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#SouthOfUnionSquare, the Birthplace of American Modernism: Celebrating Women’s History Month

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.

Isabel Bishop, Fourteenth Street, 1932. Image via Radford.edu.

Village Preservation’s proposed South of Union Square historic district attracted painters, writers, publishers, and radical social organizations throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. The neighborhood birthed a namesake social realist art movement — the Fourteenth Street School — and later hosted a number of influential artists and movements like Abstract Expressionism, the Ninth Street Five, and “The Club.” Many of these art movements were shaped by the work and ideas of female artists.

Art, politics, industry, commerce, the New York elite, and the working class collided to create an eclectic culture and built environment in this neighborhood that helped shift the center of the global art world to New York City. The neighborhood South of Union Square was also home to several important events in women’s history. And so this Women’s History Month, we are celebrating the many female artists whose creativity and radical ingenuity impacted the history of American art, right from the neighborhood South of Union Square.

Isabel Bishop

Isabel Bishop, 1959. Isabel Bishop papers, 1914-1983. Photo by Budd (Firm : New York N.Y.).Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Isabel Bishop (March 3, 1902 – February 19, 1988) was one of the foremost painters of 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. Bishop’s primary subject matter throughout her career was the new professional woman on her lunch break, fixing her makeup, and chatting with friends. Unlike her male peers, Isabel Bishop approaches these 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.

Isabel Bishop, At the Noon Hour, 1936.

Minna Citron 

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

Minna Citron (October 15, 1896 – December 23, 1991) was 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. Feminanities, Minna Citron’s 1935 critically acclaimed solo exhibition of lithographs at New York Midtown Gallery, provided a rich platform for Citron’s sharp analysis and expert satirization of contemporary city life. 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 lifelong feminist, Citron’s work keenly channels satire, irony, and self-effacement in her analysis of what it means to be a woman. 

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

Doris Lee

Doris Lee in-studio feeding cat portrait, ca. 1935-1937, 3 x 4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center Doris Lee Papers.

Doris Lee (February 1, 1905 – June 16, 1983) was one of the foremost figurative painters, muralists, and printmakers in the United States during the Great Depression. She was also a leading figure in the Woodstock Artist’s Colony. She garnered attention in 1935 when her painting ‘Thanksgiving‘ won the prestigious Logan Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago. Soon after, she received a commission to paint two murals for the General Post Office in Washington, D.C. (now the Ariel Rios Federal Building.) During the late 1940s and 1950s, she traveled to North Africa, Cuba, and Mexico to fulfill article and illustration commissions for LIFE magazine. Lee did not overanalyze the imagery of American idealism as her social realist peers did; she instead used it as a vehicle to explore the pleasure of paint and artistic media, like an abstract expressionist.

“Thanksgiving” 1935 won the prestigious Logan Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mary Fife Laning 

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

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. 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. 

Agnes Hart

Agnes Hart and Her Sand Paintings

Agnes Hart (1912-1979) was born in Meriden, Connecticut and studied art at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida and at Iowa State University. Hart was a prolific painter and printmaker of abstract forms and urban landscapes. Hart’s work is characterized by experimentation with the graphic arts, ever-evolving toward a more organic abstraction. Her later work is composed of an innovative combination oil paints and sand that incorporates some of the aesthetics of the land art movement into classical image-making. 

weisman umbrellas, lower east side by agnes hart

Weisman Umbrellas, Lower East Side, Agnes Hart

May Janko

green brownstone by may janko

Green Brownstone, May Janko

May Janko (February 26, 1926 – December 5, 2003) was born in New York City and studied at Hunter College and the Art Students League. She traveled and studied extensively in Europe. Janko’s primary medium was printmaking. Her work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Cincinnati Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walker Art Collection, and more. Janko’s prints are frequently described as expressionistic, undulating, and “personal.”

Lucile Blanch

Lucile Blanch circa 1930. Peter A. Juley & Son.

Lucile Lindquist Blanch (December 31, 1895 – October 31, 1981) was born in Hawley, Minnesota and studied at the Minneapolis School of Art on a full scholarship. After completing the program in 1918, she was one of 10 artists nationwide selected to attend the Art Students League of New York on a full scholarship. There, she studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller who came to be known as the leader of the Fourteenth Street School of artists. In 1933, Lucile Blanch was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for painting and lithography. Blanch was also heavily involved in the Works Progress Administration arts and mural painting program. Her work was exhibited and collected by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. Lucile Blanch’s art career and aesthetic evolution are an excellent representation of the tight-knit art community and reciprocal exchange of ideas in the neighborhood South of Union Square.

Lucile Blanch, “8th Avenue and 56th Street,” oil on canvas, 1930.

