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#SouthofUnionSquare: Home to (even more) Trailblazing Artists, Dancers, Labor Leaders, and Birth Control Advocates

Our South of Union Square interactive tool brings users on surprising and insightful journeys through this historic neighborhood where Greenwich Village meets the East Village. In addition to featuring historic information on each one of the two hundred buildings located here, the tool includes nearly forty themed tours that showcase the neighborhood’s many dynamic and interconnected layers of significance. It’s also a living project, being updated as new information is unearthed about the area’s rich and varied history. Since the map was launched, we have added a number of new sites — including a building home to a series of leading Abstract Expressionist and Pop Artists; the residence and studio of a great Chinese American modernist avant-garde painter; the office of a groundbreaking labor organization that pioneered contraceptive coverage through health insurance; and dance studios run by important choreographers.

“Virtual Village” — South of Union Square, 2020.

61 Fourth Avenue

When our South of Union Square Map + Tours were first released, they illuminated the amazing artistic and publishing history of 61 Fourth Avenue. Robert Indiana — a preeminent figure in American assemblage art, hard-edge painting, and Pop Art — moved into his studio here in 1955. While living here, Indiana claimed, he could see into Willem de Kooning’s studio at 88 East 10th Street and watch him paint. Almost three decades later, Barney Rosset, the owner of “era’s most explosive and influential publishing house,” moved into this same building. 61 Fourth Avenue was the last of six buildings in the area South of Union Square home to Rosset’s Grove Press, its literary magazine Evergreen Review, or the Press’ Evergreen Theater. While this is already an impressive collection of histories connected to a single building, Village Preservation has uncovered even more information on 61 Fourth Avenue, filling in the timeline before and between Indiana and Rosset’s residence here.

61 Fourth Avenue, 2012.

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), one of the most noteworthy figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement and ‘New York School’ of artists, had a studio at 61 Fourth Avenue during a critical period of his career, between 1949 and 1952. Along with other members of the New York School such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Philip Guston, Motherwell is considered one of the great American Abstract Expressionist painters. Credited by The American Art Book as being the most articulate of this group, Motherwell became the theorist and leading spokesperson of the New York School. He did so through lectures, teachings, and writings, all the while maintaining his own productive output of paintings, collages, and prints. Motherwell also fostered relationships with European Surrealists and other intellectuals, serving as a bridge between the pre-war avant-garde movement in Europe and the post-war Abstract Expressionist movement in New York. He established automatism and psychoanalysis as the focus of American abstraction. In 1991, art critic Clement Greenberg said of Motherwell: “in my opinion he was one of the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters.”

In 1948-49, during the time that Motherwell occupied his studio at 61 Fourth Avenue, he began his lengthy series of paintings, Elegies to the Spanish Republic, which memorialized the lost Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. This homage to the victims of this war, and all wars, would be the theme of his works for decades to come, and consists of over 200 variants of black forms on white backgrounds. He insisted that these paintings were not political, but rather his intent was to ensure that those who lost their lives were not forgotten. During his time at 61 Fourth Avenue, his works included At Five in the Afternoon (1948-49), The Voyage (1948-49), Madrid (1950), Wall of the Temple (1951), and Wall of the Temple III (1952). In 1950, Motherwell worked with the Architects’ Collaborative led by Walter Gropius, and exhibited a maquette for a sixty-foot-long mural for a junior high school in Attleboro, Massachusetts called Mural Fragment. Motherwell also started ‘the Robert Motherwell School of Fine Art Painting, Drawing, Theory’ at 61 Fourth Avenue in the autumn of 1949.

Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110,” 1971. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

A few years later, in the fall of 1959, Anita Reuben and her husband Max Baker opened the Reuben Gallery at 61 Fourth Avenue, hoping to continue the legacy of the Hansa Gallery, which had closed that year. The Hansa, one of the original artist-run cooperative “Tenth Street Galleries,” was co-founded by artists including Allan Kaprow and George Segal, both of whom participated in the opening of the Reuben. The Reuben Gallery was considered an informal space where artists could be flexible and free to execute their projects, and thus played a formative role in the development of avant-garde art. The Art Bulletin in 2004 recalled the makeshift character of the space: “The Reuben Gallery…was a third-floor walk-up in a small, aging building. Not only the ceilings but even the walls on which the art was hung were made of stamped metal, a hallmark of New York prewar construction. With an awkwardly exposed utility meter plainly visible in the room and even an old heating stove, the space would have registered as an antiquated antonym to the development of the neighborhood.”

Claes Oldenburg’s “The Street” at the Reuben Gallery, May 1960. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

In Sally Banes’ book Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, the Reuben Gallery is described as “a lively center for downtown art, especially as a crucible for Happenings.” Allan Kaprow’s first public ‘Happening,’ 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, was performed at the Reuben in 1959. The book Happenings: New York, 1958-1963, prepared in conjunction with an exhibit for Pace Gallery and including photographs by Robert McElroy, emphasizes the significance of Kaprow’s piece: “This unique conjunction of visual, aural, and physical evens, performed for an intimate art world audience by [Kaprow’s] friends and colleagues, would change the course of art history. The new genre of artwork that evolved from this debut would become known as ‘Happenings.’”

