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#SouthOfUnionSquare, the Birthplace of American Modernism: Mary Fife Laning

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

Mary Fife Laning, Place in the Sun, 1934. Tempera and oil on masonite panel; 24 x 30 inches.

Throughout the 20th century, the area south of Union Square attracted painters, writers, publishers, and radical social organizations, many of whom were challenging accepted American social and cultural ideals. This area is true crossroads — where art, politics, industry, commerce, the New York elite, and the working class collided to create an eclectic culture and built environment emblematic of New York City’s status as America’s “melting pot.” It was an ideal environment for inspiring creative expression, so much so that the area has its own art movement — the social realist Fourteenth Street School — named after it. The Art Students League, an artist-founded institution that began in 1875 when many art students became dissatisfied with the lack of quality instruction in the basics of portraiture, sculpture, and composition offered by New York art schools, was an incubator for the Fourteenth Street School artists who were instrumental in distinguishing American art from its European peers.

Unidentified Photographer, c. 1934, Studies for Place in the Sun. Archive of sketches, studies and other materials created or collected by Edward Laning and Mary Fife.

Mary Fife Laning (August 26, 1900 – December 1990) was a native of Canton, OH who contributed an unwavering feminist perspective to the Fourteenth Street School. She moved to New York in 1925 to study at the Cooper Union, and in 1930 began to study at the Art Students League under Kenneth Hayes Miller. There she learned alongside Isabel Bishop, Reginald Marsh, Raphael Soyer, and Edward Laning, whom she married in 1933. From 1936 to 1937, Fife Laning worked with Reginald Marsh on the Work Progress Administration-funded murals on the rotunda ceiling of the U.S. Customs House in Lower Manhattan. Mary Fife Laning’s most well-known work, A Place in the Sun (1934) is an empathetic yet formidable portrayal of four young women taking their lunch break on the rooftop of an office building. Unlike Isabel Bishop’s office girls, who are rendered as near apparitions, Fife Laning’s women are the embodiment of fortitude. This work was exhibited to much acclaim in the 1937 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Mary Fife Laning, Klein’s Dressing Room, circa 1930s. Private collection.
Berenice Abbott, Lafayette Sculpture and S Klein’s, Union Square, Manhattan, 1936

In the 1930s and 1940s, Fourteenth Street and the area south of Union Square were popularly known as “the Poor Man’s Fifth Avenue,” a center for shopping and bawdy entertainment for average and working-class New Yorkers. One of the central shopping destinations on Fourteenth Street was S. Klein’s. Founded in 1906 by Samuel Klein, the flagship store was located at Union Square East and East 14th Street, right by “Dead Man’s Curve” and where the 1987 Zeckendorf Towers stand today. The discount retailer expanded to 19 stores in the New York Metropolitan area before the franchise closed all of its stores in 1978.  Many of the Fourteenth Street School painters explored the motif of the female shopper, but Mary Fife Laning was the only one to depict the true chaos and sport of bargain shopping with a heavy dose of satire. In her work Klein’s Dressing Room, from the 1930s, Fife Laning depicts two groups of women in contorted baroque poses as they struggle in and out of new garments in search of a deal. Limbs are akimbo; the floor is littered with dresses, skirts, gloves, hats, bows, ornaments, bows and drapery. Commentators marvel at the exuberance of the Klein’s ritual, with shoppers treating bargains as a life-and-death matter.

Mary Fife Laning, Lovers, 1935. Oil on masonite.

Mary Fife Laning’s most well-known lithograph, Lovers on a Stoop printed in 1936, based on her painting Lovers from the previous year, depicts a scene in Greenwich Village. Employing the same Mannerist and Baroque swirl of activity as Klein’s Dressing Room, Fife Laning expertly uses the visual language of the Renaissance to depict a very modern scene. One viewer of the work in 1936 described the print as a “chaotic jigsaw puzzle of bodies possessed by zesty lust writh(ing) outdoors on a summer night in Greenwich Village. Editions of the work were collected widely and are now in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mary Fife Laning, Lovers on a Stoop, 1936. Lithograph.

Despite her unique mature style and feminist point of view, Mary Fife Laning’s body of work has been overshadowed in prestige and scholarship by that of her partner, Edward Laning. Throughout her life, she was awarded several prestigious honors in the 1960s. Her awards included the National Association of Women Artists’ Lillian Cotton Award in 1966, the National Academy of Design Figure Prize in 1967, and the Pen + Brush Prize in 1969. Fife was influential and active in the arts community through her involvement with the National Association of Women Artists and Pen + Brush Inc.

Despite its rich history, the buildings that housed and inspired Mary Fife Laning and the Fourteenth School artists’ paintings lack landmark protections and remain vulnerable to demolition at any time. You can discover more locations in this neighborhood where painters and sculptors transformed the art world on our #SouthOfUnionSquare Map and Tours. 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 these incredible historic structures and other buildings in this area, click here.

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