Ruth Gikow’s figurative paintings and murals offered her a means to comment on society and urban life. Inspired by Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, Gikow created murals through the Federal Arts Project of the WPA. Her first commission, in 1939, was a mural for the children’s ward of the Bronx Hospital. In 1946 she returned to painting. In the 1960s and 1970s, her art became more political, depicting scenes from the civil rights and anti-war movements. A painter of social issues and contemporary life ranging from teenyboppers to civil rights demonstrators, she presented American life in various incarnations. In the 1960s, she created a number of works with Jewish content.
Early Life and Family
A painter of social issues and contemporary life ranging from teenyboppers to civil rights demonstrators, Ruth Gikow presents in her art American life in various incarnations. Gikow was born in the Ukraine on January 6, 1915, to Boris Gikow, a portrait photographer, and Lena Gikow, a homemaker. When Gikow was five years old, the family left their native land to escape pogroms and immigrated to the United States. After two years of travel to reach their new homeland, the family settled on New York City’s bustling Lower East Side, a milieu that initiated the artist’s interest in depicting crowds and city-types. At Washington Irving High School, Gikow took art classes with the intention of becoming a commercial artist. Unable to find employment, at seventeen years old Gikow supplemented her art education at the Cooper Union with John Steuart Curry and studied privately with Raphael Soyer.
Through the 1930s, Gikow continued to hone her craft, sometimes painting canvases with a Social Realist inclination and at others experimenting with more modern forms. For four years she received support from the Works Progress Administration, including commissions for several murals; a mural for the children’s ward of Bronx Hospital and the nurse’s residence at Riker’s Island were executed at the end of the decade. Although Gikow’s interest in painting murals faded, lessons she learned about creating dynamic compositions on a large scale affected her subsequent oil paintings. During this period, Gikow co-founded the American Serigraph Society, a group that produced prints at reasonable prices for the average art buyer. Gikow’s contributions were sometimes modern in conception, akin to the jazz-influenced, Cubist-inspired rhythmic shapes of Stuart Davis. Indeed, avant-garde and expressionist renderings dominated Gikow’s artistic production through the 1940s and 1950s, until she found her mature style.
In 1946, Gikow married Jack Levine, a fortuitous union of two artists committed to humanism in art. Inspired by her husband’s dedication to his craft, following her marriage Gikow focused on oil painting and enjoyed her first one-person exhibition at New York’s Weyhe Gallery (1946). The following year, she illustrated an edition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1947) with black and white drawings. Travels abroad in 1947 and 1948, which included over twelve months in Italy, strengthened Gikow’s interest in figuration and painting current events. As she recalled: “After . . . Europe and seeing the great art of the past and present, I’ve become increasingly interested in the human aspect of painting. An artist must constantly refer to life to get a living, growing art” (Josephson 18).
At several one-person exhibitions through the 1950s, Gikow showed increasingly colorful, populated canvases exploring mid-century youth culture. Freely executed and painted in vivid colors, Jitterbugs (1952, private collection) portrays five figures: three posturing teenage girls in then-contemporary clothing huddled together while approached by two young men. In contrast to the upbeat Jitterbugs, Gikow also painted images addressing how young people cope with society’s ills. Black Balloons (1969, collection unknown) depicts a group demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Filling up the lower third of the horizontally oriented canvas, the teens wear brightly patterned clothing, which contrasts with their somber expressions. Shown at the moment that the group releases over a dozen black balloons into a dismal gray sky, the painting conveys the angst of the tumultuous and confusing era. Other socially conscious subjects include Elegy-Kent 1970 (c. 1973, Kent State Art Gallery, Ohio), a subdued, large-scale composition of a group of mourners, painted to commemorate the shootings at the university. In addition to the canvas, Gikow made several charcoal drawings delineating both the victims and the survivors of the tragedy. The murders deeply affected Gikow, who began working on the image soon after she heard the report of the shootings on the radio. She explained: “I tried to make the scene solemn and sedate to counteract the violence of the murders” (Cochrane 49). On the second anniversary of the May 4 massacre, the large canvas and six related drawings were presented to Kent State University during a ceremony attended by both Gikow and Levine.
A number of works with Jewish content appear in the 1960s, perhaps partly influenced by Levine’s focus on biblical subjects. Gikow painted several biblical figures, including Queen Esther II (1952, Saginaw Museum, Saginaw, Michigan) and King Solomon and His Wives (1961, private collection), two canvases that take full advantage of Gikow’s command of shimmering color application in her representation of the figures’ orientalized clothing. Her largest composition, a haunting triptych titled The Burial (1964, collection unknown), is conceived on the scale of a history painting, measuring 180 by 140 inches. Gikow portrays a Jewish funeral in dark hues and reduced details that take on an atmospheric quality as the figures blend with each other and the opaquely rendered sky. Always keeping the human figure at the center of her work, Gikow eloquently articulated her artistic philosophy in 1973: “I decided the only art worth painting was the human drama” (Cochrane 45).
Ruth Gikow died on April 2, 1982.
Baskind, Samantha. Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.
Cochrane, Diane. “Ruth Gikow: Chronicler of our Times.” American Artist 37, no. 366 (January 1973): 44-50, 73.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Constance Garnett; illustrated by Ruth Gikow. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1947.
Gikow, Ruth. Ruth Gikow: Recent Work. New York: Kennedy Galleries, 1976.
Gikow, Ruth. Ruth Gikow, Kennedy Galleries. New York: The Galleries, 1979.
Intimations of Immortality: Jack Levine, Ruth Gikow and Susanna Levine Fisher. Washington, D.C.: B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, 1995.
Josephson, Matthew. Ruth Gikow. New York: Maecenas Press, 1970.
Kent State Art Gallery curatorial files, Ruth Gikow.
Selected Public Collections
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Portland Museum of Art, Maine
Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York