Jim Dine, another pioneer of the Happenings movement and a key player in the development of Pop Art, had his first solo show at the Reuben Gallery in 1960. Claes Oldenburg, yet another Happenings sculptor and Pop Art leader, also showcased his installation The Street at the Reuben Gallery in 1960. Banes’ book quotes Oldenburg as saying that the Reuben Gallery was the place where he made his first meaningful contact with Allan Kaprow. Operating on Fourth Avenue until 1961, the Reuben Gallery later moved to 44 East 3rd Street.

51 East 10th Street

Village Preservation originally highlighted 51 East 10th Street in our South of Union Square Row House Tour. This 4-story plus raised basement Italianate style rowhouse was built in 1847-48 for William Bailey, and remarkably retains intact its Italianate doorway, cornice, and elaborate stoop and areaway ironwork.

While we continue to celebrate this building’s architectural integrity, new research has revealed that 51 East 10th Street also bears strong connections to the art history of the neighborhood south of Union Square. Artist, poet, philanthropist, teacher, writer, and inventor Yun Gee (1906-1963) was the first Chinese-American artist to hold an important position in the history of Western contemporary art. Considered one of the great modernist avant-garde painters, Gee enjoys a number of other “firsts.” He was the first Chinese-born artist invited to join the Société des Artistes Indépendants; the first Chinese artist to display his work internationally; the first Chinese artist to show at MoMa; and the first Chinese artist to show in the salons of Paris. His art made frequent reference to his Chinese heritage either through form, style, or subject matter. He also developed his own signature style, Diamondism, which was derived from Cubism, and he promoted it through his art, writings, and teachings. From 1942 until his death in 1963, Gee lived and worked at 51 East 10th Street. Also in 1942, he married Helen Wimmer, who opened the country’s first commercial gallery focused on photography: Limelight photography gallery at 91 Seventh Avenue South (learn more in the “Transformative Women” tour of the Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours map).

51 East 10th Street, 2020.

While living here, Gee taught classes, and wrote about his theory of Diamondism. In 1943, Gee staged an exhibition at the Milch Galleries on West 57th Street to raise funds for the Music Box Canteen. Located at 68 Fifth Avenue (also South of Union Square), the Music Box Canteen was a celebrated World War II entertainment venue for GIs described at the time as “one of the most famous metropolitan service centers, and…‘a home away from home’ to thousands of servicemen.” This was not Gee’s first exhibit to benefit the allied forces; he had held others, the proceeds of which went to the British and American Ambulance Corps. The following year, in 1944, Gee’s work was showcased in the group exhibition “Portrait of America.” His work completed during his time at 51 East 10th Street includes Wanamaker Fire (1956), Old Broadway in Winter (1943-44), and Nude in Studio (1952).

Yun Gee’s “Old Broadway in Winter,” 1943-44. Photo courtesy of yungee.com

Gee was also an inventor who designed a four-dimensional chess game. He received a patent in 1950 for a tongue and lip holding device “for aiding correct English speech.” There was even a report by a few periodicals from the time of his plans started in 1946 for a project of a tunnel to the moon which apparently he started in his own backyard in 1949. The projected cost was $9,000,000, and as reported in 1949, he had not gotten any financial backers to that date. Gee passed away in 1963.

80 Fifth Avenue

As documented throughout our South of Union Square Map + Tours, for half a century the International Workers Order fought relentlessly for racial equality and solidarity, industrial unions, and social security programs that would protect working-class people. The IWO, located at 80 Fifth Avenue, also opened and ran clinics in working-class neighborhoods — including East Harlem and Brownsville, Brooklyn — that were otherwise lacking in strong healthcare options.

80 Fifth Avenue, 2020.

Village Preservation more recently learned that, in 1936, the IWO included contraception in its benefits, becoming the first insurer ever to do so. The organization was a leader in the movement for prepaid medical care, and provided contraceptive services in addition to primary care for annual flat fees. Also remarkably, the IWO operated a birth control clinic, which was run by a woman doctor who had worked with Margaret Sanger. The IWO’s Birth Control Center stayed open in the evenings to maintain its accessibility to working patients. It was a pioneering facility at a time when sharing birth control information was still criminalized, and was the only such clinic to use an insurance system.

34-36 East 10th Street

34-36 East 10th Street is yet another site where Village Preservation has identified important histories connected to the dance history of the neighborhood, where several leading figures and innovators in the field were located.

The Valerie Bettis Dance Studio moved into 34 East 10th Street by 1972. Valerie Bettis was a choreographer and performer of modern dance, ballet, television, film, and Broadway. She is credited as the first modern dancer to choreograph for a ballet company. Bettis founded Dancers Studio Foundation, which was also associated with this address, in 1964. The studio produced collaborative work between choreographers, writers, and musicians, and held classes and workshops.

34 East 10th Street, 2019.

Another dance company, Dance June Lewis and Company was located at 36 East 10th Street by 1976. According to the company’s website, June Lewis was a student of Erik Hawkins and Martha Graham, who both had studios in the neighborhood south of Union Square. Lewis founded her company in 1968.

Protect the Neighborhood South of Union Square

#SouthOfUnionSquare is an irreplaceable piece of New York, American, and world history, and an unprotected but essential slice of Greenwich Village and the East Village. We hope you’ll enjoy, explore, and advocate for saving this amazing neighborhood as we continue to add new layers of history to the South of Union Square tool. Dig in to learn more about the many important figures who made their homes here, including the trailblazing Black artist and educator Selma Burke, the leading Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, and the “Picasso of Dance” Martha Graham. Click through, also, to learn about the many other ways Grove Press, and the neighborhood’s “Tenth Street Galleries” broke new ground while in this area.

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