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The Artists of the Greenwich Village Historic District

Greenwich Village has long been a mecca for artists and artistic endeavors. For over a century and a half, the neighborhood has fostered creative energy thanks in part to its charming streets, frequent interactions on those pathways between neighbors and fellow creators, a unique and strong sense of community, and (at times) cheap rents that enabled artists to pursue their craft.

Many of these artists’ homes and studios were located within the Greenwich Village Historic District, one of the city’s oldest and largest historic districts, established in 1969 with more than 2,200 buildings within its borders. Village Preservation created a map of the entire district here that offers more than 30 themed tours of the area, including one for Artists’ Homes and Haunts. The tour’s 146 stops focuses on a wide range of individuals, including photographer Berenice Abbott (who lived at 50 Commerce Street), pai`nter Edward Hopper (3 Washington Square North), and sculptor Daniel Chester French (who had several studios over the years in today’s historic district). Today we take a brief look at some of the other intriguing artists on our exploration of the district.

Milton Avery, 294 West 11th Street

The modernist painter Milton Avery — often referred to as an American Matisse — was born in 1885 in New York; his family moved to Wilson Station, Connecticut, 13 years later. From 1901 until 1911, Avery worked in mechanical and construction jobs. A lettering class at the Connecticut League of Art Students sparked his interest in the fine arts, and he continued taking classes while working night shifts at a typewriter factory until 1918, at which point he entered Hartford’s School of the Art Society. The years 1925 until 1927 were transformative for Avery: he moved to New York City, married illustrator Sally Michel, started taking classes at the Art Students League of New York, and began exhibiting regularly. The couple lived on the top floor of 294 West 11th Street starting around 1930. Two years later, daughter March Avery, who frequently appeared in her father’s paintings, was born.

Caption: Milton Avery, “Greenwich Villagers,” 1946; 288-300 West 11th Street, with 294, Avery’s home, the fourth building from the right.

Avery maintained artistic relationships with Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman, but never fully immersed himself in abstract expressionism. Still, his work was more abstract than not. His paintings, often depicting ordinary subjects, were minimalist and naturalist. In 1938, Avery was an artist in the Easel Division of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. 

A master of color on canvas, Avery struggled to sell throughout his career, which Michel supported by working as a freelancer. Nevertheless, Avery won the Athenium Prize of the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts in 1929, and the Logan Prize in 1930. His first large retrospective was held in 1952 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and 1960 the Ford Foundation held a posthumous exhibition in his honor. Avery and Michel called 294 West 11th Street home until he died at the age of 71 in 1965.

Walker Evans, 23 Bethune Street

Walker Evans, one of the foremost photographers of the documentary tradition, photographed vernacular scenes from the 1920s until the 1970s. Born in 1903 in St. Louis, Evans studied for a year at Williams College before dropping out and moving to New York City to focus on his writing. While working in bookstores and at the New York Public Library, Evans started documenting the city with his camera, beginning his long and prolific career as a photographer. In the early 1930s, Evans lived in the basement of 23 Bethune Street, where photographer Ben Shahn and painter Moses Soyer each had an apartment. Evans, painter and photographer Lou Block, and film critic Jay Leyda also occupied the workshop on the ground floor at 23 Bethune Street. Around 1934, Evans maintained a studio with Shahn and Block at 20-22 Bethune Street.

Caption: Walker Evans, “Subway Passengers,” 1938, Metropolitan Museum of Art; 23 Bethune Street

In 1935, Evans started photographing rural victims of the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration; these images were published in American Photographs (1938). He collaborated with James Agee to document the life of Alabama sharecroppers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Evans was also known for his New York City photos: In 1938, for example, he launched a project to secretly photograph subway passengers by concealing a 35mm camera under his coat with its lens poking out, enabling him to watch the momentary expressions and conduct of his fellow straphangers for just the right shot. The series resulted in the 1966 publication of Many Are Called, which also featured an introduction by Agee.

Evans is credited with influencing photographers Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. He died in 1975.

Roy Lichtenstein, 745 Washington Street

Although raised on the Upper West Side, Lichtenstein would become one of the countless artists who called the Village home. Having had studios at 36 West 26th Street and 190 Bowery during the peak years of his career, he set up shop and residence at 745 Washington Street in 1988, and remained there until his death in 1997. Originally an ironworks foundry built in 1912, its industrial past and aesthetic certainly seem fitting for an artist’s space. 

Caption: Roy Lichtenstein, “Crying Girl,” 1964; 741-745 Washington Street (745 is on the left)

Lichtenstein is one of the founders of the American Pop Art movement. He rose to fame in the early 1960s with his signature comic book paintings, in which he appropriated the Ben-Day dots, dramatic thought bubbles, and hard-edged renderings of comics and advertisements. His innovations came to symbolize art’s collision with popular culture, focusing on techniques and subject matter that were regarded as low-culture, commercial entertainment, and elevating them to “high art.” His style was brand new at the time and one of a kind, earning him superstar status in New York and around the world.

Lichtenstein’s extensive portfolio included much more than just his comic book paintings, turning to art historical references and Ben-Day dot-filled interiors later in his career. But the works that dubbed him an instigator of Pop Art remain his trademark.

On October 26, Village Preservation will be unveiling a plaque at this site honoring Lichtenstein — RSVP for the event here.

Explore many more artists’ homes and studios with our Greenwich Village Historic District Map and Tours here.

2 responses to “The Artists of the Greenwich Village Historic District

  1. Hello! I’m trying to research an artist that lived in Greenwich Village in the late 60’s and 70’s and was hoping you had information on where he may have lived and worked there. His name is Anton Fortescu Smyth. The only information I am able to find is the blurb on the back of many of his serigraph prints. It looks like he was pretty important to the adoption of Serigraphy in New York, as stated below in the artist’s statement. Please let me know if you can help!
    “ANTON FORTESCU-SMYTH is a naturalized citizen of the US. Born in 1936 in Bucharest, son of an English father and Romanian mother, the artist paints under his mother’s name, Fortescu. He began painting and print-making at the age of 21, when he discovered his talents while working in a Greenwich Village ceramics factory. Fortescu-Smyth has studied at numerous design and art schools in the US and abroad and was a founder of the New York School of Serigraphy. He has permanent exhibitions in several New York City galleries.”

  2. I am interested in an artist named Roland Smith who was somewhat prominent from the late 40s to the 60s. He was part of the San Miguel de Allende scene and then went on to Greenwich Village.

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