Developed in New York City in the 1940s, abstract expressionism is often defined as a post-WWII art movement (often referred to as the “New York School”) dominated by American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb.

Rather than focus on a landscape, religion or still life, abstract expressionism is a glimpse into the artist’s psyche with, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website explains, “an emphasis on dynamic, energetic gesture, in contrast to a reflective, cerebral focus on more open fields of color.”

For the last 75 years, abstract expressionism has been largely focused on its male participants, giving female painters little attention or fanfare. An exhibition debuting this week at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville is aiming to turn that around.

The exhibit Confronting the Canvas: Women of Abstraction features approximately 30 large-scale works created by six contemporary female painters: Keltie Ferris, Maya Hayuk, Jill Nathanson, Fran O’Neill, Jackie Saccoccio, and Anke Weyer.

“Originally, the exhibition was to survey abstract painters across the United States,” explains MOCA’s Assistant Curator of Exhibitions Jaime DeSimone. “However, the idea evolved into presenting women painters who live and work in New York. By doing so, it serves as a continuation of the New York School’s legacy, particularly action painting, and highlights how women painters are leaders in this genre.”

One such leader of the genre is Saccoccio, a featured artist in the local exhibit and the inaugural recipient of MOCA Jacksonville’s Brooke and Hap Stein Emerging Artist Prize, which she was awarded in March.

A New England native, Saccoccio lives and works in New York and Connecticut and has received worldwide attention for her improvisational portraits influenced by Renaissance and Mannerist portraiture. Her work has been shown from Boston to Belgium and all manner of media, from The New York Times to Time Out London, has taken notice.

“It certainly is true that women didn’t receive the notoriety that they may have deserved at that time [in the 1940s] like Hedda Sterne and Lee Krasner,” Saccoccio tells Folio Weekly Magazine. “And I’m happy that women have been just forging ahead and are now being recognized more widely.”

Saccoccio, who has six large-scale paintings in Confronting, gives props to more modern female abstract expressionist artists, such as Elizabeth Murray, for furthering the art form.

“It’s a pretty exciting time to be a woman in the arts right now,” she says. “There seems to be a lot more opportunities now even though there’s certainly a lot more to be desired for everybody — whether it’s a minority, or a woman or an unrecognized man.”

In Saccoccio’s piece, Profile (Minter Meltdown), (oil and mica on linen, 106˝x79˝) vibrant blues, yellows and gold connect with a zebra-like print and subtle splashes of red and pink. It’s an aesthetic — more than 20 years in the making — that Saccoccio obtains by tipping, dragging and shaking her materials to create liquid pools of color, directional lines, and translucent orbs.

“One of my interests is gestural abstraction captured by direct, intuitive modes of mark-making,” says DeSimone. “The compositions are often energetic and vibrant, where marks read as transcription of a painter’s bodily movements.”

Mark-making is a term used to describe the way in which artists literally make their marks on a surface. It can mean the dot a pencil makes on paper or the swirl a brush makes with paint on a found wooden board. And it’s an integral part of abstract expressionism.

“Ferris operates a spray gun to obtain an immediate application of paint that distances her body from the surface,” DeSimone says, referring to another of the show’s featured artists. “As an extension of her hand — like Jackson Pollock’s brush or Jill Nathanson’s pours that seldom touch the canvas — the spray gun affords a new freedom to harmonize dots, splats, streaks and swirls in a variety of colors.”

While women pioneers of abstract expressionism in the 1940s and ’50s
didn’t receive due attention for their work and forethought, DeSimone, Saccoccio and other women in the art world are looking to change that for today’s aspiring artists.

“Abstraction is alive and well in Northeast Florida and beyond,” says DeSimone. “Confronting the Canvas exposes the community to some leading abstract painters in New York by physically bringing them
to Jacksonville.”