American Women at Work:
Women Printmakers and the Federal Art Project
by Mary Francey
Artists Represented in The Collection
- Ida Abelman (1908-2002)
- Wonders of Our Time, 1929
- Born in Manhattan, New York, Ida Abelman was enrolled
in classes at the Grand Central Art School, the City College of New York,
Hunter College, the National Academy of Design, and the Art Students League.
She also studied at the WPA/FAP sponsored Design Laboratory School in New
York which was rooted in the philosophy of the German Bauhaus that had
closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi government. Abelman also taught
lithography at the Sioux City Art Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
- Many of Abelman s contemporaries, including Louis Lozowick,
believed the machine was a powerful positive force, and that artists should
express the machine's potential for facilitating democratic progress. In
contrast, Wonders of Our Time communicates an uneasiness about the
impact of machines on society. Human reaction to the mechanical marvels
that were beginning to organize urban life includes frustration, and dismay
as people crowd onto a subway train. There is a satirical edge to Ableman's
view of humanity in awe of mechanical and technical progress, yet at the
same time fearful of the potentially negative effect of the machine on
the quality of human life.
- Vera Andrus (1896-1979)
- Swede Hollow, 1936
- Lucienne Bloch (1909-1999)
- Childhood, 1933,
- Soon after the Second World War ended, Lucienne Bloch
and her husband, Steven Dimitroff, moved to California where they spent
the rest of their lives. Bloch and Dimitroff both worked on Diego Rivera's
Man at the Crossroads, the controversial mural Rivera was commissioned
to create for Rockefeller Center in 1932. Because Rivera refused to replace
the central portrait of Nikilai Lenin with a more suitable choice of an
American politician the mural was destroyed in February, 1934,. Knowing
it was destined for destruction, Bloch photographed the mural before Rivera
was ordered off the premises. Because Rivera did not use a cartoon, but
worked directly onto the wall, Bloch is responsible for the only pictorial
documentation of the fresco. Her photographs allowed Rivera to duplicate
the painting later that year in the Teatro Nacionel in Mexico City.
- A FAP artist from 1936-1939, Bloch worked in the mural
division in New York City, reporting to Burgoyne Diller who assigned her
the mural project for the House of Detention for Women on Sixth Avenue
and Tenth Street, New York. The mural was to be painted on a wall on the
twelfth floor recreation room with the condition was that it should be
bright and cheerful but not didactic in any way. Remembering Rivera's admonition
to never paint mere decorations, but to always include a message appropriate
to the building, Bloch s proposal for Cycle of a Woman's Life was
accepted and the project was completed in 1936. Now lost, the mural pictured
a children's playground in a working-class neighborhood where black and
white children play together as mothers watch and chat with each other.
The theme, familiar to the prisoners, situated the playground in a cityscape
of factories and skyscrapers that effectively block a view of the horizon.
In the spirit of the FAP s purposes, Bloch's subject related directly to
the lives of her audience, women from the world of poverty, hunger, and
little formal education.
- Bloch is represented in this collection with her lithograph,
Childhood, 1933, which was printed and circulated among the detainees
to solicit their reactions. All approved, but some black women noted that
the print showed only black children on the playground which was inconsistent
with plans for the mural. Claire Mahl and Ida Abelman, who are represented
in this collection, participated in the creation of the mural.
- Note: Information in this essay is directly from an interview
with Lucienne Bloch conducted by Mary Fuller McChesney on August 11, 1964.
Archives of American Art papers.
- Helen Greene Blumenschein (1909-1989)
- Hawker at Trinity Church,
- Born in New York City, Helen Blumenschein, daughter of
Ernest L. Blumenschein of New Mexico's Taos Society, is known primarily
for her paintings. She studied painting and printmaking at the Packer Collegiate
Institute of Art and the Art Students League, New York, from 1932-1936.
- Her awards include those won at New Mexico and Arizona
State Fairs,, and her work is represented in collections in the Library
of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Newark Public Library, the
Carnegie Institute, and the Cincinnati Art Museum Association.
- During the time she lived and worked in New York City,
Blumenschein was a close observer of street life and, during the Depression
years, she captured the mood of people who looked for diversion in public
places. One of her rare lithographs, Hawker at Trinity Church, c.
1930, shows a group of women whose interest has momentarily been captured
by a street peddler.
- Apart from the brief time in New York in the early 1930s,
and her service in the Women's Army Corps during World War II, Blumenschein
spent most of her time working in New Mexico. Her paintings and prints
of the southwestern landscape and its indigenous people have been widely
shown, and she is represented by major galleries in New Mexico, New York,
- Elizabeth Catlett (1919-)
- In Harriet Tubman I Helped Hundreds to Freedom, 1946
- from the series I Am the Negro Woman.
