“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.
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.
In addition to its namesake art movement, the area South of Union Square and its environs were host to a number of influential artists and movements like Abstract Expressionism, the Ninth Street Five, and “The Club.” Another influential art studio to make a home in the environs around South of Union Square was Atelier 17, a printmaking studio founded in Paris circa 1927 by Stanley William Hayter. Due to the onset of World War II, Hayter moved the studio to the New School for Social Research at 66 West 12th Street in 1940, and subsequently opened an independent studio workspace a 41 East 8th Street around 1945. Hayter’s Atelier 17 was instrumental in elevating printmaking to a legitimate form of art as opposed to a means of image reproduction in the eyes of the American public. The studio operated in the United States until 1955.
Much has been made of Hayter’s influence and his collaborations with influential artists like Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Reginald Marsh – all of whom have artistic ties to the area South of Union Square – but only recently has appropriate scholarship been done on the women of Atelier 17. Almost 100 women artists were affiliated with Atelier 17 during its tenure in the United States. Through their work at Atelier 17, these artists were given exposure to and an opportunity to explore modernist styles and build professional momentum that spurred some major developments in postwar sculpture, fiber art, Pattern and Decoration, and the neo-dada movement.
Isabel Bishop and Minna Citron are primarily known for their association with the Fourteenth Street School, but both artists were involved at Atelier 17 throughout the 1940s and 50s. Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop were some of Hayter’s earliest pupils at the New School, and it is likely through them Minna Citron learned of Atelier 17. Bishop only made three uneditioned plates through her classes with Hayter and affiliation with Atelier 17, but they showed a quickness and aptitude of linework that was previously uncharacteristic of Bishop’s work.
Atelier 17 was particularly significant to Citron’s career, as her time there facilitated her transition from realism to abstraction. While critics and her mentor, Kenneth Hayes Miller, were wary of her shift to abstraction, Citron found support from her Atelier 17 colleagues—particularly her lifelong friend and collaborator Jan Gelb— who were encouraging of her exploration into the inner psyche. The prints Citron made after 1946 are mostly abstract but with playful, witty titles that often confused (male) critics who interpreted the works as unserious and lighthearted—but they were anything but.
Bishop and Citron are the artists of Atelier 17 most closely associated with the area South of Union Square, but many more significant female artists who worked and lived in our neighborhoods were involved with the studio. For example, Perle Fine, Louise Bourgeoise, Louise Nevelson, and Judith Rothschild were all affiliated with Atelier 17 at one point.
Unfortunately, Atelier 17’s home at 41 East 8th Street, just outside of our South of Union Square district, along with “The Club” and 39 East 8th Street, were demolished in 1955. Like these lost landmarks of art history, the architectural integrity of the neighborhood South of Union Square lacks landmark protections and are 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.