Painter and printmaker Minna Citron was one of the first American artists to address feminist concerns. During her long career, Citron primarily created art of two vastly different ilk: Her early figurative work explores the predicament of her gender as well as the human condition, followed by decades of abstract experimentation. Born in New Jersey, Citron married young and had two sons. Desiring a role beyond wife and mother, at the age of 28 Citron began taking art classes. Her first major series, Feminanities, comprised paintings that explored and satirized modern female life and stereotypes. In contrast, her next major group of work, Gambling Series, presents an overwhelmingly male domain. During the second half of her career, she adopted more avant-garde modes of expression.
Painter and printmaker Minna Citron was one of the first American artists to address feminist concerns. During her long career, Citron primarily created art of two vastly different ilk: Her early figurative work explored the predicament of her gender as well as the human condition, followed by decades of avant-garde experimentation. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Minna Wright was the youngest of five siblings and the only female child in a financially comfortable family. Citron married her high school sweetheart and soon had two sons, Casper and Thomas. Desiring a role beyond wife and mother, at the age of 28 Citron began taking art classes at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (1924-25) and then at the New York School of Applied Design for Women (1925-27). Over many years at the Art Students League (1928-35), Citron studied lithography and also painting with the influential artists John Sloan and Kenneth Hayes Miller, whose realistic portrayals of the human experience influenced her artistic conception.
Feminanities and Feminist concerns
After small solo exhibitions at the New School for Social Research in New York (1930) and the Brownell-Lambertson Gallery (1932), Citron enjoyed a larger one-person show at the Midtown Galleries (1935). Under the title Feminanities, Citron exhibited paintings that explored and satirized modern female life and stereotypes; she portrayed women shopping and in beauty salons, exposing the superficiality of these activities. At the same show, Citron exhibited a canvas of a woman engaging in labor. She Earns an Honest Living (1934) depicts a woman sitting on a wooden box in a subway station selling newspapers. Even if selling newspapers is not the most challenging or ambitious of professions, this single image depicted a woman moving beyond frivolous activities such as primping at the beauty parlor. In reference to She Earns an Honest Living, Citron recalled of the period:
This was a tough time. It was especially tough for a woman. What else could she do–other than be a “hausfrau.” Women had no options. This was a time of metamorphosis. Do butterflies suffer when they emerge from their cocoons? Because this is what we were really doing in the early 20th century. Women were changing from being housebound; from being chattels of their fathers and husbands…. The woman in this picture is archetypal. She represents the psychology of many women of the day–without training–women who had to reevaluate their thinking and lives…. She had to painfully adjust to the unknown and try to reach for the few opportunities that existed for her (Ekedal and Robinson, 14).
Work in the 1930s
The same year that she painted She Earns an Honest Living (1934), an image about a woman emerging from her cocoon and adjusting to the unknown, Citron left her husband and comfortable upper-middle-class existence in Brooklyn for life in Manhattan as a single woman with two children. Citron took a studio in the Union Square area, affiliating with other members of what is termed the Fourteenth School, including artists Raphael Soyer, Isabel Bishop, and Miller, who also portrayed the urban scene in a realistic fashion. To earn a living, Citron taught painting in New York under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (1935-37) and completed two mural projects commissioned by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts (1938-40). The first, T.V.A. Power, comprises two panels (48 x 7 ½ feet) for the Newport, Tennessee, post office, which celebrates the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority, notably the installation of electricity to improve the daily life of the community’s inhabitants. Citron also made several lithographs, oil paintings, and watercolors inspired by her visit to Tennessee. A second mural, for the Manchester, Tennessee, post office (1941-42), is titled Horse Swapping Day. Rendered in earth tones, Horse Swapping Day presents a rural scene peopled with locals, a few horses, and country architecture.
