Summer Intern Project: American Art at the Library

Four interns posing around a screen that reads "Strengths in American Art at the Frick Art Reference Library"
The Frick Art Reference Library’s 2023 summer interns presenting their findings on American art materials in the library’s collections. From left: Lyric Evans-Hunter, Archives Intern; Alyse Delaney, Content Intern; Julia Noll, Library Administration Intern; and Flannery Cusick, Access Intern.


By Julia Noll, 2023 Library Administration Intern

Since the closure of their New York office, the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art (AAA) microfilm collection has not been accessible at a reading room to local researchers. This extensive collection contains thousands of microfilm reels with historical gallery records, auction catalogs, artists’ papers, and more. Upon becoming an official associate of the AAA by the end of 2023, the Frick Art Reference Library will house this collection, in turn becoming the sole AAA depository in New York and once again granting local researchers physical access to these invaluable research materials.

In preparation, we have spent this summer examining the presence of American art in the library’s holdings, in search of connections with the incoming microfilm collection. This process began by assessing the most numerous or prominent reels in the AAA collection and identifying any areas of overlap with the library’s Photoarchive, Archives, and research collections. After initial analysis, each of the four of us identified an area on which we would then focus our particular research within the library’s collections. Using the resources that we gathered, we have put together a research guide that we hope will serve as a valuable introductory resource for researchers.

Explore the interns’ research guide on American art

A major portion of the guide provides an overview of significant American artists who are heavily represented in the library’s collections. Such figures include George Catlin, John Singleton Copley, John Marin, Charles Willson Peale, John Singer Sargent, Ben Shahn, Gilbert Stuart, and Thomas Sully. For each of these artists, I provided in the research guide their artist file from the Photoarchive, finding aids from the Archives that reference them or their work, and a selection of books and exhibition catalogs from our research collections. This portion of the guide will give researchers an idea of the many kinds of materials that the library makes available.

The abundance of information on these artists in the library’s collections comes in part from the wealth of research and energy that scholars have dedicated to their legacies over the years. As part of this project, we also wanted to highlight artists and groups who have historically been marginalized, not only to bring attention to their work but also to emphasize the breadth of the library’s holdings in American art. The spotlights below explore three such lesser-known histories found in the library’s collections:

Women Muralists of the Federal Art Project

By Alyse Delaney, 2023 Content Intern

Few government initiatives had as great of an influence on American art as the Federal Art Project of the 1930s. Established under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the project supported out-of-work artists during the Great Depression. The incoming Archives of American Art microfilm collection contains extensive records related to the operations of the Federal Art Project. While exploring these records, I became particularly interested in a small but accomplished group of women artists whose careers have often been overshadowed by those of their more famous male contemporaries.

Many of the women artists worked for the Federal Art Project’s mural division, which aimed to expand the reach of the visual arts into local communities by funding public projects in hospitals, schools, and government buildings. Murals completed by women were often in public-yet-domestic spaces, setting the scene for maternal nurturing. Dorothy Puccinelli and Helen Forbes, for instance, created a mural for the San Francisco Zoo’s Fleishhacker Mother’s Building, a quiet space where mothers and children could rest. Similarly, Georgette Seabrooke, Selma Day, and Elba Lightfoot, painters of the Harlem Renaissance, contributed murals to the children’s wing of Harlem Hospital.

Woman working on a children's mural in a hospital room
Miss Selma Day working on mural,” 1938, courtesy the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

One mural brought to life in both the AAA’s and Frick Art Reference Library’s records exists at a striking intersection between the sexual expectations of women and the liberation movements of the 1960s. In 1936, Lucienne Bloch was awarded a project to paint a mural for the New York City Women’s House of Detention, an Art Deco prison in Greenwich Village. Her mural, The Cycle of a Woman’s Life, featured a working-class neighborhood with Black and white children playing together while their mothers looked on from the sidelines. In her essay published in Art for the Millions, Bloch states that her mural was meant to inspire the detained women about what their lives could be like after their release. She further explained in a 1964 oral history interview, “The main role of women [is] bringing children into the world. And therefore, I will show children and women and mothers. That’s the important moral I’ll have.”

