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Abstract Impressions: Women Printmakers and the New York Atelier 17, 1940-1955

This dissertation is the first to consider the innovative prints of the ninety-one women artists who worked at Atelier 17, the avant-garde printmaking workshop in New York between 1940 and 1955, alongside the emergence of the New York School. Situating the prints of a core group of eight artists—Louise Bourgeois, Minna Citron, Worden Day, Dorothy Dehner, Sue Fuller, Alice Trumbull Mason, Louise Nevelson, and Anne Ryan—within the context of midcentury gender norms, my dissertation discusses how women artists used groundbreaking techniques to achieve novel forms of abstraction. I argue that women printmakers stood at the center of artistic and societal debates about acceptable feminine roles and women in the workforce. These artists both followed and challenged notions of femininity through their material and physical experimentations with abstract printmaking.

Chapter One’s critical historiography of American women printmakers from 1800 through the 1930s illuminates why Atelier 17 was so significant to the development of women’s professional identities. By scrutinizing midcentury gender norms that prescribed acceptable spaces of work and types of feminine labor, Chapter Two uses signaling theory to explain how women artists relied on printmaking’s physicality to demonstrate their serious professional intentions. The rigorous process of carving plates and woodblocks, for example, simulated sculpting, spurring many women to enter this male-dominated field. Chapter Three examines the potential of gender and socio-cultural norms to affect the meanings of printmaking’s tools. Chapter Four considers the formal strategies that Atelier 17 artists employed to make their prints relevant to Abstract Expressionism. Although women artists could be leading practitioners of avant-garde printmaking, critics initially deemed their small prints unambitious and placed them on the periphery of Abstract Expressionism. Chapter Five examines the networks that women artists developed to promote their reputations as abstractionists and send prints widely to print annuals, group exhibitions and solo shows.

The dissertation’s case studies expand conceptions of Abstract Expressionism and identify isolated instances of women working towards gender equality before the Women’s Art Movement. The great creative strides women artists took while experimenting with avant-garde printmaking at Atelier 17 had lasting impacts on later generations of women artists.