Citron traveled to Reno, Nevada, to obtain a divorce in the mid-1930s. While there she began to conceptualize the subjects of her second major group of canvases, titled Gambling Series. In contrast to Feminanities, Gambling Series presents an overwhelmingly male domain; the images depict men placing bets at a roulette wheel and surveying racing statistics, among other common activities in gambling establishments. With features and gestures exaggerated almost to the point of caricature, Citron’s irreverent canvases subsequently appeared at the Midtown Galleries (1937). Soon after, Citron served on jury duty, one of the first women in New York State to do so. On several occasions from 1937 to 1939, Citron sat on juries and simultaneously observed the interworking of trials, resulting in the Judges and Juries series, which hung in 1939 at the Midtown Galleries.
Turn to Abstraction and More Avant-Garde Art
Associating with Stanley William Hayter’s graphic workshop Atelier 17, relocated from Paris to New York during World War II, Citron was privy to the latest printmaking developments. At this time Citron’s work became abstract, partly influenced by European avant-garde artists living in the United States to escape the Holocaust, including Marc Chagall and Jacques Lipchitz. Whatever! (1946), her first completely abstract print, is a tiny composition (1 ½ x 2 ½ inches) comprised of swirling, calligraphic lines. Some titles of her abstractions reflect Citron’s continuing interest in exploring the female experience; for example, Men Seldom Make Passes… (1946), a semi-abstract, dual-toned print indicates a woman in glasses sitting at her easel. During the 1950s, Citron incorporated sand into her paintings and prints, producing highly textured compositions. By the mid-1960s, Citron began to employ collage elements in her work, including pieces of clothing and even paint-can covers as counterparts to the flatly rendered colors. Until her death, Citron constantly experimented with different materials and techniques, such as photoetching.
Citron taught at the Brooklyn Museum School (1940-1944) and at the Pratt Institute. She held a Yaddo Fellowship (1946-47) and a Ford Foundation Fellowship (1965), which funded her tenure as an artist-in-residence at the Roanoke Museum. In Citron’s lifetime, her work was featured in one-person shows in the United States and beyond, including Paris (1947), Havana (1949, 1952), and Madrid (1962). Citron was honored as Woman of the Year by the Women’s Caucus for Art in 1985. Although her art does not embody any obvious Jewish content, Citron was included in a book on Jewish painters and sculptors, for which she provided an artistic credo, stating in part: “Art begins with emotional expression, Creation involves the ordering of that emotion and involves the whole living creature towards the fulfilling of that experience. Once the sensory or feeling approach to art is granted, the conscious mind can be brought into play as a supplementary force” (Lozowick, 40).
A recent solo exhibition, Minna Citron: The Uncharted Course From Realism to Abstraction (2012-15), traveled to several U.S. venues. Citron’s work appears in prominent collections around the world including the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Modern Art, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Chapman, Max. From the 80 Years of Minna Citron. New York: Wittenborn Art Books, 1976.
Citron, Minna. Minna Citron: A Survey of Paintings and Works on Paper (1931-1989). New York: Susan Teller Gallery, 1990.
Ekedal, Ellen and Susan Barnes Robinson. The Spirit of the City: American Urban Paintings, Prints, and Drawings, 1900-1952. Los Angeles: Laband Art Gallery, 1986.
Francey, Mary. American Women at Work: Prints by Women Artists of the Nineteen Thirties. Salt Lake City: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah, 1991.
Kotre, John and Elizabeth Hall. Seasons of Life: Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1990.
Kup, Karl. The Graphic Work of Minna Citron: 1945-1950. New York: New School for Social Research, 1950.
Lozowick, Louis. One Hundred Contemporary American Jewish Painters and Sculptors. New York: YKUF Art Section, 1947.
Marling, Karal Ann, and Helen A. Harrison. 7 American Women: The Depression Decade. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College Art Gallery, 1976.
Streb, Jennifer L. “Minna Citron: A Socio-Historical Study of an Artist’s Feminist Social Realism in the 1930s.” Ph.D. dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University, 2004.
Streb, Jennifer L. Minna Citron: The Uncharted Course From Realism to Abstraction. Huntingdon, Pennsylvania: Juniata College Museum of Art, 2012.
The Minna Citron Papers are housed at Syracuse University: https://library.syr.edu/digital/guides/c/citron_m.htm