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South of Union Square, the Birthplace of American Modernism: Minna Citron

“South of Union Square, the Birthplace of American Modernism” is a series that explores how the built environment south of Union Square shaped some of the most influential American artists of the 20th century. 

Minna Citron, ca. 1948. Collection of Christiane H. Citron, Denver via Atelier 17.

At the beginning of the 20th century, American art was still struggling to be seen as legitimate among western artists. The Ashcan School, a group of avant-garde realist painters led by Robert Henri focusing on quotidian city life, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Whitney Studio Club, which later evolved into the Whitney Museum of American Art, helped establish the foundations of contemporary American art at this time, but the movement was still finding its footing. 

Façade of 30 East 14th Street Artist Studios via Apartments.com.

The Fourteenth Street School, led by Art Students League instructor Kenneth Hayes Miller, came to prominence in the 1930s, growing out of the realism popularized by the Ashcan School. However, the Fourteenth Street School greatly differed from the Ashcan School in that its artists did not shy away from social or political criticism in their depiction of urban life in and around 14th Street. One such artist to sharply analyze and expertly satirize contemporary city life, as well as the archetype of the “New Woman,” was Minna Citron (October 15, 1896 – December 23, 1991), a printmaker and painter who began her career at the Art Students League under the tutelage of Kenneth Hayes Miller. Citron created works in the Socialist Realist style throughout the 1930s. 

Minna Citron, “Self-Expression” (1932), lithograph, 13 1/2″ x 8 3/8″. Collection of Christiane H. Citron, Denver, CO.

Minna Citron was born in 1896 in Newark, NJ, and grew up in Brooklyn. She began her art practice as a hobby, but it quickly became her vocation. She began taking classes at the Art Students League under John Sloan and Kenneth Hayes Miller in 1928. She soon took up studio space at the artists’ lofts at 30 East 14th alongside Miller and fellow Art Students League pupil Yasuo Kuniyoshi. The location of these lofts overlooking 14th Street, “the poor man’s 5th Avenue” as it was then called, provided a great deal of subject matter for Citron’s incisive prints about the contradictions and opportunities of being a “New Woman.” 

Minna Citron, “Beauty Culture?” (1933), lithograph, 8″ x 11 1/2″. Collection of Christiane H. Citron, Denver, CO.

Feminanities, Minna Citron’s 1935 critically acclaimed solo exhibition of lithographs at New York Midtown Gallery, provided a rich platform for Citron’s perspective. The works in the collection analyzed the absurdity of female beauty standards and commercial treatments to attain those ridiculous standards amidst the horror of the Great Depression. Yes, the “New Woman” was able to find work, support herself, go dancing, and galavant about Manhattan sans chaperone. But she was still chained to the constant cycle of consumption to maintain a baseline of female presentability and acceptance. A life-long feminist, Citron’s work keenly channels satire, irony, and self-effacement in her analysis of what it means to be a woman. “All I try to do,” Citron once said in reference to her work, “is hold a mirror to the unlovely facets of a woman’s mind.” 

Minna Citron working on her TVA Mural for the Post Office in Newport, Tennessee via the Smithsonian Library and Archives.

Minna Citron continued to create work and regularly exhibited her art throughout the her life. Her methods of image-making evolved over the years, resulting in a switch to working primarily as a painter in the abstract style in the 1940s, much like the world-renowned abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. The culture, buildings, and social life in the area south of Union Square greatly influenced Citron’s early work, which expertly encapsulates some of the most prominent social issues of the 1930s. Minna Citron’s work is not easily categorized, which is why it has often been overlooked by scholars. But her point of view is crucial to understanding the breadth of the Fourteenth Street School, which was so firmly rooted South of Union Square.

2 responses to “South of Union Square, the Birthplace of American Modernism: Minna Citron

  1. Thank you so much for this story about Minna! I started out as her banker, became her friend, and loved her dearly. All these years later, I still miss her, her inimitable style, her voice, her creativity, her indefatigable spirit. She had major surgery at age 88, and was, a couple of months later, back at work in her studio! Despite her longevity, alas, she left us far too soon.

    Unlike many of her contemporaries – whose art remained stagnant – Minna’s art evolved all the time. I could hear her brain working non-stop.
    She was truly one of a kind. I’ll always remember with love and admiration.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful report about Minna Citron’s contributions to the art world that we enjoy. It gives us insight as to what New York City and the artists of that time were like and experiencing!

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