- Important components of the collection are 14 vintage
prints from the series I Am The Negro Woman by Elizabeth Catlett
whose work represents still another dimension of American experience during
the 1930s and 1940s. While a student at Howard University Catlett worked
with James Porter who she credits with helping develop her meticulous formal
style and high level of technical skill. Included among her other professors
were Alain Leroy Locke and Lois Mailou Jones. Catlett was assigned briefly
to the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1934 during which time she
became interested in mural painting although her later interests focused
primarily on sculpture and printmaking.
- Catlett earned a Master's degree in art at the University
of Iowa where she worked with Grant Wood who directed her efforts toward
development of a strong individual style. Wood was opposed to racism, and
suggested that Catlett s work should be based on personal experience. Following
his advice, she cut linoleum blocks for I Am The Negro Woman series
from which she produced fifteen prints that derive meaning from the history
of black American women. First printed in 1946-1947, the series was re-printed
in 1977 when it was also re-titled I Am The Black Woman. Funded
by a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, these prints are a strong assertion of
the black woman as a significant subject for works of art by picturing
them engaged in domestic work, field work, intellectual endeavor and as
heroic figures. Her rhythmic images are often emphasized by placing them
against a background of angular shapes, and dramatic balancing of positive
and negative space gives her figures a visual eloquence that emphasizes
the human dignity of her subjects.
- Refusing to endure the racist opposition and threats
of the House Un-American Activities Committee newly formed in 1947, she
moved to the Republic of Mexico to work at the Taller de Grafica with Diego
Rivera and David Siqueiros. The Taller de Grafica artists were directly
concerned with the Mexican government s social programs, particularly the
anti-literacy program and, as Catlett pointed out, linoleum prints are
well suited to public art. She further stated that she makes her art "available
in non-established art spaces where it is accessible to working people,"
and she continues to "try to bring art to my people and to bring my
people to art as I recognize my debt and our need. There has to be something
for us outside the mainstream and something of our lives that we can offer
to others." In characterizing herself, Catlett says that first she
is black, second, she is a woman, and third, she is a printmaker and sculptor.
- Some information from: (LaDuke, Betty, Women artists:
Multi-Cultural Visions, Trenton, New Jersey, The Red Sea Press, 1992.
- Broude, Norma and Garrard, Mary, Expanding Discourse:
Feminism and Art History, New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc,
- Note: Included in the collection are 13 other vintage
prints of the I Am the Negro Woman series, printed by Catlett in
- Ruth Chaney
- Elevated, n. d.
- Mina Citron (1896-1992)
- The Magic Box, TVA Series,
- Born in Newark, New Jersey, Mina Citron lived in New
York City for most of her life. She studied at the Brooklyn Model School,
the Manual Training High School, the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences,
the New School of Applied Design, and City College of New York. She also
took classes at the Art Students League from 1928 through 1935, and again
in 1940-1942 specifically to work with Kimon Nicolaides, Kenneth Hayes
Miller, Reginald Marsh, John Sloan and Charles Locke.
- Much of Citron's work during the 1930s included her own
satirical views of the ways in which women endured vicissitudes of the
Depression. Subway Technique, 1933, Self Expression, 1932,
and Lady With Program, 1941, for example can be interpreted as images
of transient moments in the lives of ordinary women searching for the independence
they had during the 1920s but which was lost during the Depression when
employment opportunities were limited by the social pressures of the 1930s.
These women, including Citron herself as the subject for Self Expression,
typified modern women who faced an uncertain future following the devastating
collapse of the country s economy.
- The Magic Box is an outcome
of Citron's commission by the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture
to paint two murals for the Newport, Tennessee Post Office. The subject,
which she identified herself, was the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government
owned network of hydro-electric plants and dams that controlled floods
and brought electric power to the rural areas of the state. Although it
was often accused of a fundamental socialistic purpose, the TVA created
jobs and stabilized local economies throughout the state. The magnitude
and effectiveness of the TVA programs changed Citron s purpose from satirical
commentator to that of humanitarian observer. She was captivated by the
sense of wonder of people in rural communities when they began to comprehend
the changes electricity could bring into their lives. The workload of the
woman pictured with her children in The Magic Box will be considerably
lightened by the miraculous power of electricity.
- Minna Citron
- Self Expression, 1932
- Minna Citron
- Subway Technique, 1933
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