American Women at Work: Women Printmakers and the Federal Art Project

by Mary Francey



Artists Represented in The Collection

Page 1

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, 1930
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, and Paris.
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, 1992.
Note: Included in the collection are 13 other vintage prints of the I Am the Negro Woman series, printed by Catlett in 1946-47.
Ruth Chaney
Elevated, n. d.
Mina Citron (1896-1992)
The Magic Box, TVA Series, 1940
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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