Mural of a streetscape with children playing on a playground
Lucienne Bloch (1909–1999), The Cycle of a Woman’s Life, 1936, fresco, Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive, MoMA Photo Files

A few decades later, with Bloch’s mural as a background, the Women’s House of Detention became a focal point for the Gay Liberation Front following the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. Inmates at the prison were commonly lesbians, transgender people, and others who deviated from gender norms. In fact, so many queer folks passed through the prison that according to Joan Nestle, the founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, it became known, sarcastically, as the “Country Club.” In 1971, perhaps worried about social unrest, poor conditions at the prison, or the high visibility of femme queerness, the city closed the prison, later demolishing the building, along with Bloch’s mural, in 1974.

Today, photographic documentation of Lucienne Bloch’s Cycle of a Woman’s Life survives in the Frick’s Photoarchive. The photographs of Bloch’s mural serve as crucial reference points for studying the work in relation to the social and economic contexts of its time. The Photoarchive can also be used to rediscover artists such as Bloch, as well as the numerous other women who were employed by the Federal Art Project but have otherwise been left out of mainstream art history.

Further reading

Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project. Compiled by Francis V. O’Connor. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1973.

Carlton-Smith, Kimn. A New Deal for Women: Women Artists and the Federal Art Project, 1935–1939. Dissertation, Rutgers University School of Graduate Studies, 1990.

Harrison, Helen A. Women Artists of the New Deal Era: A Selection of Prints and Drawings. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1988.

New Horizons in American Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936.

Contemporary Afro-American Women Artists Exhibition

By Flannery Cusick, 2023 Access Intern

In December 1978, artist, curator, and archivist Edith Martin lent forty-six artist files to the Archives of American Art for their preservation in microfilm format. Martin had collected the files as she, Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, and Loïs Mailou Jones co-curated a major exhibition, Contemporary Afro-American Women Artists. The exhibition, which was to open in February 1979 in conjunction with that year’s College Art Association annual meeting, was never fully realized due to insufficient funding.

Abstracted marble sculpture of a head with an open mouth
Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive reproduction of Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), El Canto, date unknown, Mexican marble, Worcester Art Museum

Nevertheless, the extensive materials Martin preserved tell the story of this ambitious curatorial project. The files include biographical information, artist statements, and images of the artists and their work. In her essay “Off the Wall, into the Archive: Black Feminist Curatorial Practices of the 1970s,” Rebecca K. VanDiver explores Martin’s preservation of these files through a lens of critical fabulation, which challenges the limits of the archive through storytelling and creative interpretation. VanDiver urges readers and future researchers to consider the exhibition’s termination as evidence of the larger exclusion of Black women from contemporary arts movements and broader art historical narratives.

The archival record of Contemporary Afro-American Women Artists also lends itself to Black Quantum Futurism, the collective theory and practice of Camae Ayewa and Rasheedah Phillips. Through this lens, the archive situates an unrealized exhibition within the historical record, thus transcending space, place, and time and allowing the exploration of alternative futures.

Semi-abstract painting resembling a traditional African mask
Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive reproduction of Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998), Ode to Kinshasa, 1972, mixed media on canvas, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Of the forty-six women intended to be shown in the exhibition, several are represented across the Photoarchive, Archives, and research collections of the Frick Art Reference Library. A preliminary collection of resources on the artists—among them Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Alma Thomas—can be found in our project’s research guide. Selections from the library’s robust collection of auction catalogs offer new insight on the artists as they reached varying degrees of commercial success. From the Photoarchive, high-quality images allow researchers to visualize the works of Contemporary Afro-American Women Artists as they would—and should—have been shown in 1979.

It is our hope that this assemblage of materials from the library’s collections will help bolster the study of Black feminist curatorial practices and offer glimpses into alternative futures of the participating artists in the exhibition.

Further reading

Black Quantum Futurism:

Morris, Catherine, Rujeko Hockley, Connie H. Choi, Carmen Hermo, and Stephanie Weissberg. We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85: A Sourcebook. Brooklyn Museum, 2017.

Seaman, Donna. Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2017.

