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Where Art History Was Made on West 13th Street

Village Preservation has been diligently documenting the rich history of visual artists who lived and worked within our proposed South of Union Square Historic District. Many of the globally significant artistic groups and institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries were formed there, and it’s where the New York School of artists and American Abstract Expressionism were born and bred, shifting the center of the art world from Paris to New York City.

Dutch American artist Willem de Kooning on his stoop on East 10th Street, April 5, 1959. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah.

The further we delve into this research, the more significant artists continue to come to the forefront. We always knew that the area was home to quite a few artists, who turned many of the local row houses and loft buildings into their studios, both within the bounds of the proposed South of Union Square Historic District, and among adjacent neighborhoods, including Greenwich Village, the East Village, and SoHo/NoHo.

But we’ve increasingly found that the sheer number of artists who lived in the few-block radius south of Union Square was nothing short of remarkable. In understanding who was living near whom within the same timeframe, it’s easy to start to imagine their interactions on the street, at places like the Club and Cedar Tavern, and how they influenced each other creatively, forming this pinnacle of the art world.

30 and 28 East 14th Street in 2023. Photo by Dylan Chandler.

Certain buildings, usually the larger store and loft buildings that had vast windows and open floor plans seemingly primed for use as studio space, held particular concentrations of artists. One example is 30 East 14th Street, where dozens, if not hundreds, of artists kept studios over the past century. Another is 8 West 13th Street, located just at the western periphery of this area. We’ve recently discovered the incredible number of artists who were based in the building, all of whom were very much tapped into the south of Union Square Abstract Expressionist scene.

8-10 West 13th Street, 1940s tax photograph.

No. 8 West 13th Street is a fascinating building where worlds collide: located between 5th and 6th Avenues, it is adjacent to 70 Fifth Avenue, for which we secured individual landmark status in 2021, and the rest of our proposed South of Union Square Historic District on its east, and abuts the Greenwich Village Historic District to its south.

8 West 13th Street in 2024. Photo by Dena Tasse-Winter.

The building is significant architecturally, historically, and culturally. No. 8 West 13th Street was built in 1910 and, like the adjacent 70 Fifth Avenue, its primary facade features a limestone base and buff brick upper floors, punctuated by decorative projecting terra cotta or cast stone elements. The most interesting condition occurs at the bottom two floors: they are fully surrounded by a double-height ornate stone enframement, incised with foliated motifs and capped by a central scrolled cartouche.

Thanks to the survey of American artists documented in the archives of the Whitney Biennial catalogues, we were able to confirm that at least eight important artists kept their studios at 8 West 13th Street mid-century.

Vaclav Vytlacil in his studio, 1979. Photograph by Art Sarno.

In 1938, Vaclav “Vyt” Vytlacil (1892-1984) may have been the first artist to move in. Born in New York City, he soon relocated to Chicago with his family, where in 1906 he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. He returned to New York City in 1913 on scholarship at the Art Students League, where he studied under portraitist John C. Johansen. He then took a teaching position at the Minneapolis School of Art, and spent significant time in Europe, studying the Cubist movement and working as Hans Hoffman’s assistant.

Pines, Vaclav Vytlacil, oil on board, 1951. Courtesy Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, gift in Honor of Beverly Rosen.

Vyt later taught at Queens College, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts), and other art schools. He was a faculty member at his alma mater, the Art Students League, from 1946 until his retirement in 1978. Among his many students there were Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg, who also resided in the area south of Union Square.

Vyt was one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists group (AAA), which was created in 1937 to promote and foster public understanding of abstract art, and was a precursor to the New York School. As a modernist painter, he is considered a peer of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Ben Shahn.

Abraham Rattner in 1948 (likely in his studio at 8 West 13th Street). Photograph by Arthur Rothstein.

The artist Abraham Rattner (1895-1978) had studio space in the building from 1943 to 1960. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, to a Russian-Jewish father and Romanian-Jewish mother, Rattner first trained as an architect at George Washington University, and then pursued his interest in painting, enrolling at the Corcoran School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was recruited to join the American Camouflage Corps of the U.S. Army during World War I, and was stationed in France. Following the war, he lived in Paris until 1940, when he returned to the United States and settled in New York City.

Boy With Turtle, Abraham Rattner, lithograph, 1968. Courtesy Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of Richard E. Brock.

Rattner was known for his bold use of color and the surrealist aspects of his work, often featuring religious themes. He was a longtime friend of the novelist Henry Miller, whom he met in Paris in the 1930s, and who also lived in Greenwich Village, at 106 Perry Street. In 1942 they toured the United States together, which Miller wrote about in a memoir, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Miller was also well-established within the south of Union Square artistic scene, and often attended parties hosted by artists Virginia Admiral and Robert De Niro, Sr., at their 30 East 14th Street loft.

Darkness Fell Over the Land, Abraham Rattner.

In the upcoming part two of this blog, we will introduce more of the impactful artists who had studio space at 8 West 13th Street. In the meantime, explore our South of Union Square Artists Tour to learn more about the incredible array of sites in the area connected to the great artists and art movements of the last century and a half.

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