Women in 20th Century New York Art
First of all, I would like to thank the members of A.I.R. Gallery for the last thirty-five five years of incredible art they’ve given us the opportunity to experience. I’d also like to thank Patsy Norvell for the idea and curation, and Karin and Alexis and compliment their insights and for the time and energy they’ve devoted to this exhibition.
My obsession with mapping began as a child. I loved Treasure Island, and was fascinated thinking that I could find gold if I followed a map, X marks the spot. Later in the Boy Scouts I learned to read a compass and find locations (how could you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been). In the Army I taught classes to plot the patterns of Nuclear Fall-out. When I came to New York in the late seventies my first job was driving the delivery truck for an art supply store, so I had to learn where all our regular customers were located. About ten years ago when I started this project, I decided it’d be interesting to put these skills to use and document the locations and enclaves of artistic actions in New York over the last 100 years. Here are some of my findings:
Metaphysical vs. Realists the Early Duality
The New York scene might be diagramed as two separate but collaborative impulses that I’ve labeled the Metaphysical and the Realist. These forces seem to rotate in recognition and prominence in almost decade long cycles, and with various permutations have remained consistent for most of the century. In many ways the heart of the New York art scene has been downtown around Washington Square. In 1857 about two blocks away at 51 West 10th Street the Artist’s Studio Building was constructed hosing dozen of studios, frame shops and galleries, and making Greenwich Village the city’s center for artists. The influence of this structure resonates and still echoes today.
By the turn of the century many of America’s best known artists were ensconced around the square and include Albert Pinkham Ryder, Albert Bierstadt, William Merit Chase, Frederick Church, R. A. Blaklock, William Glackens and Winslow Homer. This group has a more mystical bent and I see as part of the Metaphysical persuasion.
The other central nexus for artists at this time is the Lincoln Arcade located at 1931 Broadway where Lincoln Center is now. This rookery of studios because of it’s proximity to the National Academy, attracted a group of more conservative artists which I recognize as the Realists. Many of them were from Philadelphia, the likes of Robert Heneri, George Bellows, also Milton Avery, and Thomas Heart Benton.
Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession, 291 Gallery New York’s first “Modern” art gallery was located on 5th Avenue between 30th and 31st Streets almost half way between these poles and opened in 1905. Other important galleries in this neighborhood included The Madison Gallery at Madison Ave. between 41st and 42nd Street, Maris de Zayas’ The Modern Gallery 500 5th Ave. at 42nd Street, the Carroll Gallery at 44th Street and Fifth Ave. Macbeth Galleries 237 Fifth Ave. between 32nd and 33rd Street and the Grand Central Palace at Lexington and 43rd street where the Society of Independent Artists staged the exhibition debuting Duchamp’s “Fountain” in 1917.
Beyond artists, I’ve categorized influential women in several groups such as: The Rich Wives/Heiresses, the Salon Dames, The Muses, the Dealers, and Critics/Activists.
At the top of our list is Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney an heiress, rich wife, artist and salon dame, who in 1914, established the Whitney Studio at 19 MacDougal Ally, a facility where young artists could exhibit their works, which evolved in 1918 into the Whitney Studio Club, and eventually in 1931 into the Whitney Museum of American Art, at 8 West 8th Street (now the home of the Studio School). Virtually every important artist in New York was or wanted to be exhibited there.
Walk just around the corner and north on Fifth Avenue and you’ll come to the Greenwich Village salon of Mable Dodge. After a tragic early life, and an extended stay in Europe which brought her into contact with Gertrude Stein André Gide and Heneri Matisse. In 1912 Dodge established herself at 23 Fifth Avenue during the development and presentation of the Armory show. She became a staunch supporter of radical modern artists as well as radical politics having a torrid affair with the communist revolutionary John Reed. During these evenings she entertained a cross section of downtowns artistic and political radicals including Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Marsden Hartley, The Stettheimer sisters, Alfred Stieglitz and his young lover Georgia O’Keeffe.
Meanwhile uptown, in the late teens early twenties the eccentric and elegant Stettheimer sisters became the center attractions of their own salon at 102 West 76th Street. Ettie was a novelist, Carrie a dollhouse designer and Florine the exquisite painter, host extravagant dinners that attracted the likes of Francis Picabia, Leo Stein, Man Ray, Charles Demuth, and Marsden Hartley. They also subsidized the young Marcel Duchamp, hiring him as a French tutor while Florine paints portraits of him.
