Since its appearance in 2020, Zürich Fair: 11 women of spirit, commandeered by Gwenolee Zürcher of the Zürcher Gallery, was one of the dynamic offshoots of the satellite fairs that take place in the city around the giant fairs, Frieze and Armory Show. A storm erupted ahead of the opening of the fifth Salon on May 16 at 33 Bleecker Street. But that didn’t deter the crowds gathered in the gallery’s loft-like space. There were no drinks, no thrills, just the energy to gather around exciting work. Shortly after I arrived, Zürcher posed for a photo with the 11 women featured at this fair. When we slipped into Zürcher’s back office to escape the noise, she explained the reason for the number 11. “It’s an odd number,” she said, adding that she had designed the Salon in nine editions, 11 women each, adding to 99. The last woman will be herself, rounding up to 100 in total. It seemed appropriate to keep things so personal for an event that allows Zürcher to give a platform to accomplished yet relatively unrecognized female artists that she doesn’t necessarily represent (although she does represent a few). Indeed, the 18th century term “women of wit” from which the exhibition takes its name defined just such a collaborative and informal network of intellectuals, artists and salonières underestimated by their male peers.
We briefly discussed whether the art world is ready for structural change, beginning with acknowledging the many women excluded from movements such as Abstract Expressionism. Every time I visit the permanent galleries of the Museum of Modern Art, for example, and the section where Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and a handful of others command the walls, I wonder how many women belong in this firmament. . Zürcher was optimistic. Some curators, she pointed out, such as Sheen Wagstaff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attended the Salon and purchased the works for their museum collections. In Paris, where Zürcher also has a gallery, initiatives like AWARE are changing the artistic landscape as far as the genre is concerned. The Salon Zürcher itself is a corrective of art history. The majority of women in the fifth edition were born in the 1940s-1960s; they have been making art for decades, are displayed in galleries, and some are in museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Yet, as the sale prices of major art fairs are sure to make many aspiring collectors swoon, the Salon Zürcher presents works of art whose prices are decidedly more affordable, the smaller works on paper starting at $500.
It turns out that Joan Mitchell is the guardian spirit of the Salon and the gallery. A friend of Zürcher and her late husband, art historian Bernard Zürcher, Mitchell encouraged the couple to open a gallery, and to do so in both Paris and New York. In a way, Mitchell’s ghost presided over the fifth edition more directly, with the majority of artists embracing abstraction in one form or another. At the entrance to the gallery, Marjorie Welish’s diptychs, in primary blue, yellow and black, orchestrate vivid contrasts between improvisation and mastery, the common thread of the artist’s work. Welish is both a poet and a painter, and one inevitably thinks of her work as a series of rhymes and crossovers, in her own series, but also with works by constructivist artists she has written about as a critic such as Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. These works were wonderfully offset by the vibrant geometries of Jennifer Riley’s paintings on the opposite wall.
Control and improvisation were two themes that ran through this animated show — and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the pandemic was an element that altered the way artists thought and conducted their work. For Judith Braun, who was represented at the fair with a single work, a near-abstract black and white acrylic on canvas painting, lightly infused with op-art, titled “Psycho Tears” (2021), the pandemic was an opportunity for an artistic shift. She had started working in abstraction in the 1980s to move away from her own figurative painting, but now felt the need for the body to be more present in her work. The result is rigorous yet subtly sensual, especially as the canvas is hung unstretched, allowing for additional ripples and folds at the edges, with the fabric itself reflecting the circular forms of Braun’s composition.
For the abstract painter Margaret Watson, whose two beautiful gestural landscapes in oil and acrylic – titled “Dreamfield” (2021) and “Geranium Acre” (2021) – hanging next to his smaller acrylic cut paper series (2022), the pandemic meant not only reduced but also less deliberate work. Watson, whose own fascinating journey to painting includes a 20-something hiatus while working as a doctor, secretly longing to come back – to walk into art shops, “just to smell them”, told me she says – has now been painting full-time for over two decades. Watson started working with scissors during the pandemic, feeling it added some distance to his work, perhaps also a sense of freedom. Yet both approaches seem to be governed by color and by Watson’s great sensitivity to its infinite permutations. Francine Tint, whose dramatic and abstract vitalist force is perhaps closest to abstract expressionism and informal art, is the artist who immediately made me think of the old scout club as the bastion previously impervious to the art world (and really, who can forget the anecdote, quoted in Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Womenin which Clement Greenberg visits Lee Krasner’s studio to view his latest work and instead comments on the mural).
For the most part, however, this Salon oozed confident feminism, seeking its own conceptual connections. For abstract painter Cair Crawford, feminism seamlessly combines weaving – with its underlying recurrence – with philosophical considerations. Crawford, who earned a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University in 2006 after decades of artistic practice, views weaving as a tension between being and becoming – a material, dialectical relationship. The pandemic has also had an impact on Crawford. Like many artists in the city, she decided to work from home. The paintings left at the studio, many of them unfinished, were effectively put on hold. The artist’s response was a pandemic notebook, in which she filled pages with daily compositions. His two paintings at the fair – both in acrylic on unstretched canvas, titled “The Reversals, Untitled 01” and “The Reversals, Untitled 04” (2020-22) — are then a return to a more architectural aesthetic, the painting creating a deliberate dynamic of space, layer, saturation and density, and yet, like the other artists in the exhibition, allowing for improvisational gestures, such as only tint bleeds. Here, as elsewhere in this Salon Zürcher, the notion of “women of spirit” affirms pollination and affinity, and affirms the supple vitality of abstract art.