Most people think about Abstract Expressionism in terms of the celebrated men who dominated the trend, largely due to their oversized personalities, as well as the monumental scale of their canvases. But within what is called the “second generation” of Abstract Expressionists—painters who matured in the mid-1950s—there was a contingency of strong female practitioners, including Judith Godwin. Born in Suffolk, Virginia, to parents who nurtured her artistic aspirations, Godwin attended Mary Baldwin College (now University)—a venerable liberal arts institution for women located in Staunton—between 1948 and 1950. The next year, she transferred to the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), where Theresa Pollak chaired the art department.

Following her graduation with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Godwin moved to New York City in 1953 and enrolled in classes led by Will Barnet and Vaclav Vytlacil, among others, at the Art Students League. She also began studying with Hans Hofmann, both in the city and in Provincetown, Massachusetts; the renowned German-born teacher quickly became her mentor. Godwin once said, “I think the main thing with Hofmann was that I felt completely free to do whatever I wanted to do.” His use of bold colors, concern for planes, and penchant for textured surface significantly influenced Godwin’s future work.

Mid-century was a heady time to be an artist in Manhattan, and Godwin regularly interacted with the heralded Abstract Expressionists of the day: Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. In 1958, she was included in an invitational exhibition at the Stable Gallery and thereafter she exhibited at the gallery managed by Betty Parsons, the leading advocate for the movement also known as the “New York School.” Godwin has admitted that she felt pressured to create powerful, turbulent work in order to compete with her male counterparts for critical and commercial attention: “if you were a [woman] painter in that period, you felt you had to paint as strongly, as violently as the men did.” In spite of the bias she faced, Godwin’s gender is an integral factor to and in her work: “The act of painting is for me, as a woman, an act of freedom, and a realization that images generated by the female experience can be a powerful and creative expression for all humanity.”

During this same season, Godwin expanded her passion for modern dance, a fascination that had begun in 1950 when she saw Martha Graham perform at Mary Baldwin College. The two women soon became friends, and some of the broad arcing gestures of Godwin’s paintings are said to reflect dance motions. Throughout her career, Godwin’s insatiable curiosity led her to explore a multitude of interests. Extended international travel in 1964 sparked an interest in Zen Buddhism. Soon afterward, Godwin trained with a plasterer, a mason, and a carpenter; she later became a member of the Society of Interior Designers and proceeded to restore several historic houses in Connecticut. An accomplished landscape gardener, she never abandoned painting as she pursued these varied paths.

Godwin’s accomplishments have been recognized by her alma maters with honorary doctorates. Her work is represented in over thirty-five museums—including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts—and has been included in almost sixty solo and group exhibitions.