On March 7, 2019, Dr. Gwen Chanzit visited the Colorado College Fine Arts Center to give a lecture on her curation of Denver’s “Women of Abstract Expressionism.” Part of the exhibition, which toured for a year after its opening in 2016, currently resides in Colorado Springs. This display highlighting Helen Frankenthaler’s art can be viewed from now until June 2. It offers students a chance to explore the uniquely American movement of Abstract Expressionism through the lesser-explored female lens. 

With a Ph.D. in art history, Chanzit is both a full-time curator at the Denver Art Museum and a professor at the University of Denver. In her lecture, she explained that the term “abstract expressionism” is one “applied to the post war movement in American painting that originated in New York City in the 1940s and 50s.” In the context of Chanzit’s positioning as an art historian, the importance of abstract expressionism is in its existence as “the first full American modern movement in painting.” Abstract expressionism, she asserted, shifted the focal point of art innovation such that, “All of a sudden, things were not centered in Paris, they were centered in New York.”

Photo by Dara Bellinson

Historically, recognized artists who came of age in the era of abstract expressionism are predictably male, the most famous of whom are likely Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. Chanzit argues that, “in this case, not only are they male, it’s their maleness, their heroic machismo spirit,” that has become the “defining characteristic” of how we understand the expansive, gestural paintings of the movement. By curating a female exhibition on abstract expressionism, she hoped to challenge assumptions of female limitation, and to give the 40-plus women who participated in the movement their overdue credit in the movement’s formation. 

Chanzit describes the work of Frankenthaler as a “bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” The display at the Fine Arts Center currently holds 25 prints, which use techniques ranging from etching to woodcutting. Chanzit recounted that Frankenthaler’s first solo exhibition was in 1951. The fact that Frankenthaler had an exhibition at all is a testament to her talent as an abstract expressionist; the event is a  compelling reason to recognize the women of the period as inextricable from a comprehensive art history of the United States. 

It is a privilege to have work from such an acclaimed exhibit as Chanzit’s “Women of Abstract Expressionism“ on the grounds of our college. By focusing on the art of women in this period, we further a movement that is pushes for greater female presence within an accurate, and therefore inclusive, understanding of the United States. For students, taking the time to visit and interact with Frankenthaler’s work is an opportunity for self-enrichment remarkably close to campus.

along the perimeter, a garden filled with sacred plants for Native students, and circular walkways within the quad to reflect the initial proposal’s attempt to find a circular space on campus to rename.  

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