50 Years After Her Death, New York Jewish Artist Finally Gets Recognition

Dina Melicov was a Jewish immigrant sculptor-painter who lived in New York through the Depression and war eras. Her daughter made it her mission to have the works win the respect they deserve.

Courtesy of the Bloom family

“The canon of 20th-century art was assembled primarily from a male point of view and features male artists,” says Patty Hickson, the curator of contemporary art at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, in Hartford, Connecticut, speaking from her office.

Established in 1844, the museum contains one of the largest collections of expressionist art in the United States. Last September Hickson chose three works by the artist Dina Melicov, who was active in New York the first part of the 20th century, for inclusion in the museum’s permanent exhibition. As a female curator, Hickson explains, it’s important for her to show works by women who were active during periods in which they were not considered the equals of male artists.

When the works of Melicov (1898-1967) came to her attention, the curator notes, she knew at once that they would be appropriate for the contemporary collection, which is devoted to post-1945 art.

“For us, quality is really what’s primary,” Hickson explains. “Although Dina Melicov is not a well-known name in American art, we thought her works were strong, and that’s the key reason for their inclusion in the collection. They fit into our collection well and interconnect with other works. The name doesn’t really matter; the work is the most important criterion.”

Hickson has always been interested in women who excelled in their artistic fields. “In abstract expressionism, for example,” she notes, “the female artists were at one time considered peripheral figures. Here in the museum I just installed a gallery of abstract expressionism, and we are showing Lee Krasner there. It is essential to exhibit the work of these artists; until the 1970s, women were not considered equal to men in art.”

Melicov’s only child, Jeanne Bloom, now 83, is currently in the process of collecting her mother’s works – sculptures, illustrations and paintings – and finding worthy homes for them. It’s a wrenching parting for her and her partner of 57 years, the distinguished literary scholar and author Harold Bloom, since Melicov’s works have always been part of their life. Bloom wants her mother’s works to survive, and believes the best way of ensuring that is by gifting them to leading museums in the United States. Thus, she hopes, will the name of Dina Melicov, who grew up in poverty and provided for her family in the tenements of New York during the Depression and in the war years, at last will at last receive the recognition it deserves.

Melicov working on a sculpture 1938.  Photo by Mark Nadir, FAP, Photographic Division Collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“She was right up there with the male artists,” Hickson says, “but whereas they were able to make careers, she made a choice to be a family woman. I see no reason why female artists who create good work should not be represented in a museum in a good collection, put on view alongside her male colleagues.”

Help from FDR

Dina Melicov was born in Bialystok, then part of the Russian Empire, today in Belarus, in 1898, and immigrated with her family to New York at the age of four. Like most Jewish immigrants in the city at the time, they lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in tiny apartments with shared bathrooms. Melicov was the youngest of five; she and her twin sisters all slept in the same bed and their brother slept on chairs in the kitchen.

“There was another older sister, but nobody knows where she slept,” Jeanne Bloom says in a conversation from her home in New Haven, Connecticut, laughing.

Melicov attended Cooper Union in New York, the renowned art and science school, and also the Educational Alliance Art School, which was founded in 1889 in order to promote the “Americanization” of Jewish immigrants and in 1924 also began to function as a community center.

A promising sculptor and painter from an early age, Melicov became engaged in her early twenties to her teacher, Abbo Ostrowsky – a successful artist and director of the Educational Alliance school – who took charge of her career. Together they went to Paris to study art, where Melicov honed her sculpting skills under the tutelage of the well-known sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. Among the artists with whom she took part in group exhibitions were the brothers Raphael, Isaac and Moses Soyer, Chaim Gross and Saul Bazerman. The future looked bright.

But then came a twist of fate: In Paris, Melicov met and fell in love with a young Jewish bohemian, Samuel Gould. She left her fiancé and eloped with Gould who, like her, had been born in Russia and raised on New York’s Lower East Side. After completing high school, he had wandered across the United States, working on farms. With the money he saved he went to Paris for a few years, sitting in on classes at the Sorbonne. Gould liked learning languages and taught himself French and Italian; he also spoke Yiddish and Polish and could read Hebrew. Melicov and Gould returned to New York as man and wife, and lived for the rest of their lives in Greenwich Village. He ran a store that sold lamps on Bowery Street, and also designed furniture. Jeanne was born in 1932.

Man and Machine. Photo by Courtesy of the Bloom family

It was only when Melicov returned to New York that she realized the full consequences of her decision to leave Ostrowsky and marry Gould, a struggling businessman.

