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The Clay Club: Shaping Sculptural Legacies in Greenwich Village

While many are aware of the Whitney Museum’s modest origins as a studio club of artist and collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, fewer know that only a few feet away from Whitney’s original studio lay another artist club that would also evolve into a long-standing New York art institution. Known today as the SculptureCenter, the Clay Club began as a meeting space and workshop for aspiring sculptors in 1928, founded by the sculptor Dorothea Denslow (1900-1971). Originally started in her Brooklyn studio, the group grew very quickly, and in less than two years, the Clay Club established a formal gallery and studio space at 4 West 8th Street.

4 West 8th Street, 1933. Demolished in 1950. From the collection of the New York Public Library

No. 4 West 8th Street was originally a former stable for 8 Fifth Avenue. Built in 1856, 8 Fifth Avenue was a marble-faced building that used to be the residence of John Taylor Johnston, a prominent art collector and the first president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In comparison, 4 West 8th Street was a smaller yet still ornate brick carriage house, nestled next and just behind the refined townhouse to its west on 8th Street.

(l. to r.) Fifth Avenue, Nos. 4, 6, 8 by Berenice Abbott, 1946. 8th Street is on the right side of the image.

The Clay Club called West 8th Street home for nearly 20 years. During this period, it hosted a variety of exhibitions, including solo, group, thematic, and traveling shows, and also offered space for classes and artist studios. The club organized annual picnics on Staten Island, where members would gather at a natural clay site to create monumental sculptures. In the 1940s, many Clay Club members served in World War II, and the Clay Club’s studios were transformed into the Sculpture Canteen, where servicemen could access free classes and materials. After the war, veterans used the GI Bill to attend Clay Club classes, and this program was even promoted in silent film, called “Serviceman Visits the Sculptor’s Canteen.”

It’s worth noting that Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi’s first studio was located at the Clay Club. His studio and residence, listed as 33 MacDougal Alley, was located at the rear of 4 West 8th Street and it’s highly likely that Noguchi’s studio was housed in the same building as the Clay Club, with separate entrances. 

In 1950, the Clay Club was forced to move. Their building, as well as other row houses facing 8th Street and Fifth Avenue, were demolished to make way for a new apartment building at 2 Fifth Avenue. According to the Greenwich Village Historic District designation report, the modern building “forms a backdrop at the eastern end and accentuates the contrast between this old street and the Twentieth Century.”

“The Clay Club building, workshop for young sculptures, on West Eight Street, which is going to be razed,” 1950. From the NYPL Digital Collections

In the 1950s, the Clay Club transitioned into the SculptureCenter and relocated to 167 East 69th Street, where they spent years renovating the space to establish a gallery and workshops. Since then, SculptureCenter has expanded its operations, continuing to organize exhibitions and offer classes, while also introducing experimental programming such as “Touch and See: Sculpture Exhibition for the Blind and Sighted” in 1980.

In 2001, SculptureCenter acquired a trolley repair shop in Long Island City, Queens, which was redesigned by Maya Lin. This new space with an expansive exhibition space emphasizes the SculptureCenter’s modern commitment to the exhibiting of pioneering works by emerging and established artists. 

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