I first met Judith Godwin in 2011, as I was beginning research for the exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism (Denver Art Museum, 2016). I was in the earliest stages of research and the task ahead was to determine which artists active in the 1950s would be included. Certainly, just as much as I was uncertain of my path ahead, Judith was more than a bit apprehensive about meeting this out-of-town curator with the ambitious goal. I was interested to see what this painter who had been active in the movement would be like. What would her paintings be like? And why, after so many years of academic training, did I not already know of her?
We met in her studio in the West Village. When I opened the door, I walked past a small kitchen, then past the books, chairs and table ready for our meeting. Finally, I saw the long wall of the main studio, floor to ceiling with built-in bins—each filled with large paintings. As her assistant pulled out canvas after canvas from the many years of studio work, I was struck by the strength of the sure brushwork and robust color, the dynamism of the large format compositions—a clear indication that this was an artist who had been there, had not been a Johnny-Come-Lately, but a participant in the original movement we now call Abstract Expressionism.
My first foray into the world of this female Abstract Expressionist was illuminating. Not only were the canvases original and done at the prime of the movement, but here was on what it was like for her, a young woman new to New York, to be thrust into this world—this man’s world—of painting. This small entrée to her world was revealing. Over the years we’ve known each other, she has told me about the challenges facing a female artist, to find acceptance not only in the New York galleries, but also at places like the Cedar Tavern, where progressive artists and critics drank amidst often wild, heated discussions.
Judith Godwin came to New York in 1953, after studying art at Mary Baldwin College and graduating from Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). In
New York, she studied at the Art Students League and with famed modernist Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Massachusetts and at his New York school. Looking back, this must have been daunting for her as one of, if not the, youngest of Hofmann’s students; and also as a female student of the celebrated painter, who famously paid the left-handed compliment to Elaine de Kooning, that a particular painting she did was “so good you would not know it was done by a woman.” This was the world Godwin entered as a young, single, female painter in New York. She also had been encouraged to move to New York by the famed choreographer and dancer, Martha Graham, whom she had met earlier and with whom she remained friends until Graham’s death. Graham’s abstract, often powerfully angular expressive movements in dance greatly affected Godwin, who declared, “I can see her gestures in everything I do.”
Judith Godwin comes from a prominent family with deep roots in Virginia. I’ve always thought it remarkable that her parents allowed their daughter to move to New York to be a painter in the mid-1950s. Judith, in her always-forthright manner, told me that because she wanted to further her painting studies, it was natural for her to go to New York, which she did with her parents’ encouragement. Judith was clearly ahead of her time and sure of herself. She knew her path, and she pursued it.
Godwin proved her ability, beginning in the 1950s and continuing throughout her career, with large expressive paintings that include a grand sense of scale, unconventional bold brush- work with underlying structure and energetic thrusts, all-over treatment, and surface emphasis. Early on, she showed in such important galleries as the Stable Gallery and Betty Parsons.
Although the history of Abstract Expressionism has been largely defined by the machismo of male painters, we now see that some female artists, like Judith Godwin, painted inspired, fully expressive works. Godwin’s freedom of direct gesture and process makes her canvases original. Whether in thick, textured impasto or with thinned staining, Godwin’s emotional vitality shows through. Today her paintings are receiving renewed attention and are enthusiastically collected. She earned her place as one of only twelve artists in my own 2016 traveling show, Women of Abstract Expressionism. It is gratifying that her bold, authentic painting is now receiving the acclaim