, even if many abstract painters who had been working since the immediate post-war period like Blow attempted to distance themselves from both the label “women artist”, and the politics of the Women’s Liberation Movement.7

This latter position was perhaps most infamously expounded by Bridget Riley in her 1973 essay “The Hermaphrodite”, which despite acknowledging that “for the artist who is also a woman […] society presents particular circumstantial problems”, went on to assert that:

Women’s Liberation, when applied to artists, seems to me to be a naïve concept. […] At this point in time, artists who happen to be women need this particular form of hysteria like they need a hole in the head.8 

Yet abstract painters such as Blow were acutely aware of the ways in which gender constructs and societal divisions of labour threatened to thwart their career and prevent them from achieving measures of professional success, such as Academician status.9  Moreover, they were not easily able to prevent critics from reading their work in gendered terms. As late as 1994, in a catalogue essay for an exhibition of Blow’s work at the Academy, for example, Norbert Lynton analysed the meeting of “instinctive energies with a structural urge” in her canvases using distinctly essentialising terms:

Is it a feminine gift to be able to work in this double way? If all good art, from men as from women, is redolent of desires and satisfactions of a feminine sort, perhaps only a woman could persist in working against what in a man’s understanding would be a constraining principle and logic.10 

This is but one example of the tortuously qualified rhetoric that, as Michael Bird notes, has swirled through the critical discourse on Blow’s work from the 1950s onwards.11 Griselda Pollock has incisively analysed these conflicted dynamics as they played out in the relationships between women artists and Modernism in the first part of the twentieth century. For women, Pollock notes,

burdened by the oppressive weight of gender created in the preceding century, Modernism’s apparent autonomy beckoned, promising a realm of new freedoms. […] To be an artist under the modernist dispensation promised women a way to be more than mere “women artists” or lady painters.12 

However, Pollock continues, “Modernism simply inverted the problem and produced for women a radical underfeminization without altering masculine hegemony.”13 As a result, “ambitious modernist women negotiated this contradiction in constant fear that their modernist credentials would be compromised by the contamination of gender, which official modernist critics never failed to discern.”14 Although Blow and her fellow abstract painters were working much later, the reception of their artistic output, and their own reluctance to discuss gender in the 1970s and 1980s, demonstrates the extent to which these complexities continued to shape their careers.

In Blow’s case, such issues became particularly pronounced the year in which she became a full RA; 1978 also saw her participate in the Hayward Annual, where she showed works including the large-scale Untitled (1976) (Fig. 2). This was the first exhibition sponsored by the Arts Council to be selected by a panel consisting entirely of women—Liliane Lijn, Rita Donagh, Kim Lim, Tess Jaray, and Gillian Wise Ciobotaru—and which contained a higher number of works by women than by men.15 The press response was overwhelmingly negative and derisive, underscoring just how much the issue of representation in key London institutions such as the Hayward, the Arts Council, and the Academy mattered, and how the women practitioners involved, whether they were explicitly allied with Women’s Liberation and created feminist work, such as Mary Kelly, Susan Hiller, and Alexis Hunter, or, like Blow, had no explicit connections with feminism and were committed to abstraction, were alike unfairly served by existing structures.16  

When critics did take the Hayward Annual seriously, it was the older abstract artists, among whom Blow was pre-eminent, who were singled out for praise and treated as the acceptable faces of “women’s art”. This was a decidedly qualified, double-edged acceptance, which helps in part to explain why Blow’s work—together with that of other women artists working in abstraction in the post-war period such as Gillian Ayres and Prunella Clough—has often been publicly exhibited and seen, but has been less frequently analysed in any real depth. At the same time, their commitment to abstraction has been used as evidence that they lack anything interesting to say.17 Acknowledging the extent to which the careers of these artists have been inflected by gendered assumptions enables greater understanding of their work’s history, reception, and relationship with the wider cultural environment, together with a full appreciation of the inventiveness, tenacity of purpose, and achievement hiding in plain sight at events like the 1987 Summer Exhibition. 

  1. William Feaver, “Rats on Castors”, The Observer, 7 June 1987, 21.↩︎

  2. Feaver, “Rats on Castors”, 21.↩︎

  3. Feaver, “Rats on Castors”, 21.↩︎

  4. Michael Bird, Sandra Blow (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2005), 112.↩︎

  5. Just before her appointment, The Mirror reported that Blow would be one of only six women RAs. “Spirit”, The Mirror, 23 September 1977, 6.↩︎

  6. Bird, Sandra Blow, 128.↩︎

  7. It was also the result of the resurgence of critical favour that painting experienced during the 1980s. As Mel Gooding notes, in this decade “artists as diverse as [Gillian] Ayres, John Hoyland, Bridget Riley and Prunella Clough, who, against the trend, continued to remain committed to abstraction, were beneficiaries of the return of painting to critical and commercial credibility.” Mel Gooding, Gillian Ayres (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2001), 10.↩︎

  8. Bridget Riley, “The Hermaphrodite”, first published in Art News, reprinted in Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker (eds), Art and Sexual Politics: Women’s Liberation, Women Artists, and Art History (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 83.↩︎

  9. In a 1971 interview, Blow attested that: “when I began I was terribly careful to play myself down, never to be assertive.” The interviewer in turn reported of Blow that: “the compulsion to paint was so strong that she knew she needed solitude and an uncluttered life to fulfill it, and refused marriage and the possibility of children for this reason.” Mary Stott, “You have to admit the women have always defined themselves, seen themselves, even painted themselves, in relation to men”, The Guardian, 2 December 1971, 11.↩︎

  10. Norbert Lynton, “Introduction”, in Sandra Blow, exhibition catalogue (London: Royal Academy, 1994), 15.↩︎

  11. Beneath […] appreciative phrases can be read a subtext, revealed by the frequency with which terms like “sensibility”, “intuitive” and “instinct” crop up. It is implied that Blow’s achievement is on one level essentially feminine, that it smoothes out some of the obstinate intelligibility many people expected to encounter in abstract art.

    Bird, Sandra Blow, 88.↩︎

  12. Griselda Pollock, “Inscriptions in the Feminine”, in Catherine de Zegher (ed.), Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of Twentieth Century Art in, of, and from the Feminine, exhibition catalogue (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 1996), 67–68. See also the essays collected in Katy Deepwell (ed.), Women Artists and Modernism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998).↩︎

  13. Pollock, “Inscriptions in the Feminine”, 68.↩︎

  14. Pollock, “Inscriptions in the Feminine”, 69.↩︎

  15. The impulse for the show was separate from, but linked to, protests that had erupted in 1975 around the Hayward’s exhibition Conditions of Sculpture, which contained thirty-six men and four women.↩︎

  16. See, for example, Michael McNay, “No Deadlier than the Male”, The Guardian, 23 August 1978, 8. For an analysis of the press response, see Griselda Pollock, “Feminism, Femininity and the Hayward Annual Exhibition 1978”, Feminist Review 2 (1979): 33–55.↩︎

  17. This inference continues to infuse recent assessment of these artists’ works: Alistair Smart, for example, suggests that Ayres “refuses to divulge—or perhaps doesn’t even know” what her own symbols might mean, concluding therefore that she “isn’t a painter of great depth”. Alistair Smart, “Gillian Ayres”, The Telegraph, 8 May 2015.↩︎

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Explore the 1987 catalogue