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RADICALS AND ROGUES : THE WOMEN WHO MADE NEW YORK MODERN

By Lottie Whalen

Reaktion Books. 303 pages. £ 20. ISBN 978-1-78914-786-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

 If a date is necessary, it’s perhaps correct to highlight 1913 as introducing modern art to America. It was the year when the Armory Show brought together some 1300 works of art (two thirds of them from Europe) from a wide variety of 300 painters, sculptors, and others. Around one fifth of them were women. The styles or movements represented at the exhibition ranged from Impressionism to Fauvism and Cubism. Impressionism, of course, was known in the United States and there were numerous American artists producing paintings which were influenced by it. But the newer movements came as a surprise to most visitors to the Armory Show. Individuals may have seen Fauvist and Cubist paintings while visiting Paris, and a few artists, who had spent time there, may have been intrigued enough to want to incorporate aspects of the new innovations into their own work. To take just one example, this was certainly the case with Alfred Maurer who moved easily from paintings that reflected the influence of Whistler into experiments with Fauvism and Cubism while in Paris in the early-1900s.  He was one of the American artists in the Armory Show.

The organisers of the Armory Show required money to mount such a large exhibition involving bringing in canvases from Europe. According to Lottie Whalen, “As patrons, women....formed a large part of the financial and support system that made the Armory Show possible”. It is these women, some of them wealthy, some not, who are the main focus of her book, though inevitably it is often the rich who stand out.

Among them was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney :  “For Whitney, Greenwich Village opened up a way of putting her wealth and influence to good use, not just by supporting charitable institutions like Greenwich House but through providing for its growing community of struggling young American artists........Her generosity and enthusiasm for promoting the arts in America led her to be part of some crucial moments in the development of American modernism”. She not only helped finance the Armory Show, she “became a staunch supporter of the avant-garde ; her funding kept the Society of Independent Artists going, contributed to the printing of the Blind Man magazine, and bankrolled the infamous Brancusi v. The United States court case which successfully overturned the import tariff placed on Bird in Space  (after it had been deemed ‘raw material’, not art, by customs officials)”.  

The reference to Blind Man magazine brings us to Beatrice Wood and her role in the short-lived (just two numbers) but influential Dada publication. It was in 1917 that Marcel Duchamp submitted, under the name R.Mutt, his “found object”, Fountain, to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. It was simply a male urinal with nothing added, apart from a signature. A furore erupted when it was rejected. Nobody gets too excited these days when a “found object” is  on display, despite journalists often trying to create a fuss by ridiculing it or pointing to how much it’s selling for. But in 1917 it  had the effect  of not only annoying the bourgeoisie, but of raising the important  question about what constitutes a work of art? The second issue of the Blind Man leapt to Duchamp’s defence, with Wood, the poet Mina Loy, who had associated with the Futurists in Italy,  Louise Norton (editor of Rogue,” an experimental periodical aimed at a small coterie readership, unconcerned with public opinion or the commercial market”), and the artist and illustrator Clara Tice, all contributing spirited if idiosyncratic comments in his support.

For anyone wanting to know more about this affair, and about the Blind Man,  I’d recommend 3 New York Dadas and The Blind Man (Atlas Press, London, 2013) which has an informative introduction by Dawn Ades, an unfinished novel by Henri-Pierre Roché in which Duchamp and Wood appear with fictitious names, a memoir by Wood, and facsimile reproductions of the two issues of the magazine. 

In a letter that Duchamp wrote to his sister he referred to the Fountain and said, “One of my female friends under a male pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as sculpture”.  This has sometimes been taken as alluding to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who arrived in Greenwich Village from Berlin and brought the spirit of Dada with her as she paraded her eccentricities  through its streets. She was, according to one of her biographers, “an innovator in poetic form and an early creator of junk sculpture”.  She also had a voracious sexual appetite and among the men she pursued were Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams. Whalen says, “She made men her muses, no matter their stature within New York’s avant-garde circles or whether they reciprocated her lust. This was not the kind of free love that the Village’s male bohemians envisaged”.  But she shouldn’t be simply dismissed as an ephemeral oddball character. Several of her poems were published in The Little Review, one of the leading little magazines of its time. And some have survived to be reprinted in anthologies like Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant-Garde Poetry 1914-1945, edited by Jerome Rothenberg (Seabury Press, New York, 1974).

There are so many women mentioned in Radicals & Rogues that it’s impossible to name them all in a short review. A few, such as Mabel Dodge and Emma Goldman, are well-known, with their lives and involvements chronicled in histories of American bohemianism and, in Goldman’s case, histories of anarchism. Whalen writes about Katharine Rhoades, who had studied in Paris and, when she returned to New York, was included in the Armory Show and was involved with Alfred Stieglitz. She published poetry and illustrations in Camera Work  and 291, and her poetry attracted attention from Dada circles. According to Whalen,  “Rhoades’s star fell” when Georgia O’Keefe caught Stieglitz’s eye, and he criticised Rhoades “as an example of a woman artist who had failed to unleash her creative potential”. Did disillusionment set in?  She converted to Christianity at some point in the 1920s and destroyed many of her paintings.  

