#SouthOfUnionSquare, the Birthplace of American Modernism: Isabel Bishop
“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.
The area south of Union Square in the mid-to-late 20th century was one that readily attracted painters, writers, publishers, and radical social organizations many of whom were challenging social and cultural American mores. The importance of the cityscape and street life south of Union Square is unparalleled in the development of avant garde American modernism during the interwar period (1920s-1940s). This is one of the many reasons that Village Preservation is advocating for landmark designation for this endangered but historic neighborhood. The Fourteenth Street School, composed almost entirely of Art Students League teachers and students, redefined urban realist painting, printmaking, and sculpture. The subject matter of their work examined seemingly common occurrences in the daily life of their immediate surroundings. Fourteenth Street at this time was referred to as “The Poor Man’s Fifth Avenue.” It was a bustling center for bargain shopping and bawdy entertainment in the form of burlesque shows and movie theatres for everyday working-class New Yorkers. Building on the work of the Ashcan School painters, they continued to depict modern urban subjects in the manner of Renaissance art but replaced the Ashcan School’s painterly idealism with an incisive grit and critique of American culture.
Isabel Bishop (March 3, 1902 – February 19, 1988) was one of the foremost painters in the Fourteenth Street School movement. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Bishop moved to New York in 1918 to study illustration at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. After two years, she enrolled at the Art Student’s League, where she studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller, Guy Pene du Bois, and Robert Henri. Her studies with Kenneth Hayes Miller ultimately helped position her as a leader of the Fourteenth Street School. In 1926, she moved into a studio at 9 West 14th Street (no longer extant) that looked out onto Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue. While Bishop would only stay in this studio until 1934, its location overlooking Hearn’s Department Store at 6 West 14th Street and 74-76 5th Avenue would introduce Bishop to her primary subject matter: the new professional women on their lunch breaks, fixing their makeup, and chatting with friends. As Ellen Wiley Todd Describes in her book The “New Woman”: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street, “The New Woman of the 1920s and 1930s was a moderate sort, hoping to capitalize on new job possibilities and to make herself attractive with the mass-produced products of the clothing and cosmetics industry.” The entrance to Hearn’s Department Store right across the street from Bishop’s studio was the perfect place to find and observe the “New Woman.”
Hearn’s Department Store was founded on West Fourteenth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in 1879. Unlike other popular stores on Fourteenth Street in the 1920s and 1930s that specialized in women’s fashion and accessories such as Ohrbach’s and S. Klein’s, Hearn’s was a full service department store with homewares and fine linens available alongside the latest women’s ready-to-wear fashion. While the woman as insatiable consumer archetype was certainly not new to art, the woman as independent consumer with her own money earned through office, clerical, and retail jobs was. The Hearn’s shopper became an important subject in Bishop’s earliest paintings after moving into her live/work studio at 9 West 14th Street, not only because Bishop was influenced by her mentor, Kenneth Hayes Miller, but because as she had a direct line of observation to the constant stream of Hearn’s patrons from her studio window.
Bishop’s Hearn’s Department Store—Fourteenth Street Shoppers, 1927, painted in tandem with her enrollment in Kenneth Hayes Miller’s mural painting class at the Art Students League, clearly applies formal Renaissance composition and flat perspective to the very contemporary subject matter of the urban middle-class shoppers dressed in the latest fashions that frequented the Union Square shopping district for the latest deals. While fellow Fourteenth Street School artists Kenneth Hayes Miller, Reginald Marsh, and Raphael Soyer frequently depicted the “New Women” of Union Square through a highly sexualized lens of judgment, desire, and sometimes pity, Isabel Bishop approaches her subjects as peers. Ephemeral movements, exchanges, and moments of solitude are the primary subject matter of the paintings, all depicted in a dynamic style of painting that is unfinished and tenuous but somehow glowing. Even in the paintings depicting office girls in a moment of relaxation while taking a quick 15, the energy and hope of upward mobility in the face of the mundane are apparent in the brushwork. Isabel Bishop’s painting style and subject choice are uniquely responsive to the built environment of Fourteenth Street and Union Square.
Bishop remained on Union Square, where she kept a studio at 857 Broadway until the end of her life, Fourteenth Street, and the surrounding areas as subject matter in her paintings until her death in 1988.
Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square.
To help landmark 74-76 Fifth Avenue, 6 West 14th Street and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here.