“Seven American Women: The Depression Decade”

Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College

The most interesting aspect of the exhibition of seven women artists of the ’30s at Vassar College, sponsored by A.I.R. Gallery, is not that seven more female professional artists have been reclaimed from historical obscurity to be interleafed in the ledger of artists, but that an independent feminist gallery has chosen to solicit the necessary funds to mount a historical show. The logic of their action is impeccable. The ’30s are the recent past and as such are still discussed in terms of such new “old masters” as de Kooning, Pollock and Davis. The careers of women artists of the period can be a source of role models for the present generation. Offering parallels to some of the stances taken by women artists in the last five years, the ’30s were a time when it was thought that art could have a political and social relevance. This attitude of the ’30s found expression fiscally through the government’s inadvertent funding of a broad spectrum of art and artists and in the content of much of the work produced. For women, the ’30s had the additional symbolic significance of being a time when they came close to achieving artistic and financial parity with men. They occupied about one-third of the artistic work force, which was indicated by their participation in government projects, gallery and museum exhibitions, etc.

The seven artists in the exhibition are typical of the multiple directions taken by American art in the ’30s. Rosalind Bengelsdorf was one of the founding members of the American Abstract Artists, a group dedicated to pursuing the European experiments with abstraction. Executed under the sponsorship of the Federal Arts Project, her mural for the Central Nurses Home, Welfare Island, which resembles Gorky’s mural for the administration building of Newark Airport or vice versa, shows they were both conversant with the same combination of Constructivism and Cubism. The Mexican muralists sought to reconcile art with social needs, and their art struck a response in many politically aware artists. Lucienne Bloch and Marion Greenwood were two of the many women who became active as muralists. An excellent draftswoman, Greenwood worked in Mexico with the expatriate American muralist Paul O’Higgins. Diego Rivera praised her work in Mexico for its anthropological correctness and recommended that she and her sister Grace, along with several other artists, be commissioned to decorate the civic center and marketplace in Mexico City. After returning to America, Greenwood and her sister were hired to provide murals for a housing project in Camden. As with all her work, she was concerned with accuracy in portraying physical types of people and their social interactions with each other. With the care of an anthropologist, she examined workers and labor organizations in the Camden shipyards before painting the mural.

Lucienne Bloch, an apprentice to Rivera in Detroit, also sought to render human relationships, especially those of women, in murals such as the one she designed in consultation with the inmates of the Women’s House of Detention for the black prisoners’ recreation room. Yet her work of this period has a scattered, disorganized quality. It is only when she turned away from Rivera and toward abstraction that her paintings achieve cohesiveness. There are several important drawings in the show which illustrate how her art profited from the lessons of Jay Hambridge’s system of Dynamic Symmetry, which called for the placement of an abstract framework of squares divided into right triangles over a surface. Thought to render art more accessible to the general public, the system was used by Bloch to further activist principles.

Doris Lee, Minna Citron and Elizabeth Olds all were concerned with genre subjects. Done in a pseudo-primitive style, Lee’s paintings are generally too sweet. Their unifying characteristic is the use of a decentralized composition in which no single figure dominates. Minna Citron uses the Renaissance drawing style of Reginald Marsh and Isobel Bishop to place on record her view of the incidents common to urban life. The most revealing work, called Subway Technique, deals with the still unresolved ambiguities of sexual relations between the races. The painting depicts a crowded subway car with a black man and a white woman holding onto the same pole with their hands almost touching. The man looks at the woman with an expression of anxiety while she smiles and looks away. His pocket bulges with a folded newspaper revealing the beginning of a headline about the Scottsboro Boys, one of the most famous rape cases of the era. As in many of her paintings, Citron uses newspaper headlines to underline the meaning of her vignettes.

A contributor to The New Masses, Elizabeth Olds’s graphics, in a political cartoon style, covered a wide range of subjects from TB tests for children to stockyards and unemployed miners. Her style allows her to comment directly on the world, and her lithograph Burlesque comes as close as any of the works in the show to making an overt feminist statement on the limited conditions in which women have power. Here the women have strong almost machinelike bodies. Their entrance across the stage forms a vigorous diagonal and contrasts sharply with the passive, subsidiary presence of the male spectators.

I liked the honesty of the show. It did not assert, as Carol Duncan criticizes Cindy Nemser for doing in Art Talk, that “each ‘first,’ or each portion of a ‘first’ in being given to a woman, is taken from a man.” Nor are the women the wives or offspring of male artists. Instead, it settles for the more realistic stance, which women’s studies have partially been responsible for, that in a given period of time a number of artists are working in a wide variety of styles.

Mention should be made of the excellent scholarly catalogue written by Kara Ann Marling and Helen A. Harrison which accompanied the exhibition.

––Ann-Sargent Wooster