A Stylish Woman

Denver exhibition-goers will have to go to great lengths--or should that be heights?--to see the city's latest ad-hoc art gallery. It's located in a couple of hallways on the twelfth floor of a downtown high-rise, just off the lobby of the OZ Architecture firm.

Now showing in the penthouse suite: The compelling Minna Citron (1896-1991): From Social Realism to Abstract Expressionism, the second of a series of exhibits planned by OZ architect Fran Mishler. Along with the company's chief executive officer, Tom Obermeier, Mishler began to present art shows last summer after the architects relocated to spacious offices on the top floor of the 1980s Spectrum Building. The red-brick-and-smoke-colored-glass building--itself the work of the OZ firm--is a quirky late-modern design that stands on the southeast corner of 16th Avenue and Lincoln Street. OZ is presenting the exhibits, says Mishler, as a show of support for the fine arts. Then, too, there's the inspirational quality that art provides for the OZ staff. "Architects are artists, too," says Mishler. "We're not just nuts and bolts."

Minna Citron is a brief survey of the sixty-year career of an American painter who worked her way from representational imagery to abstraction. The show has been curated by Citron's granddaughter, local arts supporter Chris Citron, who chairs the Arvada Center's arts council and sits on the board of the Denver Foundation for Architecture. It begins with the elder Citron's work of the 1920s and propels the viewer clear through to the 1980s, recording in the process several distinctly different styles that Citron embraced.

The OZ space doesn't easily facilitate the roughly chronological approach taken by curator Citron to illustrate her late grandmother's artistic progression. In fact, the gallery in this case is little more than two hallway walls set at a ninety-degree angle. Visitors first encounter this space where the two walls meet, which is smack in the middle of Citron's time line. That necessitates a walk to the back to start at the beginning--an annoying, if unavoidable, requirement, given the layout.

Painter and printmaker Citron was born Minna Wright in Newark, New Jersey. Her family moved to New York City when she was still a young girl. She married Henry Citron when she was twenty and had two sons. But Citron longed for something more than the life of a wife and mother, and in 1924 she entered the Brooklyn Institute to study painting. She continued her art studies for the next ten years, first at the New York School of Applied Design and later at the Art Students League.

It was in the early 1930s that Citron gravitated to the first of her many mature styles--in this case, American scene painting. Samples of those early works on display at OZ reflect her great skill in constructing scenes that are jam-packed with vignettes of city life. The dense and crowded composition of these pieces links her work to other artists associated with the Art Students League, especially her mentors Kenneth Hayes Miller and John Sloan and her classmate Reginald Marsh. This debt to the League is clearly shown in the 1932 painting and print "Carrousel," which captures the image of the carousel in Brooklyn's Prospect Park (Citron lived only a few blocks away). The central figure is a dour man who looks ridiculous riding on a carousel horse. It's her soon-to-be ex-husband, Henry. Just behind him is a sailor making a pass at a woman. One wonders: Is the woman Citron herself? Is the sailor the "Carr" of the title's misspelled carousel?

The spousal satire seen in her lampoon of poor Henry in "Carrousel" was soon expanded by Citron into a socially conscious commentary on the general status of women. This was best expressed in her "Feminanities" series. The oldest of these included in the OZ display is the 1933 lithograph "Beauty Culture?" which displays a beauty salon in high gear. The seated woman who dominates the scene--ensconced in an old-fashioned hair dryer that looks like a torture device--is midway through a sure-to-fail makeover. This same sense that the pursuit of feminine beauty is vapid and futile is seen in one of the finest pieces in the show, "Hope Springs Eternal," an oil on board from 1935. That painting reveals a group of racially and ethnically diverse middle-aged women gathered around a salesgirl who's conducting a cosmetics demonstration in a department store. Stylistically, "Hope" is closely related to the work of the other artists of the Fourteenth Street School, a loosely associated group who maintained studios in the Union Square area, as did Citron. Citron's paintings of this period also recall the contemporaneous work of her former art-school classmate Marsh and another Art Students League alumnus, Paul Cadmus.

The "Feminanities" series launched Citron's art career, and she even became nationally famous for a time in the mid-1930s. She regularly presented solo shows at the prestigious and historically important Midtown Galleries in New York, and from 1935 to 1937 she taught painting for the federal Works Progress Administration.

The high point of Citron's work in American scene painting came with a pair of murals she created for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Of course the murals, which are on the walls of the Newport, Tennessee, post office, couldn't be included in the OZ show, but a related drawing and a couple of prints stand in as representatives of her work for the TVA.

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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