A Stylish Woman

In these TVA pieces, the sardonic humor of the earlier "Feminanities" has disappeared entirely, replaced by the sort of uplifting messages associated with social realism. "Magic Box," a lithograph from 1942, heralds the rural electrification made possible by the TVA. In that piece, a black sharecropper and her two daughters gaze at the electric meter installed on the outside of their cabin. A field hand is also seen in the background, but he's reading a book, not picking cotton. The message is hard to ignore: The TVA was making things better for the rural poor.

Returning to New York after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Citron launched the last of her representational series--"New York in Wartime." Selections from this series were actually displayed in Denver in 1944 at the Denver Art Museum (then located in the City and County Building). A charcoal drawing from 1943 included in the OZ show reveals two WAVES in uniform. Its title: "What the Well-Dressed Woman Wears to the Opera."

The war brought dramatic changes to the New York art world. As the Nazis invaded country after country in Europe, cultural, intellectual and artistic figures fled to the U.S., prompting a tremendous upheaval in the fine arts, among other fields. Many of Europe's leading artists wound up in New York promoting modernism, especially abstraction. The presence of so many modern masters inevitably led to the permanent displacement of the conservative representational styles, including the Fourteenth Street School.

It may be forgotten today, but the shift to abstraction in American art during the 1940s was the result of a real cultural war. It wasn't an easy transition, and as curator Citron points out, mature artists with established reputations--like her grandmother--had a lot to lose. Among the things Citron did lose when she defected to the modernists were her many friends in the Fourteenth Street School.

Citron waited until after the war to truly embrace modernism. She was taking workshops--as were other artists such as Jackson Pollock--from expatriate English printmaker Stanley Hayter. The work Citron produced under Hayter's influence marks her second mature style, a kind of abstract surrealism, and represents another high point of the OZ exhibit.

In the 1946 etching and aquatint "Men Seldom Make Passes...," Citron advocated a subconscious method she called "The Uncharted Course." It was akin to what today is known as automatism--the idea being that images spring from the subconscious. Citron had been interested in the subconscious since the mid-1920s, when she became one of the first Americans to undergo psychoanalysis. According to Chris Citron, one of the works in the OZ show--the 1948 etching "Squid Under Pier," a tangle of dark, arching lines on a lurid green field--was meant to symbolize her grandmother's ongoing struggles with "her smothering mother and her domineering ex-husband."

Psychoanalysis and automatism were key to the development of abstract expressionism, so it was no surprise when Citron embraced the form in the early 1950s. A catalogue on display at the front desk at OZ illustrates some of the great paintings from this, her third mature style. But since many of the paintings themselves are now in public and private collections, the show features only a handful of Citron's abstract-expressionist pieces. The oldest is "Gay Welcome," a modest gouache from 1950; more typical of Citron's period work, at least based on the catalogue, is "Unborn Wave," from 1957. Here she has used broad brushstrokes to lay out wide expanses of earth-toned colors.

In the 1960s and '70s, Citron was also in her sixties and seventies, but she again revitalized herself with a new stylistic approach: gestural geometric abstractions that set simple shapes likes squares and circles in patterned arrangements. It wasn't until the 1980s that a renewed interest in her work gave her the recognition that had eluded her since the 1940s. A new generation of feminist art historians set out to find forgotten women artists and came upon Citron. Her "Feminanities" series, in particular, seemed a perfect fit for modern feminist perspectives, and Citron was included in many historical shows both in New York and in Denver. Citron remained active as an artist until the age of 93, when she suffered a fall. She died in 1991.

The location of the OZ art space is hardly ideal and has doubtless prevented some from attending the Citron show. But the strengths of this exhibit more than make up for the narrow display area and help to drown out the frequent distractions provided by the hubbub of a busy office. Go on up.

Minna Citron (1896-1991): From Social Realism to Abstract Expressionism, extended through February 14 at OZ Architecture, 1580 Lincoln Street, Suite 1200, 861-5704.

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