Willem de Kooning Standing on his East 10th Street Stoop, and at the Center of the Art World
On April 5, 1959, Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah snapped this iconic photo of Willem de Kooning on the stoop of 88 East 10th Street, his home and studio from 1952 to 1959. De Kooning lived and worked here during some of his most productive years as an artist, and when he and his contemporaries on East 10th Street were having the most profound impact upon New York City and the broader art world.
Though the Tenth Street artist enclave was but a short block between Third and Fourth Avenues, it was the heart of the New York art world during the mid-twentieth century. The abstract expressionists deliberately rejected the quaint streets of the West Village, and established their galleries and homes along the then-gritty thoroughfare of East 10th Street and its immediate surroundings. Our recently published report on this area, Finishing the Job: The Unprotected Architecture and History of Greenwich Village & the East Village below Union Square makes the irrefutable case for historic district designation for that area. However, to date, is only considering seven of the one hundred ninety-three buildings in this area we have proposed for designation.
Willem de Kooning made a number of places his home during the years that he lived in New York City, including the recently landmarked 831 Broadway, where he lived from 1958 to 1964) But 88 East 10th Street, a Greek Revival row house built in 1844-45, was the first place where he combined his working studio with his residence. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, he immersed himself in Manhattan’s art scene and developed his art. He first exhibited in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. Into the early 1940s, de Kooning painted both figurative and abstract works. By the late 1940s, he began painting black and white abstractions and made a name for himself among the downtown artists and art critics. These abstractions culminated in his work Excavation in 1950, touted as one of the greatest paintings of the twentieth century.
In the fall of 1952, de Kooning moved into 88 East 10th Street, across the hall from his friend and fellow artist Esteban Vicente. In his new studio, de Kooning turned his attention to his Woman series, including Woman I, which he had been working and re-working for two years. In March of 1953, the Sidney Janis Gallery featured the exhibit “Willem de Kooning: Paintings on the Theme of Woman,” which included six large oils and numerous sketches of a seated woman. This controversial series, particularly Woman I, provokes and engenders strong reactions to this day for its almost grotesque depiction of women. Here, in this series, he showcases his technique of blending background and figure, bringing distortion and ambiguity to the painting. The Museum of Modern Art bought Woman I, and Blanchette Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller III, bought Woman II.
During the fall of 1954 and through the next year and a half, the theme of de Kooning’s work centered on what Thomas Hess, editor and art critic for ArtNews, referred to as the “abstract urban landscape.” Here the subject was often New York City, particularly downtown New York, including de Kooning’s surroundings on East 10th Street. One of his urban abstracts was Backyard on 10th Street (1956), which depicted the backyard between de Kooning’s studio and his neighbor’s. This painting showcased what the art critic Harold Rosenberg called the “no environment” of the East 10th Street artist enclave. Easter Monday, the last and most famous of the urban abstractions, was finished the day before his second show at the Sidney Janis Gallery on April 3, 1956. In his review of the show, Hess said that de Kooning “had replaced Picasso and Miro as the most influential painter at work today.”
After World War II, New York supplanted Paris as the center of the art world. With the death of Jackson Pollock in 1956, de Kooning was considered the master of that world. According to Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan in De Kooning: An American Master, “The New York scene jelled on de Kooning’s doorstep.” It was during the 1950s that the then-novel concept of artist-run galleries began to flourish, particularly along Tenth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. The first to open was Tanager in 1952, next door to de Kooning’s building, at No. 90 East 10th Street. Over the next five years, others followed including the Camino, Brata, March, and Area Galleries. These galleries stood in contrast to the conservative uptown galleries and functioned within a collaborative spirit among the artists. These galleries not only served the ‘old guard’ of artists such as de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline, but also new artists coming to New York City hoping to make their own mark. The Cedar Tavern, watering hole for the mostly heavy drinking abstract expressionists, and the Club, a social and intellectual gathering place for artists founded in 1949 and located on East 8th Street, were also in close proximity to East 10th Street, further making it the epicenter of the art world during the 1950s.
Today, this area and its environs are under tremendous development pressure, and we have already lost some architecturally and culturally significant sites including the St. Denis Hotel. This pressure is certain to escalate with the City Council’s approval of the Mayor’s Tech Hub on East 14th Street, and unless the area has the benefit of either landmark of zoning protections, more losses will ensue. Village Preservation has been fighting this development and our latest report by architectural historian, Tony Robins, which describes the history and significance of the area mentioned above furthers our cause (click HERE to view the report). To help protect this area click here, and to learn more, go to www.gvshp.org/savemyneighborhood.