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South of Union Square: Home of the Abstract Expressionists

The area South of Union Square has drawn artists into its corridors for many decades. From social realist painters of the early twentieth century to contemporary practitioners, this section of the Village maintains a rich history of creative minds who felt called to challenge the status quo of the art world that surrounded them, many of whom are found our South of Union Square Interactive Map’s artists tour.

Several artists who pioneered the Abstract Expressionist Movement of the 1950s and 1960s were centered in the area. Several buildings in the neighborhood were once the homes, studios, and everyday gathering spaces of now-famous artists. A prime example includes the homes and studios (or often studios that inadvertently became homes) of Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Willem and Elaine de Kooning along East 10th Street. 

Willem de Kooning on 88 East 10th Street Stoop with Novelist Noel Clad, April 5, 1959. Photo © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah, used by permission.

Perhaps the most frequented site by all of these figures was the Cedar Tavern. Located in its heyday at 24 University Place, it was a favorite cheap drinking spot for the burgeoning Abstract Expressionists, so naturally it was a place where they befriended one another, exchanged ideas about painting and sculpture, and affirmed their commitment to an artistic life, and the many struggles that came with it.

The Cedar Tavern at its final location at 82 University Place. Source: Museum of the City of New York

At the time, the area south of Union Square provided cheap rent and more ample space for studio work than other parts of the East and West Village. While this was one attractive aspect of the area for artists, the walkable urban landscape with a deep history was even more compelling. For those who came from outside of the city, those qualities were already increasingly rare as other American cities became more suburbanized. Greenwich Village and the East Village were also the home of several social justice movements in the mid-twentieth century, aided by a diverse group of activists and thinkers living and working in close proximity to one another. Having captured so many radical groups of people in a relatively small radius, the area South of Union Square was perhaps the ideal place for artists to develop a style of work that was loose, expansive, and action-oriented, like Abstract Expressionism. 

While the Abstract Expressionist movement is often reduced to its most famous male artists (most of us already know Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko), female artists drove the movement into prominence in the art world, cementing its status as a valued form of artistic production. Elaine de Kooning was not only an accomplished abstract painter and portraitist, but also an art critic with ArtNews Magazine, writing about Abstract Expressionism and providing an intellectual analysis for a skeptical greater art world. She made a name for herself with her own work at March Gallery at 48 3rd Avenue, where predominantly male art dealers and curators at first had no enthusiasm for her or her paintings. Ultimately, patrons of the March Gallery went there primarily to see and purchase her work. You can find out more about women’s history south of Union Square with our virtual tour here.

Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, 1952. Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Despite the incredible history that defines the area, the buildings south of Union Square have yet to receive landmark status and are endangered by encroaching developments. To help get the area landmarked, send letters to city officials here. To learn more about the artistic history of this neighborhood, explore our Artists Tour South of Union Square further.

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