Erin Li

Curatorial Fellow 2022
Whitechapel Gallery, London

As I walked out of Aldgate East station, a familiar broadcast announcement rang in the air, 'due to lack of staff, exits 3 and 4 are currently closed. Please use the exits on the other end of the platform.' It is a daily reminder of the recent reality of global recession, inflation, and endless public service strikes in London. Coming from Hong Kong, a city boasting one of the best public transportation services in the world, I quickly adjusted my expectations while pondering over the crisis and possibilities of civic life. What do we prioritise If we do not even have enough funding to pay workers reasonable wages?

Right above the station, Whitechapel Gallery also found itself dealing with the exigencies of this socio-political climate. In November 2022, Arts Council England announced that in an effort to shift arts funding to other cities and towns, among many other arts and culture institutions in London, Whitechapel Gallery would face a 6.5% funding cut for 2023–26, which translates to a slash of £300,000 over three years. Amid this challenging situation, we continued to work on ‘Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70’, which is still on view at Whitechapel Gallery until 7 May 2023. With a small core team of three curators and a tight budget, we developed many strategies to balance ambition and resources. Part of survival strategy, this balancing act is an art form being practised across many fields in a time of scarcity and shake-ups.


Coming from a curatorial practice working mainly with contemporary artists, this is the most ambitious exhibition I have worked on to date, partly because I have never been so closely involved in a post-war survey exhibition where most artists have passed away. Aiming to challenge the canon of Abstract Expressionism as a US-centred movement led by male artists within a patriarchal system, this exhibition was four years in the making. I was lucky to join the team eight months prior to the opening and worked closely with the lead curator Laura Smith and assistant curator Candy Stobbs, who included me in all aspects of the exhibition making and made me feel immediately welcomed. Although I was no expert in post-war art, the feminist and decentralising ambition of the exhibition concept entrenched me as an Asian female curator new to London. Discussing with colleagues and friends about strategies of surviving in the UK art world as a foreign art practitioner, the most popular advice I got was to find allies, not necessarily along ethnic or national lines, but based on ideas.

Together with a passionate and extremely knowledgeable international advisory board, we held rigorous monthly discussions. When I joined in June 2022, our major task was to tighten up the artist selection and close the artwork list. We wanted to showcase a wide range of global experiments in gestural abstraction by women artists from the 1940s to 1970s, so it felt necessary to include the best artists from every major geographical region where a relevant trend could be found, be it ‘Informalismo’ in Latin America, ‘Art Informel’ in South Korea, or ‘Gutai’ in Japan. However, both the project budget and exhibition space were limited. With the huge volume of shipping also came environmental concerns.

To tackle these challenges, firstly, we secured two touring partners in France and Germany to share exhibition costs and research workload, as well as to maximise exposure. It did not surprise me that these collaborations often germinated at dinner conversations or through a friend's referral — curators’ international network of allies came to use. Secondly, we prioritised artworks already in Europe or the US where bulk shipments will be made. The last step was to debate the long list vigorously to examine whether each work fits into the theme for having a demonstrably gestural rather than geometric quality. My knowledge and networks in East and South Asian art proved particularly helpful in the process. The result was a pool of 160 paintings by 82 artists from over 30 countries, from which each touring institution will choose according to their own architectural and curatorial specificities. When local resources are scarce, why don’t we look outwards? This increasingly common practice of co-presenting or co-commissioning arts projects to ensure sufficient support and fair pay for artists highlights the urgency of regional and transnational solidarity against many existential threats. Here is another interesting example: recently, Hong Kong Film Festival UK opted to have the Taiwan Ministry of Culture as a key sponsor, instead of their usual Hong Kong organisational partners.

Gathering of the curatorial team, some members of the international advisory board and touring partners at Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles in France. Image courtesy of Erin Li


Once the artwork list was finalised, we started taking a closer look at each artist’s life and inquired into how many of them persisted to create art despite gender-based bias and dismissal. I researched and wrote over 20 artist biographies for the catalogue. Although many of these women artists pioneered in gestural abstraction, they have to this day not received the level of recognition they have deserved in art history, which is evident given the scarcity of available research materials, especially in English. As renowned art historian Griselda Pollock pointed out in the preface of the Whitechapel exhibition catalogue, 'the mythologising of some men as the exemplary geniuses of art has paralleled, in the twentieth century, the process of effacing almost all women from even being imagined as artists.'[1]

Some artists used kitchen counters or bedrooms as their artist studios and painted on whatever material they could get hold of, which meant that many smaller works were made. For instance, Alma Thomas remained in the same family residence in Washington DC for her whole adult life and painted countless works from her kitchen studio. To honour this, we dedicated one dimmer gallery in the middle of the exhibition route to smaller and more intimate works (see image below). With a salon-style hang on dark grey walls, we encourage the audience to get close to the works, to discover connections among artworks from diverse backgrounds, and to be immersed in a more intimate setting.

Some artists travelled over land and sea in search of a more supportive environment, opening themselves to new influences and communities. Many of them travelled to, studied in, or even migrated to other countries in the aftermath of World War II. This biographical fact presented the challenge that, many decades later, the attribution to a place of birth and a place of death in the caption card could be reductive at best, if not downright misleading. The nuances of labelling concern me particularly as I have lived in and received influences from many cultures. Case in point: Bernice Bing was born to Chinese parents in the Chinatown of San Francisco in 1936 but raised in various Caucasian foster homes and an orphanage after her mother died in 1941. Bing was very active in the Bay Area painters’ circle, often encouraging others to commit to art and designing innovative community arts programmes. She also travelled extensively throughout her life, including visiting Korea, Japan, and China to study traditional ink painting and calligraphy. She once questioned in her journal, 'I, being a woman, Asian and lesbian in a white male system — Where do I start to recover my reality?'[2] acing a similar challenge after many years, I could not convince myself that the caption label of ‘Chinese American’ could adequately convey the idiosyncrasies of Bing’s life, vivid in the multitude of influences she sought and the bold artistic space she carved out.

Installation view of 'Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70'. Image courtesy of Erin Li


In contrast to my previous contemporary art projects where the floorplan is hardly open to major changes once the walls were built, many key hanging decisions with this large-scale painting exhibition were made after the artworks were unpacked. I first panicked at the uncertainties, but gradually learnt to enjoy this flexibility and freedom.

Assistant curator Inês Costa checking the condition of Vessel (1961) by Helen Frankenthaler. Image courtesy of Erin Li

Staff tour given by the curatorial team. Image courtesy of Erin Li

Photos and dimensions of an artwork could be so deceptive that the whole curatorial team started scratching our heads at the sight of the actual work. 'Why is it so big?!' 'Oh, the colours are so much pinker than the photos!' 'This wall ends up looking too crowded. Let’s move it to that wall as it would also look nice next to that work.' After daily brainstorming of rearranging the display to adjust to the new reality, sometimes we had to make tough decisions to give up certain artworks as we simply cannot fit them into the exhibition, or their quality upon closer inspection in person does not live up to the standard. Even considerations related to barrier and wall text placement could end up forcing us to alter the hanging plan. 'Well, that’s the reality of curating', says the Gallery Technical Manager Alejandro Ball. Just like Alejandro who has mastered the art of updating and adapting the installation schedule and work plan every morning, I find myself entranced by this nimble balancing act, a much needed masterclass in times of drastic changes.

[1] See Pollock, Griselda. 'Between a Rock and Hard Place', Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70, London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2023.

[2] Pogash, Carol. 'Ignored in Life, Bernice Bing Is Discovered as Museums Rewrite History', The New York Times (online), October 14, 2022.