A few blocks south just off Central Park West, and very near the Lincoln Arcade in the Café des Artists Building at 33 West 67th Street we encounter the enigmatic and cerebral salon hosted by Louise and Walter Arensberg. This group clustered around Duchamp who’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” had scandalized thousands at the Armory Show in 1913. His sensibilities echoed the host’s interests in linguistic puzzles, puns and secret codes. This notorious group also includes perhaps one of the most influential female artists of the Twentieth Century, Rose Sélavy. Frequent guests included Francis Picabia, William Carlos Williams, Man Ray, Charles Demuth and Katherine Dreier.
Across town Katherine Dreier a Brooklyn born painter and early abstractionist enlisting the help of Duchamp and Man Ray, and in 1921 establishes Société Anonyme, at 19 East 47th Street devoted to the exhibition and promotion of modern art. During the 20 years of its existence the Société purchased over 800 works of art by living artists, and organized lectures and travelling exhibitions. It’s the first “Museum” dedicated to modern art in New York. About three blocks east of here and thirty-five years later Andy Warhol builds his “Silver Factory”
With the initial sensation of the Armory Show and the revelation of European Modernism gradually diminished by the horrors of WWI and with the waning days of the “Roaring Twenties”, a stasis is forming that would hold for the duration of the Depression.
In 1928 while touring in Egypt, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (Mother of Nelson) meets Lillie P. Bliss, an heiress and collector of modern painting since the Armory Show. They begin to form a dream, a dream of a museum in New York dedicated to the exposure of Modern art. While returning on shipboard, Abby meets another enthusiast and collector Mary Sullivan. These three women change the course of Modern art when they engage the young Alfred H. Barr Jr. as director and found The Museum of Modern Art, on the twelfth floor of the Hechscher Building at 730 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, the heart of the Uptown gallery scene. With the art world’s usual impeccable timing the late November opening comes just a month after the stock-market crash of 1929
Downtown Hans Hofmann, opens his school at 52 West 8th Street in 1930 and provides an important venue for students and young artists to connect and become part of the “tribes” of artists forming downtown. The stasis caused by the Depression only begins to crumble with the unveiling in 1935 of the WPA which enlisted hundreds of artists both men and women and provided them with a heretofore unavailable means of income and networking.
Ambitious Greenwich Village artist and Hofmann student Lee Krasner made it a point of knowing every one and making connections between other “villagers” like a master electrician. Her apartment at 51 East 9th Street was across from Franz Kline’s, John and Rae Ferren’s and Conrad Marca-Relli’s at 52 East 9th Street. She worked as an administrator for the WPA in the Poster division. Not only did she meet and marry Pollock but introduced Clement Greenberg to Harold Rosenberg hung out with John Graham, and promoted and introduced dozens of artists to her mentor Hofmann.
With the onset of WWII an influx of avant-garde artists and dealers flood into New York to escape the European conflagration. Peggy Guggenheim arrives with an entourage of Surrealists and establishes a headquarters at her town house 165 East 61st Street. With her marriage to Max Ernst, and engaging Marcel Duchamp as an adviser, she establishes “Art of This Century Gallery” at 30 West 57th Street showcasing the Surrealists. During one golden moment the forces of the art cosmos aligned. In late 1942 one could have strolled from the “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion at 541 Madison Ave. to McMillen and Co. where John Graham’s “French and American Painters” was hung to the Debut of Art of this Century.
The beautiful Dorothea Tanning falls in love with Max Ernst. Peggy Guggenheim catches wind and dumps him. She says audios to the Surrealists, and hires Howard Putzel, a Californian with contacts to many young downtown artists, as her new advisor. Abstract Expressionism gets its first moments in the 57th Street spot light.
The end of WWII brings waves of young solders to New York to study at the Hofmann School. The presence of a very accessible Willem de Kooning at 88 East 10th Street as well as the Artists Club at 39 East 8th Street and the Cedar Tavern around the corner at 24 University Place create a milieu unique in American history which came to be known as the New York School or the 10th Street School. Dozens of young artists seeking to rub shoulders with the most advanced practitioners move to the neighborhood. Soon they organize co-op galleries which line East 10th Street with names like Tanager at 90, Camino at 92, Bratta at 89, Gallery Grimand at 92, Carmel at 82 East 10th Street. Others in the area included Hansa on East 12th Street, and the Ruben gallery on 4th Ave. where many of the first “Happenings” took place in the late fifties.