Peggy Bacon 

Peggy Bacon. Photo by Peter A. Juley & Son.

Peggy Bacon (May 2, 1895 – January 4, 1987) was one of many artists who moved to Greenwich Village and the neighborhood South of Union Square in the 1920s to be at the center of the American art world. Bacon is exceptionally well known for her witty drypoint illustrations that expertly satirized the New York art world and absurdity of New York street life, but she was also an accomplished painter, portraitist, lithographer, writer, and art educator.

Peggy Bacon, Lady Artist, 1925. Etching on white wove paper. Brooklyn Museum.

Elizabeth Olds

Elizabeth Olds, 1937. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, circa 1920-1965. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Elizabeth Olds (December 10, 1896 – March 4, 1991) was an American artist known for her work in developing silkscreen as a fine arts medium. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Olds was awarded a scholarship to study at the Art Students League under George Luks, a founder of the Ashcan School. Olds was introduced to social realist subject matter while on sketching trips with Luks on the Lower East Side. Elizabeth Olds artistic promise was honored in 1926 when she was the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She used the funds from the fellowship to study painting. From the late 1930s to the late 1950s, Olds’ studio was located in the neighborhood South of Union Square at 53 East 11th Street. She was a painter, illustrator, and printmaker who was particularly skilled in silkscreen, woodcut, and lithography processes. 

Elizabeth Olds, Sidewalk Engineers, 1936, lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1984.31.5.

Mabel Dwight

Mabel Dwight, Self-Portrait, 1932, lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mabel Dwight née Mabel Jacque Williamson (January 31, 1875 – September 4, 1955) was an American artist known for the compassionate satire she captured in her lithographs. However, it wasn’t until 1926 at the age 51 that Mabel Dwight took up lithography, following a trip to Paris. In 1927, she began working with famed print dealer Carl Zigrosser and began to earn fame as a satirist and lithographer. Dwight, who was deaf, was a keen observer of the nuances of human expression and comedy. She was particularly adept at depicting the absurd in everyday life without condescension. Dwight approached the complex political subject matter of the Great Depression, such as homelessness, poverty, and unbridled corporate greed, with the sophistication and sensitivity of an ally, rather than a voyeur. 

Mabel Dwight, Buried Treasure, 1935/42, published by the Works Progress Administration

Sonia Gechtoff

Sonia Gechtoff at Canal Street Studio, New York (1960s). 

Sonia Gechtoff (September 25, 1926 – February 1, 2018) was a pioneering Abstract Expressionist painter who was extremely influential in the nascent Bay Area Abstract Expressionist movement and a mainstay in the New York art world for nearly six decades. Shortly after her move to New York, her work was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1958 Annual exhibition: Sculpture, Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and 1960 Young America exhibition. She also had solo gallery exhibitions at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, 1959 and the Poindexter Gallery, New York in 1959 and 1961. Gechtoff’s work was also featured in the U.S. pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, the 1958 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, and the 1961 São Paulo Bienal. Sonia Gechtoff was often one of the few female artists included included in discussion of Abstract Expressionist art, but her art was long woefully under appreciated. Thankfully, the artist’s long-overlooked contributions to the Ab-Ex movement have finally been acknowledged in “Women of Abstract Expressionism” (2016–17) a traveling exhibition organized by the Denver Art Museum.

Joann Gedney

Joann Gedney at her 49 East 10th Street studio.

Joann is Gedney (March 16, 1925 – June 20, 2013) was a trailblazing Abstract Expressionist painter and sculptor who played an integral role in elevating the cultural prominence of the Tenth Street Galleries by co-founding March Gallery in 1957. Born in East Orange, New Jersey, Gedney moved to a loft at 37 East 8th Street in 1947 and became enmeshed in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Gedney was determined to pursue a life of creativity: “I will do it my way with or without a game plan. I want to be me,” she wrote in her journals. She attended the Art Students’ League, where she studied under Nahum Tschacbasov. While she is left out of male-dominated narratives of the Abstract Expressionist movement, her involvement, independence, and influence are well documented. Gedney’s paintings are composed of gestural brushstrokes, bold lines, and structural blocks of color with an allusion to the human figure and landscape.

Village Preservation’s proposed South of Union Square Historic District was named one of 2022-2023’s “Seven to Save” — the biannual list of the most important endangered historic sites in New York State — by the Preservation League of New York State. This designation shines a spotlight on the incredibly valuable and varied architecture of this neighborhood, and its deep connections to civil rights and social justice history as well as transformative artisticliterary, and musical movements.

To learn more about the neighborhood, check out our new and frequently updated South of Union Square Map and Tours. We have received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world expressing support for our campaign to create a historic district for the neighborhood South of Union Square. To help protect these incredible historic structures and other buildings in this neighborhood, click here.

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