Ruth Gikow reached maturity as an artist during the heyday of abstract expressionism, yet she remained committed to a figurative art that, she believed, reflected the humanity of her subjects and was both politically and socially relevant.
Ruth Gikow was born in Ukraine on January 16, 1915. As a child, Gikow immigrated to the United States with her father, Boris Gikow, a photographer, and her mother, Lena. They settled on the Lower East Side of New York City, where Gikow grew up in poverty. She intended to pursue a career as a fashion artist after graduating from high school in 1932. Instead, unable to find a job, she enrolled at Cooper Union, where she was a pupil of the American regionalist painter John Steuart Curry and Austin Purvis, Jr., director of the school. As she had throughout high school, Gikow continued to support herself and contribute to the family income by working evenings at Woolworth’s.
During her studies at Cooper Union, Gikow abandoned her aspiration to do commercial work and chose painting instead. A fellowship during her second year allowed her to study privately with idealistic young Raphael Soyer. Soon an informal exhibition of her work, painted in a social realist style, was held at the Eighth Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. From then on, her subjects remained the urban environment and the vast multiplicity of its inhabitants.
After finishing her art studies, Gikow worked on the Federal Arts Project of the WPA, associating with many other idealistic young artists who believed that art could change the world. Inspired by the Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, Gikow sought work on the mural section of the FAP. Her first commission was in 1939 for the children’s ward of the Bronx Hospital. During World War II, there was little market for Gikow’s paintings and she turned instead to free-lance commercial art and textile design. By 1945, she stopped painting and became art director at an advertising agency.
In 1946, Gikow resumed painting and married artist Jack Levine. Her first solo show, held at Weyhe Gallery in New York in November of that year, included experimental and stylized compositions. The couple began traveling to Europe in 1947. Their frequent sojourns thereafter included Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Holland, Belgium, and Japan. Gikow’s paintings, particularly those made after a visit to Italy, reflect the country’s devastation during the war.
The dominance of abstract expressionism during the 1950s influenced Gikow. However, her figural compositions remained grounded in reality, although she continued to work from memory rather than from models. Surrealism seems also to have influenced her montagelike canvases. Her paintings are characterized by a sensitive rendering of mood and psychology, often revealing the loneliness and pathos of her subjects. Compared to her earlier flat and linear easel paintings, Gikow’s paintings from the mid-1950s are bold, simplified, thinly painted compositions that use larger canvases and show figures seemingly in motion. In 1959, Gikow was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Gikow continued to portray subjects taken from her observations of the social and political life around her, including incidents from the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. A rare Jewish subject, The Burial (1964), was one of the largest canvases she ever painted. Gikow’s work is included in the permanent collections of major American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Ruth Gikow died in 1982.
Cochrane, Diane. “Ruth Gikow: Chronicler of our Times.” American Artist (January 1973): 44–50, 73; Fleischman, Lawrence A. Introduction to Ruth Gikow: Recent Work (1976); Josephson, Matthew. Introduction to Ruth Gikow (1970); Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists from Early Indian Times to the Present (1982); “Ruth Gikow Dead: Painter of People.” NYTimes, April 3, 1982; Weller, Allen. Art USA Now (1963).
How to cite this page
Chevlowe, Susan. "Ruth Gikow." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 19, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gikow-ruth>.