“She wanted to be able to make a living as an artist, and you don’t make a living as an artist if you don’t sell work,” Bloom says. “And to sell your work, you really need to have shows. And you can’t show models of things you have made – you needed a body of work in durable material. She never had enough money to cast her sculpture in durable material such as bronze.”

But Melicov’s career got a boost from an unexpected source – President Franklin D. Roosevelt – more precisely, from the New Deal program he devised to pull America out of the Depression. A key element of the program was the WPA (Works Progress Administration, renamed Work Project Administration in 1939), which employed millions of jobless and was tasked with building bridges, roads, dams, trains, buildings and other public works.

Under the WPA, the government also created the Federal Art Project, which employed more than 3,000 people, artists who were paid $25-$35 a week and received a studio, in return for which they had to submit a quota of works each month, though they were given broad creative freedom. The artworks were exhibited in public venues such as post offices and schools.

Melicov worked within the FAP framework from 1937 to 1943, though the works she produced then are now lost.

“Everything she made during those six years she gave to the WPA, she thought it was their right to have everything she made,” Bloom explains.

“She had a studio in this tiny little place [in the same building complex] we lived in, on King Street [plus an FPA studio elsewhere]. It was an early 18th-century house – two houses, actually – with a shared yard, and the ground floor was her studio. She didn’t always have money to rent a studio, so some of her work was lost, because when she would lose the studio the work would go into storage, and then they [my parents] wouldn’t be able to pay the storage fees. That happened a few times.”

‘Her only chance’

After World War II, Sam Gould’s business prospered, and Jeanne married and left home. At a relatively advanced age, Melicov was able to spend three years in Florence, Italy, where she created sculptures cast in bronze. “It was much cheaper to cast pieces in bronze in Florence than in New York,” Bloom notes. In 1963, after her mother returned to the States, she held her first and only solo exhibition, in the Charles Barzansky Galleries in New York.

Two biblical-looking mosaics. Photo by Courtesy of the Bloom family

According to Bloom, her mother’s career “would have been different if she’d had financial backing to cast her sculptures and show them in galleries. But she didn’t stop working, despite all that. Nothing could stop her from working, she always had to create, she always had to be doing art, but she wasn’t getting paid for it, which was very sad for her, a big disappointment. She was distressed by this.

“When she did go off to Italy, finally, she was already almost 60, and it was her only chance to put together a show. She knew that if she had married Ostrowsky, she would have been in a different position in regard to her career. She talked about that sometimes; she acknowledged that her career would have progressed differently.”

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in December 1934, Melicov herself addressed the conflict inherent in being a woman and an artist. “In the end,” she observed, “it is not a moral or an emotional but merely an economic matter. If you can provide for your child adequate care you have the full right to develop your own personality. In fact, one serves one’s child better in this way. For, in stunting one’s being, in sacrificing everything precious on the altar of motherhood, one is apt to expect afterward returns which would be a burden to the child. Not self-immolation but self-creation ought to be the watchword of the modern mother.”

Bloom: “She was a happy mother, but success as a sculptor eluded her. Some of her girlfriends who were artists had wealthy husbands to support them.”

According to Amy Winter, the director/curator of the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College in New York, “Women in that period were in the back of the bus. They were not given the same credibility or attention as men. It was a man’s world – it still is, but back then, it was even more so. Melicov wasn’t a careerist; she did her work out of sheer need and love. But she was married, she had a child, and like many women, had to divide her time between family – caretaking, housekeeping – and art.”

Collectivity and charm

To date, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College and also The New Britain Museum of American Art – all highly regarded institutions – have chosen works by Melicov, donated by Bloom, for their permanent collections. In advance of being displayed, they are undergoing cleaning and restoration. Winter chose three sculptures, one in wood and two small bronzes, “Parade” and “Rain,” which she describes as “very simplified figures, very expressive, that capture body gesture and motion.” She adds that she chose “Parade” because she says it encapsulates the spirit of the time.

“Nowadays parades are tied to Walt Disney or Macy’s and they are very materialist. Back then, parades were held to mark the advent of peace after a war, or to protest exploitation of the workers,” Winter explains. “A union of indigent artists was formed at that time, some of whose members later became very famous. ‘Parade,’ with its waving flag, is an icon of collectivity and group interaction, a celebration of the people. ‘Rain’ is a personal statement; it’s charming, two lovers under an umbrella.”

