Have you ever stood in a museum, looking up at a piece of modern art, and wondered: What is the artist trying to say? Abstract art can sometimes feel unclear and daunting, even to people who really love it. For Minna Citron (1896-1991), a modernist printmaker, the value of abstract art was that “the beholder is invited to an emotional experience.” Throughout her career, Citron creatively harnessed within her artwork the emotional and expressive qualities of abstraction to address issues of gender inequality. The National Museum of American History hosted a special exhibition of Minna Citron’s work in 1949, and the Graphic Arts Collection is now home to six of her abstract prints. These artworks highlight the second half of her career and provide insight into the complex relationship between abstract art and feminism during the mid-1900s.
Printmaking and abstract art were both male-dominated fields during the 20th century. Minna Citron's artwork and career were a statement of female independence and bold self-expression. Throughout the six decades of Citron’s career, she explored feminist issues through a wide range of artistic styles and techniques. In the 1930s Citron took a humorous approach to dealing with the issue of sexism. Her first solo show in New York featured caricatures of women lounging in beauty parlors and huddled around makeup counters. She was critical of the modern woman’s obsession with beauty culture; her facetious sketches urged women to question how their own superficiality could encourage sexism.
Citron’s self-portrait, titled Self-Expression, captures her satirical style and the social commentary that underlies most of her work. The portrait shows her leaning nonchalantly on her easel, legs unabashedly spread to reveal her underslip, rejecting traditional ideas about feminine etiquette.
In the 1940s Minna Citron dramatically transformed her artistic style. She abandoned her witty sketches and started experimenting with Abstract Expressionism, an American art movement that was growing in popularity in New York City at the time. Artists in the movement played with non-representational designs, vibrant colors, and bold mark-making to create more emotional and expressive artwork. One of Citron's later prints, Slip Stream, created in 1956, is a testament to her artistic evolution. This print displays her modern use of color and her fascination with the unintentional slip-ups of printmaking. Citron’s shift in artistic approach was partially influenced by the newly popularized field of psychoanalysis. She appreciated how abstraction could capture the artist's unconscious mind.
Citron, like many women in the 1930s and 1940s, challenged the gender norms that restricted her personal and artistic goals. Art-making allowed her to escape from her role as a domestic housewife and mother. In 1934, she decided to divorce her husband and buy a studio in Union Square, Manhattan, to continue her artistic career. It was perhaps no coincidence that following her divorce, she pivoted towards this new and unconventional art style; both decisions were likely expressions of personal liberation.
Although her artistic style transformed from representational to abstract, Citron’s artwork did not lose its core element of social commentary. In Citron’s own words, quoted from the 1976 catalogue, The 80 Years of Minna Citron: “The warp and woof of my efforts, whether verbal or visual, painted, pasted or printed, is people, or the situations in which they find themselves.” Citron’s artwork no longer explicitly depicted images of women, yet her abstract prints still explored the female experience. Themes of confinement and freedom were present in the titles and patterns of her modern prints. In one of her most celebrated works, Squid Under Pier (now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art), she created a dark web of intertwining lines to create a dizzying sense of captivity and entrapment. A recent exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art described this print as a representation of Citron’s experience in a stifling marriage. Even through her abstract prints, she managed to capture the ongoing struggle for gender equality and her personal pursuit for self-autonomy.
Citron’s involvement with abstract printmaking was a daring move for her and other female artists. Male printmakers dominated both the Abstract Expressionist movement and the field of printmaking. Abstraction had gained popularity for its sense of movement, physicality, and dynamism—qualities traditionally associated with masculinity. Female artists were expected to produce pleasant and tranquil imagery and were often excluded from operating presses because printing was considered too physically demanding for women. Citron was warned by her mentor and good friend, Kenneth Hayes Miller, that she would lose her following if she worked in this new radical style. Despite this feedback, Citron joined Atelier 17, a renowned avant-garde print studio in New York, where she excelled alongside celebrated artists such as Jackson Pollock and Marc Chagall.
Minna Citron enjoyed the labor of printmaking and pioneered new printing techniques. She layered inks and paints to produce 3D effects or impressed alternative materials, such as cellophane wrappers or mesh, to create unusual textures in her prints. The women printmakers at Atelier 17 were committed to printing their own plates and even invented unorthodox printing techniques to demonstrate their artistic independence. In her book, The Women of Atelier 17, Christina Weyl describes how Citron’s acclaimed colleague, Louise Nevelson, would over-ink her images and allow the ink to spill over the edge of the plate. Nevelson would stamp her fingerprints on the edges of the finished prints, countering women’s traditional exclusion from the inking process. Citron’s saturated and textured prints also demonstrate how she embraced her creative impulses and ignored the artistic limitations put on women.
Examples of Citron’s interest in experimental printmaking can be seen in her prints Descendo, Arrival, and Jet. These three prints represent different “states” of the same zinc printing plate. A “state” refers to different versions of the same print created by a deliberate change in the printing plate, such as engraving additional marks or adding a new ink color. For these prints, Citron used both an engraving and etching process. She initially carved into her zinc plate with an engraving tool, called a burin, and then after protecting the rest of the plate with acid resisting substance, she soaked it in an acid bath to etch deeper grooves into the engraved design. From there, Citron used black ink to create Descendo and played with colored ink for Jet. When the plate accidentally broke during the process, she experimented with printing the reverse of the plate, which produced the third print, Arrival. Rather than allowing technical slip-ups to deter her process, she found inspiration in the accidental forms they produced and embraced the inherent mishaps of printmaking.
Although she made bold contributions to the field of modern art, Citron was not afforded the same recognition or legacy as some of her male colleagues. Following her special exhibit at the Smithsonian in 1949, Jacob Kainen, the curator of the Graphic Arts collection, wrote to Citron to acknowledge the overlooked value of her work: “I might say that most people have no idea of the tremendous amount of labor that goes into the execution of [your] color jobs.” Citron’s works held in the Graphic Arts Collection at the National Museum of American History continue to be a meaningful reminder of her contributions as a pioneer in abstract printmaking.
Minna Citron’s prints were not her only contributions to the art and printmaking world; she was also outspoken about the purposes and benefits of abstract art. Working simultaneously as a teacher, public speaker, and writer throughout her career, Minna Citron helped make abstract art more accessible and comprehensible. She presented at international talks and taught courses at universities and museums. In 1955, a confused spectator wrote to the San Antonio Express newspaper after viewing a Minna Citron exhibit, asking “Just what are these modern artists trying to do? Is this language only for artists?” Citron generously responded to the inquiry with a quote from a lecture she delivered in New York and São Paulo, saying:
Traditional art, like a photograph, portrays a recognizable scene, frozen in time and space, as observed from outside the picture . . . Modern abstract art, no longer interested in the presentation of specific ‘things’ stresses the experience of moving around within the picture amongst the colors, forms, and planes, a purely sensuous experience.
Citron’s impactful lessons about modern art established her position as an important figure within the broader art movement. She played an essential role in developing a public taste for abstraction and helped elevate printmaking into a respected art medium. Above all, her career underscored the bold contributions made by women in printmaking.
This blog is associated with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative and the 2023 Because of Her Story Cohort Internship Program.
Sophie Raiskin-Wood (she/her) is a Because of Her Story intern in the Division of Work and Industry, Graphic Arts Collection. She is a rising-junior at Wesleyan University pursuing a dual degree in Art History and American Government.