31 Women

Breese Little, London, UK

By and

‘31 Women’ pays homage to a 1943 exhibition of the same title at Peggy Guggenheim’s New York gallery, Art of This Century. For gallerists Josephine Breese and Henry Little, revisiting ‘31 Women’ is a way to explore the legacy of British modernist painting, starting with surrealism and the transition to formalism, and moving through conceptual art and the yBAs to the present day. Part of the fun of invoking Guggenheim’s legacy is toying with the myths and rumours that proliferate in the wake of her artistic and curatorial juggernaut. In addition to being significant as an early instance of an all-women show, the original ‘31 Women’ has a place in the chronicle of modernist extra-marital affairs for its part in the break-up of Guggenheim’s marriage to Max Ernst. In his official role as advisor for Art of This Century, he visited the painter Dorothea Tanning’s studio on a recce for a show that was to have been called ‘30 Women’. During his visit Ernst gave Tanning the title for her self-portrait Birthday (1942), played chess with her and promptly fell in love, moving in to her apartment within a week. Guggenheim later quipped that she wished she’d kept the number of artists to 30. 


Catherine Yarrow, Kneeling Purple Figure (Morges), 1935, pen and watercolour on paper, 43 x 28 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Austin Desmond and Breese Little, London

Catherine Yarrow, Kneeling Purple Figure (Morges), 1935, pen and watercolour on paper, 43 x 28 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Austin Desmond and Breese Little, London

Breese Little’s show of 31 women, mostly painters, includes the work of artists in Guggenheim’s New York circle, notably: Eileen Agar, whose collage of a bashful Fighter Pilot (1940) proves that, in the right hands, a plain luggage tag and paper eyelets can be tenderly lifelike; and Catherine Yarrow, represented with Kneeling Purple Figure (Morges) (1935), an ink drawing of a hollow-eyed form captured mid-prostration, its diamond-shaped musculature daubed with a wash of unsettling red and purple.

The London exhibition is faithful to the tribalism of the original, staging intergenerational meeting points for works from the mid-1930s to the present day, all by artists connected with London. There are new works by younger London-based artist including Aimee Parrott, Mary Ramsden and Lauren Keeley, whose assemblage A Plate by Two Friends 1 (2017), made of laser-cut wood and screen-printed linen, seems both antique and ultra-modern. The exhibition runs in a line around the gallery, and much attention has been given to the formal, conceptual and affective apposition of works. Hanging Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Cover My Body In Love (1996) – a quintessential Eminesque hand-written letter with vivid descriptions of drunkenness, abortion, loneliness and penetration with an Orangina bottle – next to Helen Chadwick’s large polaroid Meat Abstract No. 8 Gold Ball / Steak (1989) suggests the influence of Chadwick’s work on younger artists, but it also stirs the carnal and the allegorical into a swirling miasma of female spunk.


31 Women, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Breese Little, London; photograph Benjamin Westoby

31 Women, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Breese Little, London; photograph Benjamin Westoby

Alison Turnbull’s framed triptych Orto Botanico (2011) features a list of typed descriptions and a grid of paint samples referencing colours in Rome’s botanical gardens. Turnbull’s work and a Bridget Riley gouache study on graph paper from 1972 flank Step (2007–08), by Rachel Whiteread, a diminutive stack of casts of the interior of cartons made in grey plaster and pink and orange resin that shares its translucence and tint with fruit-scented soaps from The Body Shop. It may span four decades, but this trio of works finds sympathy in the artists’ use of alluring colour. 


Eileen Agar, Fighter Pilot, 1940, collage on plywood, 22 x 17 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Austin Desmond and Breese Little, London 

Eileen Agar, Fighter Pilot, 1940, collage on plywood, 22 x 17 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Austin Desmond and Breese Little, London


In a 1978 interview, Guggenheim’s biographer Jacqueline B. Weld asked: ‘In terms of American painting, what was the role of your gallery?’ Guggenheim replied: ‘To give birth to it. I was the midwife.’ She failed to mention her role in giving life to a new kind of freedom, which would later gain popularity as ‘curating’, to bring out the meaning of art works through unconventional or strange juxtapositions. It’s an attitude Breese Little have evidently embraced in this tribute to the grandest dame of modern art. 

Main image: 31 Women, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Breese Little, London; photograph: Benjamin Westoby

Issue 190

First published in Issue 190

October 2017

Most Read

Forensic Architecture, Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson are this year’s nominees
It’s the first statue of a woman placed in Parliament Square, marking the centenary of women’s right to vote
In further news: New York art project fights mass incarceration with house music; Marcia Hafif passes away at 89
From a preview of Konrad Fischer’s new space, to Simon Fujiwara’s thought-provoking commentary on gender bias
The Chinese dissident artist has justified posing with politician Alice Weidel, who has branded immigrants ‘illiterate’
‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’
From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
The divisive director out after less than six months by mutual consent
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018