VanDiver, Rebecca K. Designing a New Tradition: Loïs Mailou Jones and the Aesthetics of Blackness. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020.

VanDiver, Rebecca K. “Off the Wall, into the Archive: Black Feminist Curatorial Practices of the 1970s.” Archives of American Art Journal 55, no. 2 (2016): 26–45.

Hendricks and Whistler: Americans at the Frick

By Lyric Evans-Hunter, 2023 Archives Intern

Full-length painting of a woman wearing a dark floor-length dress against a black background
Portrait of a man in a white coat, white paints, and sunglasses against a white background
Left: James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903), Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder, 1876–78. Oil on canvas, 75 3/4 x 36 3/8 in. (192.4 x 92.4 cm). The Frick Collection, New York. Right: Barkley L. Hendricks (American, 1945–2017), Steve, 1976. Oil, acrylic, and magna on canvas, 72 x 48 in. (182.9 x 121.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, purchase and gift with funds from the Arthur M. Bullowa Bequest by exchange, the Jack E. Chachkes Endowed Purchase Fund, and the Wilfred P. and Rose J. Cohen Purchase Fund. © Barkley L. Hendricks, courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo: © Whitney Museum of American Art/Licensed by Scala/Art Resource, NY

The painters James McNeill Whistler and Barkley L. Hendricks—working about one hundred years apart—both found inspiration in Europe and experimented widely with color, line, and form within the genre of portraiture. This fall, the exhibition Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick presents major works from Hendricks’s early career, inspired by the Western portraiture traditions represented in the collections of the museum and Frick Art Reference Library. Additional materials on Whistler (the only American-born artist on view at Frick Madison) and Hendricks will be available to library users once its stewardship of the AAA microfilm collection begins, expanding opportunities for research into American art.

Hendricks created a new visual language, in many instances inspired by European Old Master art, to center Black figures in portraiture. In her article “Portraits in Black,” Anna Arabindan-Kesson describes how he worked: Through photography, he captured expressions of Black identity in street style. He also drew inspiration from works he saw on an influential trip to Europe, including the Grand Manner genre, a style of large, idealized portraits that emerged in the eighteenth century and is exemplified by a range of Western European painters, from Anthony van Dyck to John Singer Sargent. Finally, he drew on skills he learned from his professors at Yale, including the photographer Walker Evans.

Regarding Hendricks’s distinctive use of color, it is tempting—especially in the context of the Frick—to draw a connection to Whistler’s tonal work. After growing up between Europe and the United States, Whistler debuted in France as a portraitist with Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl in 1861, beginning a long career creating moody, tonal portraiture. Settling in England, he extended his color studies to landscapes, creating his famous Nocturnes, as well as becoming a noted printmaker. In 1914–19, Henry Clay Frick acquired the four portraits on view at Frick Madison, after Whistler’s death in London, in 1903. They are characterized by their monochrome palettes, experimentation with color and form, and emphasis on style, dress, and accessories—with many parallels to Hendricks’s works.

Further information about Whistler can be found in the library’s Archives among the records of the Coe Kerr Gallery, Henry Clay Frick’s Art Collecting Files, and the American Art Association Records, links to which can be found in our research guide. Our research collections also contain a wealth of contemporary and recent scholarship. Joining the library’s resources from the AAA will be extensive microfilm material relating to Whistler, along with the artists’ files of the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum (now the African American Museum in Philadelphia), which include a file on Barkley L. Hendricks.

The arrival of the microfilm collections of the Archives of American Art will greatly expand on the library’s strengths in American art, which, perhaps unexpectedly, has many points of resonance with the Frick’s permanent collection. These materials will enable archival researchers to explore connections between Hendricks, Whistler, and other artists in the reading room and digitally, while those same artists spark conversation in the galleries this fall about color, genre, figuration, and American art.

Further reading

Arabindan-Kesson, Anna. “Portraits in Black.” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 2016, no. 38/39 (November 15, 2016): 70–78.

Hughes, Alicia. “A ‘Scheme of my Protection’: Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873–1958) and the History of the James McNeill and Beatrix Whistler Collection at the University of Glasgow.” Art, Antiquity and Law 28, no. 1 (April 2023): 9–44.

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