Painter Judith Godwin (BFA ’52) dies at 91

Judith Godwin, a young white woman with short hair, sits in front of a pairing wearing a black shirt and grey skirt

Judith Godwin (BFA ’52), an abstract expressionist painter who challenged by the male-dominated art world in the 1950s, died May 29, 2021 at age 91. Godwin was a painter for more than 70 years and collectors, curators, and museums have increasingly acknowledged her achievements in recent years. 

In 1948, Godwin enrolled at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, where she enticed famed dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham to perform. Godwin was mesmerized by the movement and athleticism of modern dance and developed a friendship and mentorship with Graham that followed Godwin to New York in 1953 and continued for years thereafter. Graham’s encouragement and that of Judith’s father, an amateur artist and architect, were seminal influences on the young artist.

Godwin made a commitment to her interest in painting by transferring to Richmond Professional Institute (now VCU). Upon graduation, she moved to Greenwich Village, Manhattan, where she became a part of New York’s burgeoning international art scene. She attended the Art Students League and studied on 8th Street and in Provincetown with Hans Hoffman. It was Hoffman who encouraged her to move to abstract expressionism, a form dominated by a male milieu, which she challenged.

The paintings of an abstract expressionist are a direct window into the mind and emotions of an artist. Her early work is bold, dark and aggressive, reflecting the battle to be noticed and appreciated in a male-dominated profession. Her later work is more colorful and playful as successes mounted and relationships became more stable. Her painting is a palpable map of her life’s journey.

Godwin’s work has been shown at art museums and galleries in all parts of the United States, including the Betty Parsons, Section Eleven, where she was the youngest woman to be invited to join; the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio; and a joint exhibit between the Anderson Gallery at VCUarts and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She was among 12 artists included in the groundbreaking 2016 exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism held at the Denver Art Museum and curated by University of Denver professor Gwen F. Chanzit. 

Among the museums that include her work in their permanent collection are the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Japanese National Museum of Art, the National Museum of Wales, the Suffolk Museum, and numerous others.

Judith Godwin changes the code

In an obituary from the Berry Campbell Gallery, which represented Godwin, she was described as a “playful raconteur and a passionate advocate for women in the arts.” Godwin was also legendary at VCUarts, where her rebellious spirit led to a change in the dress code for women. Her story, told below, was originally shared in 2018 as part of the VCUarts 90th anniversary commemoration.

Judith Godwin isn’t afraid to defy convention. The Suffolk-born artist was one of the few women celebrated as an abstract expressionist artist in the 1950s. As a young painter, she joined the Art Students League of New York and further studied under Hans Hofmann with classmates Will Barnet, Harry Sternberg and Vaclav Vytlacil. Today, her work is held in prestigious museum collections around the world and continues to be exhibited in abstract expressionist retrospectives.

Yet, Godwin’s rebellious streak truly began in the early 1950s when she was a student at Richmond Professional Institute, the predecessor to VCU. That’s where she became known for a humble protest that changed the school forever.

Godwin could often be found sprinting between classes, due to a policy on student attire. While she was allowed to wear jeans in her morning studio class, lunch was a different story. No woman at RPI could wear jeans in the cafeteria. To follow the rules, Godwin would run from her class on Franklin Street to her room in Ritter-Hickok House, change into a skirt and hurry to the cafeteria for a truncated lunch. Then she’d return to Ritter-Hickok to change back into jeans before heading back to Franklin Street for her sculpture class.

“I thought this just didn’t quite make sense!” Godwin later said in a 2012 interview with VMFA curator Sarah Eckhardt. “And I decided that I didn’t think that was such a good idea. So, [one day,] I wore, straight from my class, jeans, and had a 20-minute lunch instead of a 10-minute lunch.”

A young woman from one of Godwin’s classes spotted her in jeans in the cafeteria and reported her to Margaret Johnson, then the dean of women at RPI. Johnson called Godwin to her office and inquired with a laugh, “Judith what have you done now?”

The young student explained her reasoning: the hassle of changing clothes multiple times a day was very hard for someone who lives several blocks from class. Johnson agreed that Godwin’s situation was unfair and soon the university’s dress code was changed to allow women to wear jeans outside of the studio.

“That changed the whole law for the school of the arts and women wearing blue jeans,” said Godwin. “That was my main, great gift I gave to RPI.”

Judith Godwin at the Anderson Gallery

In 2012, the Anderson Gallery at VCU mounted an exception of Godwin’s work. Judith Godwin: Early Abstractions traced Godwin’s ascendancy in abstract expressionism from her VCU student days through her post-graduation life in New York in the heyday of abstract expressionism.