Whalen also refers to the photographic postcards of Village personalities that were produced by Jessie Tarbox Beals, with one of Charlotte Powell the Village Painter (she’s painting the outside of a building, not a canvas) reproduced in her book.  Sadly, “Many of her prints and negatives were lost after she died in poverty at New York’s Bellevue Hospital in 1942”. Beals wasn’t aiming to create avant-garde work with her photographs and they were not necessarily of writers and artists. Whalen points to “the ukelele-playing Miss Crump of the Crumperie café and Romany Marie, wearing a band in her coiled hair and a long, loose floral gown smiling at the door of her kitchen”. And there’s  “Sonia, selling ‘art cigarettes’....elegant in flowing patterned robes and leather sandals. And Adele Kennedy, the Greenwich Village tour guide”.  People like them may not appear to have any lasting importance, but Whalen is worth quoting: “Many of these Village bohemians have been lost in the mists of time, leaving little record beyond Beals’ portraits or footnotes in the biographies of more successful figures. By assembling these fragments we can work out that most of the women studio and shop owners were also artists and designers, who set up businesses in a way to make a regular income from their talents”.

Like Jessie Tarbox Beals, Clara Tice ended her life in poverty. But as Whalen puts it,”At the peak of Greenwich Village’s 1910s heyday, Clare Tice was its undisputed queen”. And her reputation didn’t rest only on her status as a celebrity : “As an artist, Tice captured the spirit of the age and her work was in high demand from popular, fashionable publications such as Vogue and Vanity Fair and little magazines. She effortlessly collapsed the boundary between highbrow and middlebrow culture, with sketches that expressed the exuberance and exhilarating experiences of modernity”. She had trained with Robert Henri, a noted artist of the Ashcan School, but “quickly abandoned experimentations with oil paints and chalk for dynamic sketches in black ink......Her whimsical line drawings of lithe female nudes seem tame by today’s standards, but in the 1910s and ‘20s , they symbolised Greenwich Village’s radical feminine spirit”.

Not everyone looked on her work kindly, and the anti-vice campaigner Anthony Comstock forced the closure of one of Tice’s exhibitions on the grounds that some of the drawings of nudes were obscene. Whalen notes that changing fashions and the “ephemeral nature of her work” combined to draw attention away from Tice’s drawings. The politically minded 1930s were not attuned to her kind of frivolity, and the 1940s saw the arrival of the Abstract Expressionists, “whose large-scale, bold gestural paintings made Tice’s work seem decidedly twee. Dogged by ill-health, Tice gave up creating in the final decades of her life. She died unknown and destitute in 1973”.    

 There is a chapter on Walter and Louise Arensberg and their Salon, described by Whalen as “the home of American Dada”. She also says that “a trip to the Arensbergs’ offered an unparalleled encounter with European avant-garde art, alarmingly up close and personal”. The walls of their apartment  “were covered with paintings, hung close together in a very different style to the careful curation of the white-cube galleries that we are used to today”. The guests at the Salon included Beatrice Wood, Mina Loy, and the dancer Isadora Duncan, among the women, and Marcel Duchamp, Wallace Stevens and Arthur Cravan among the men. Cravan was a strange character – “iconoclast Dada poet, boxer, and provocateur” – who disappeared while supposedly on his way to Chile to meet his wife, Mina Loy. The Arensbergs’ Salon broke up in 1922 when they decided to move to Hollywood.

And there were the curious “creative, wealthy and eccentric sisters”, Florine, Carrie and Ettie Stettheimer, who also had a Salon that attracted writers and artists, though Whalen says it was “more exclusive than the Arensbergs’ but played as pivotal a role in the city’s avant-garde culture during the 1910s and ‘20s”. Before settling down in New York, the sisters had “several long excursions in Europe”  between 1890 and 1914, taking in “capitals of modernity, such as Paris, Munich and Vienna”. Whalen narrates that “Ettie, the most cerebral of the sisters, studied at the University of Freiburg, gaining a doctorate in philosophy for her work on William James in 1907”. She was also a novelist. Florine took art classes and visited galleries, “eager to experience all forms of art – from Renaissance masterpieces to decorative rococo art and modern experimental Cubist works”. It’s Florine who is mostly remembered now and her paintings and poems have received some renewed attention in recent years. Carrie, the quietest of the three, left behind a large, fully-furnished doll’s house, constructed over several years, and in which were miniature works of art contributed by Marcel Duchamp, George Bellows, Marguerite and William Zorach, Gaston Lachaise, and others from the New York modernist community .It is now in the Museum of the City of New York.

There was a lot happening in Greenwich Village in the years (roughly 1912 to 1922) covered by Radicals & Rogues. The people and events dealt with in its pages can be seen alongside other activities, such as those involving political radicals, anti-war campaigners clustered around the magazine The Masses which was suppressed by the government in 1917,  and militant feminists. Whalen mentions the group calling itself the “Heterodoxy Club” which included Crystal Eastman, the journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, Rose Pastor Stokes and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, then a leading light in the Industrial Workers of the World, though she later joined the American Communist Party.  It could be useful to read Radicals & Rogues alongside Joanna Scutts’ Hotbed : Bohemian New York and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism (Duckworth, London, 2022). (See Northern Review of Books, September 2022 for my review of this book).

Radicals & Rogues is a lively, well-documented account of a key period in the development of modernism in the United States. It’s packed with information and entertaining anecdotes,  well supplied with notes, and has a short but useful bibliography.  I’d rate it as essential reading for anyone interested in Greenwich Village, the history of bohemianism in America, and the foundations of modernity in New York. 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

    

 

 

    

   

 

 

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