Philip Pavia in his recently published memoir “Club Without Walls” mentions the fact that at its founding the Artists Club didn’t allow women to become voting members. But within short order, this ruckus all night debating club relented and Pavia states that “A noteworthy point about “floor panelists”: Mercedes Mattter, Elaine de Kooning, Rose Slivka, Alice Yamin, May Tabak, and Grace Hartigan, week after week, hounded, badgered and out talked the podium panelists. There were tears in the eyes of the podium panelists but certainly no tears in the eyes of these women sharpshooters… They (the women) learned to flex their muscles at the Club.”
By the End of the fifties, the New York School and East 10th Street was stale. Pop Art is ascendant. Other strips attracted artists who cross-pollinate each other with complimentary ideas. Lucy Lippard, a critic/activist while married to Robert Ryman lives at 193 Bowery and begins to notice a shared sensibility among her neighbors. She is crucial in formulating Minimal Art which is institutionally baptized with “Primary Structures” in 1966 at the Jewish Museum. Her posse of “Bowery Boys” includes Don Judd, Sol LeWitt, Brice Marden, Mel Bochner, Robert Mangold, Dan Flavin, Tom Doyle and Bowery Girl Eve Hesse.
Looking for new cheap yet accessible territories artist began looking further south. One enclave was Coenties Slip, near South Street Sea Port which was the Studios of, Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman and Charles Hinman A few blocks away in 1963 a new co-op gallery is started called Park Place. This gallery moves in 1965 to 542 West Broadway, its director is Paula Cooper. By 1968, Cooper opens her own gallery at 98-100 Prince Street. Soho is born. Within the nest ten years there are over a hundred galleries and thousands of artists living and showing in the district. Soho is the veritable Center of the Center of the art world. Much of the attention is focused on 420 West Broadway where Leo Castelli opens in 1972, Ileana Sonnabend soon becomes a tenant and in 1978 Mary Boone comes on board. With is organic community of artists dealers curators and publications Soho is assumed by may to be the unassailable bastion of the avant-garde. But by the 1980s rumblings are being heard form an old neighborhood long thought dead.
The East Village begins with a string of galleries on East 10th Street, most notably Patty Astor and Bill Stellings “Fun” Gallery at 261 East 10th Street Gracie Mansion at 337 and Nature Mort at 204. Ironically when the Artists’ Club laid down its constitution those boys wanted to exclude Women, homosexuals and communists. 30 years later those were the exact people on this ravaged strip of 10th Street who got the East Village ball rolling. At its peak in 1985 there were over 75 galleries operating with a strong club and boutique scene to match. But sometimes success is it own punishment.
By 1988 the scene had collapsed, the community is devastated by the AIDS epidemic. For those galleries savvy enough to survive Soho became the symbol of success. A few of the EV DYI (East Village Do It Yourself) types stay on the look out for the next new neighborhood. Pat Hearn started with a gallery On East 6th and Ave. B. When the EV bubble bursts she moved to Soho. In 1994 she and partners Colin De Land, Paul Morris and Matthew Marks organized the first Gramercy Art Fair, which morphs into the massive Armory Art Fair, changing the process of art dealing for the new millennium. Then in 1995 following the DIA foundation she opened a spacious new gallery on the far Westside of 22nd Street an area known as Chelsea. Twelve years latter there are over three hundred galleries and it represents the largest art market place the world has ever seen.
Moving in the other direction was Annie Herron, who had been director at Semaphore Gallery East. Looking at the active but underground scene that had been gestating for years in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Annie opens Test-Site at 93 North 1st Street in 1991. Though not a business success, Test-Site none the less gives impetus to several of the local art activists and soon a small but energetic group of weekend galleries and art venues begins to form a solid community. Since 1985 the Williamsburg section has hosted over 140 galleries/art venues and has long since overtaken Soho as the largest concentration of artists in America, maybe the world.
Pressures from real-estate development and high rents have put stress on both the height end of Chelsea and the Low end of Brooklyn. Returning to form the latest hot spot to open a gallery or find a studio is again the Bowery. With the unveiling of New Museum and a string of new gallery openings which at last count was 24 in a way we’ve come full circle back to Washington square and 10th street. As usual with the story of art history there is never an ending merely a brief pause labeled: to be continued