Hickson, from the Wadsworth Atheneum, chose two sculptures from 1946: “The Race,” done in cast aluminum, and a bronze, “American Soldiers Marching.” A third work, “Girl on a Horse,” from 1945, has been promised by the Blooms as a gift to the museum at a later time.

The works, Hickson notes, “reflect the milieu of the New York artists Melicov was working with at the time.” She adds that Melicov’s soldiers’ sculpture is particularly suitable for the museum, which didn’t “really have anything that spoke to World War II” in its collection.

“It’s an image of a group of soldiers in formation,” she explains. “A repetitive image of soldiers looking exactly alike, holding the gun, the helmets on, and it illustrates the masses of soldiers who went into battle. It’s quite modernist, with its repetitive image – you don’t really see individual people, just a mass of helmeted forms and rifles that are all in the exact same position. It is a machinelike image, very stylized and modern.”

Hickson doesn’t think the sculpture expresses a “critical stance,” however. If it makes a statement, “it is about the sheer number of men who were putting their lives at stake by going to war to fight for their country.”

Says Winter, referring to another Melicov sculpture, of a soldier in a gas mask: “There are two ways to look at that. One way is, celebrating American: ‘We’re gonna save the world, kill the Nazis and destroy evil.’ The other way is that it’s very anonymous and industrial. The only way to definitively know the artist’s intention is from the horse’s mouth. Melicov was Jewish, so she undoubtedly had a complex attitude toward that war.”

Melicov working on 'Standing Figure' in February 1938, as part of the Federal Art Project. Photo by Mark Nadir, FAP, Photographic Division Collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

For her part, Melicov’s daughter, Bloom, recalls that theirs was “not a practicing [Jewish] family, not particularly religious; they [my parents] would go to shul on big occasions, but not on a regular basis. Still, we all felt ourselves to be Jews. On Passover we would go to our grandparents, but we didn’t fast on Yom Kippur or celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

“My parents were under the impression that Harold’s parents might think that I wasn’t Jewish – at that time I was blond – so the first time they met, they walked in speaking Yiddish. But Harold’s parents, who spoke Yiddish at home, replied in English. My parents just wanted to show them: Don’t worry, we are Jewish.”

Hub of anarchy

During the first half of the 20th century, when Melicov worked as an artist in New York, it was a hub of communist and anarchist activity. The Communist Party of America had its headquarters in the city where, beginning in the 1880s, Emma Goldman and others had organized workers to protest exploitation and demonstrate in favor of fair employment laws. There were many artists among these activists.

“The intellectuals and the artists were generally on the left,” says Winter, whose Ph.D. thesis and first book were about the New York art scene during World War II. “They were collectivists, socialists and communists. Not all of them were card-carrying members of the Communist Party, but they advocated socialism. That was the intellectual climate of the 1930s, and it sprang from the European immigrants, many of whom were Jews. As a Jewish immigrant from Russia who became an artist in New York, Melicov was part of that milieu.”

Rain,' created in the early 1960s. Photo by Courtesy of the Bloom family

Bloom maintains, however, that “during the war my mother thought she was a communist, but she had no idea what communism was. My father was a little more aware of what was going on in the world. Many other artists were communists, too. The idea was, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ – a nice idealistic notion, but not all of them knew what Stalin was or grasped his politics. My mother was a member of the Communist Party but never had the money to pay the dues. How could she, on $35 a week?”

But Melicov’s connection to communism hurt her during the period of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red-scare witch hunts.

“She had a nice job teaching in a public school. In the early 1950s in New York teachers had to sign a loyalty oath, in which you declared whether you were ever a member of the Communist Party,” Bloom relates. “So she quit the job, which she liked ... and said her past membership would not affect her. But she was afraid it would affect her son-in-law Harold Bloom’s career – which was foolish. The job was a nice source of steady income, the pay was pretty good. My mother and Harold really liked each other.”

Melicov died in New York at the age of 69, before a planned second solo show of her work could be mounted.

As to the current market value of the artist’s oeuvre, Hickson, from the Wadsworth Atheneum museum, says, “That is for the donors to say, if they choose to take them to an appraiser. What’s most important for us is not the works’ market value but their artistic value. Her contribution to the canon will probably never be fully acknowledged, but her contribution to art is the work itself. The fact that it is entering our collection and being put on view along with the big-name male artists who were her friends and colleagues says a lot for her and our belief in her work.”