10 Underrecognized Women Artists Who Shaped Abstract Expressionism Internationally

Cleo Roberts-Komireddi
Mar 2, 2023 7:04PM

Installation view of “Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70” at Whitechapel Gallery, 2023. Photo by Damian Griffiths. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery.

Abstract Expressionism—long equated with Western men liberally splashing paint about, energetically brandishing their brushes, and zoning in on color—is recalibrated in Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition “Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70,” on view through May 7th.

Expanding the received history of the movement, the show highlights the range of international women artists who were localizing modes of abstraction. Featuring 81 artists—of whom a disproportionate 28 are American—the exhibition is a rich accumulation of talent.

Below, we highlight 10 women artists from the Whitechapel show, whose Abstract Expressionist practices deserve greater international recognition.

Tomie Ohtake

B. 1913, Kyoto, Japan. D. 2015, São Paulo.


Accomplished painter, sculptor, and printmaker Tomie Ohtake settled in Brazil after her visit from Japan in 1936 was prolonged due to the Pacific War. It was not until the age of 39 that Ohtake began to paint, channeling a figurative style encouraged by Japanese artist Keiya Sugano, who was passing through Brazil in 1952. It was still later that she began to develop her acclaimed painterly style that focused on a simplicity of forms and intense, saturated pigmentation. In the context of Brazil’s Concrete and Neo-Concrete movements, Ohtake’s work distinguished itself.

Remaining unaffiliated with any group, Ohtake pursued her own freedom and experimentation, as exemplified by her renowned “blind paintings,” in which she put on a blindfold to paint. Ohtake’s career soared in the 1960s with numerous international exhibitions, public sculpture commissions, and inclusion in biennales including São Paulo, and Venice. Ohtake continued making art until the end of her life, and in 2013, at the age of 100, was the subject of 17 exhibitions across Brazil.

Fanny Sanín

B. 1938, Bogotá. Lives and works in New York.

Fanny Sanín’s studies in Colombia and the United States were the springboard for her experimentation with gestural abstraction. Moving to Mexico in 1963, she absorbed the anti-nationalist works of Mexico’s Rupture Generation, creating the expressive works with rich hues she showed in her 1965 solo show at Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá.

After Sanín spent time in London at the Chelsea School of Art and Central School of Art, her practice, which had previously prioritized oil paint, began to transform. Further spurred by the artist’s visit to the 1968 “Art of the Real”exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, her style morphed into geometric forms with hard lines, all rendered in acrylic. By 1971, Sanín made New York her home, where she continues to make work dedicated to achieving visual symmetry through structure and color.

Behjat Sadr

B. 1924, Arāk, Iran. D. 2009, Corsica, France.

Behjat Sadr, Untitled, 1956. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2022. Courtesy of the Behjat Sadr Estate.

Weighty lines of industrial paint meet evocations of nature in the abstractions of Behjat Sadr. One of Iran’s most radical artists, Sadr’s oeuvre embodies transnational modernism.

Discouraged from pursuing art, Sadr first trained as a secondary school teacher before juggling the profession with classes in fine art at the University of Tehran. In 1955, she was awarded a grant to study in Rome, where her characteristic style continued to develop. Looking to the Art Informel movement in Europe, Sadr freed herself from brush and easel—painting directly onto canvas set on the floor with paint pots and scrapers.

The years that followed Sadr’s return to Iran in 1959 were filled with intense activity. Working on a large scale with thick black oil paint, Sadr was one of a small number of women artists in the country to be included in international biennales in the 1960s, including twice at Venice. Remaining in Iran and witnessing the Revolution, Sadr became increasingly experimental in her practice, incorporating kinetic works and paintings while using a palette knife on aluminum. During the end of her life, she turned to small-scale photo collages while living in exile in Paris in the 1980s.

Asma Fayoumi

B. 1943, Amman, Jordan. Lives and works in Damascus, Syria.

Part of a school of Syrian abstraction in the 1960s that cohered around Italian artist and Damascus University teacher Guido La Regina, Asma Fayoumi has served as a chronicler of Syria’s changing political landscape through her work. Fayoumi’s early works, presented to much acclaim in Damascus in 1966, were stirring abstractions that incorporated the city’s architectural fabric and street views. Her gestural markmaking intensified, with works becoming a compound of darkened colors—Expressionist brushwork brought together with Cubist spatiality. Reflecting what Fayoumi described as “an explosion of internal struggle,” her current work engages with Syria’s political crises and features maternal figures and female mythological forms.

Wook-kyung Choi

B. 1940, Seoul. D. 1985, Seoul.

Marrying the influences of the Art Informel movement in Korea with American Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Wook-kyung Choi’s paintings and collages have a uniquely explosive and spontaneous style. Leaving the male-dominated art world in Korea for the U.S. in the early 1960s, Choi studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Brooklyn Museum School of Art.

