In the 1940s and ’50s, the New York art world was in thrall to Abstract Expressionism. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko: These were some of the big-name artists, and they made equally big paintings — emotionally charged canvases with curving lines, splotches of paint or oceanic fields of color. There was more than one style, but the work was uniformly dynamic and almost always abstract.
In that art world (as well as the one at large), it was hard to be a woman. Socializing or sleeping with influential men might increase your chances of recognition, but even then success wasn’t guaranteed. It was especially difficult if your paintings were neither oversized nor entirely abstract. You might manage to show your work, but as time passed and art history was written, your name would most probably be forgotten. This is what happened to Ruth Abrams.
A lifelong New Yorker who was married to urban planner Charles Abrams (who founded the New York Housing Authority) from the time she was 19, Abrams painted multicolored canvases that were sometimes figurative, sometimes abstract and sometimes in-between. The Abramses lived in the former house of poet Emma Lazarus, on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, where Abrams held salons and mingled with other Abstract Expressionists. She had her first solo exhibition in 1934, at the ACA Gallery, and went on to have 15 more, but she never achieved major establishment recognition. Nor did that come posthumously; after her death, in 1986, New York University’s Grey Art Gallery held a significant exhibition of her work, but then, for 26 years, nothing. Until now.
Through January 6, 2013, Yeshiva University Museum is exhibiting “Microcosms: Ruth Abrams, Abstract Expressionist,” a small but earnest retrospective that gathers canvases spanning the 1940s through the ’80s. The show is organized by Reba Wulkan, a former Y.U. Museum curator who first encountered Abrams’s art after her death, when the estate’s executor approached the museum. Wulkan wrote her thesis about Abrams, and with this exhibition she aims to revitalize the artist’s reputation and contextualize her work in relation to her contemporaries.