Choi set herself apart from her peers by using confident forms, dense colors, and liberal brushwork to address her marginalized position. When she returned to Korea after some 15 years away, she had become a singular voice in the context of popular performance art and the monochromatic Dansaekhwa painting style. Although Choi died at only 45 years old, her divergent work has a distinct place in Korea’s art history.

Nasreen Mohamedi

B. 1937, Karachi, Pakistan. D. 1990, Vadodara, India.

Although best known for her linear—often monochromatic—minimalism, Nasreen Mohamedi explored gestural abstraction in the 1960s. After enrolling at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, she studied and worked in Paris from 1961 to 1963. Experimenting with color, oil, and ink, she created dynamic, nature-inspired works that recall landscapes.

Mohamedi’s teaching role at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda from 1973 marked the beginning of her intense focus on the modernist grid. Her mentor V.S. Gaitonde also proved to be a monumental influence. In India, Mohamedi’s work has long been recognized as integral to the modernist movement. Solo exhibitions at Tate Liverpool and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have since brought her deserved international attention.

Franciszka Themerson

B. 1907, Warsaw. D. 1988, London.

Franciszka Themerson, Calligramme VIII (Bird), 1960. Courtesy of the Collection Themerson Estate.

A multidisciplinary artist, Franciszka Themerson was at the forefront of Poland’s filmmaking avant-garde, and worked in illustration, theater, graphic design, and painting. She relocated to London in 1940 to work for the Polish government-in-exile as a cartographer and illustrator. By 1948, Themerson and her husband Stefan Themerson established the experimental publishing house Gaberbocchus Press. Themerson built her artistic practice alongside work on book design and illustration for Gaberbocchus Press’s publications.

In the series referred to as “Calligrammes,” Themerson poured enamel paint onto her canvases, which she drew on with a variety of implements, including knives, sticks, and her fingers. Dwelling on the human condition, Themerson embraced a variety of materials, techniques, and styles in what she has described as “bi-abstract pictures.”

Yuki Katsura

B. 1913, Tokyo. D. 1991, Tokyo.

Yuki Katsura, Work, 1958–62. © Estate of Yuki Katsura. Courtesy of Alice and Tom Tisch, New York.

With a background in traditional Japanese Nihonga painting as well as Western painting, Yuki Katsura was a visual innovator in pre- and post-war Japan. One of few women associated with the avant-garde Nika-kai oil painting association, Katsura was instrumental in championing women artists, co-founding the 1946 Women Artists Association.

In the aftermath of war, Katsura cultivated an itinerant lifestyle, visiting Europe, Africa, and North America. By the late 1950s, Katsura had moved to New York and was pioneering a technique that involved manipulating washi paper and integrating it into her painting. Engaged in a perpetual cycle of reinvention, Katsura changed her materials to cork and cloth upon returning to Japan in 1961.

Lea Nikel

B. 1918, Zhytomyr, Ukraine. D. 2005, Moshav Kidron, Israel.

Lea Nikel first encountered art in Tel Aviv after living in British-ruled Palestine following her family’s emigration from Ukraine in 1920. Enrolled at unofficial art school Studia with teachers Yehezkel Streichman and Avigdor Stematsky—both founders of the New Horizon group that advocated abstraction—Nikel began to explore this relatively novel style.

In 1950, Nikel moved to Paris and immersed herself in the city’s art scene. Exposed to movements such as Tachisme, Art Informel, and Abstract Expressionism, Nikel’s own daring style began to mature. Subsequent travels to Rome and New York during the 1960s and 1970s augmented her visual expression, which incorporated collage, found objects, text, and scratching. Revered during her lifetime, Nikel represented Israel at the 1964 Venice Biennale alongside Arie Aroch and Igael Tumarkin, and in 1995, she was honored with a major retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.


B. 1933, Taipei. D. 2020, Sorengo, Switzerland.

Lifang, Untitled, 1969. Photo by Francesca Granata. Courtesy of the collection of Theobald Brun, Switzerland.

Only two years after graduating from Taiwan Provincial Teachers College in 1957, Lifang co-founded the Fifth Moon Art Group and was the only woman associated with this pioneering group of artists. Dedicated to pursuing modernism in post-war Taiwan and standing in antithesis to the country’s conservative traditions, they established a style that blended Eastern and Western traditions by looking to movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism.

Lifang’s work encapsulated the group’s aims. Integrating Chinese calligraphy techniques and ink-and-wash methods with broad brushstrokes and intense colors, her abstractions took on a distinct character. After spending a period studying with French artist Jean Souverbie and later relocating to Switzerland, Lifang began to exhibit widely in Europe. Her work is now held in the collections of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, M+, and Museo Etnografico della Valle di Muggio, among others.

Cleo Roberts-Komireddi
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019