NEH Grant Project Update

As PAFA remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic impacting America, it is with mixed emotions that we announce the suspension of all work on the NEH Grant Project – Rediscovering John Rhoden.

Project Archivist Kelin Baldridge with help from Assistant Archivist Jahna Auerbach have both been amazing colleagues. It has been a pleasure working alongside them for the past six months. Together, we sifted and explored the treasure trove of materials that help illuminate John Rhoden’s life as an artist, husband, educator, and community anchor.

We cannot provide additional details as to when the project will resume as things are changing daily here in Philadelphia and much of the United States during the pandemic. We want to thank everyone for following us all this time on our social media journey!

See you soon!

Hoang Tran
Project Director for the Rediscovering John Rhoden NEH Grant project.

John Rhoden’s circle: Ásmundur Sveinsson

Contributed by Jahna Auerbach, Assistant Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

Next up in our series on John Rhoden’s circle is Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982). John met Sveinsson, an Icelandic sculptor, when he toured Iceland between 1958 and 1959. Many of the color slides in the John Rhoden papers from Iceland are of Ásmundur Sveinsson’s art and studio space. These images capture how happy Sveinsson was to share his home, his studio, and his art. 

Ásmundur Sveinsson was one of Iceland’s leading sculptors. His work is regarded as being some of the most essential “manifestations of the Icelandic narrative tradition, society, and nature in the 20th century.”

Ásmundur Sveinsson with his sculpture titled “Rafmagnið,” which means power or electricity.

His early work consists of abstract figurative sculptures influenced by Icelandic folklore and myths, animals, and nature as well as men and women at work. His works are reminiscent of a simpler time and invoke feelings of tradition and comfort. Later in his career, Sveinsson began to create more abstract artwork and was influenced by the development of technology. 

He lived during a time when science and technology were making huge leaps and bounds. Men were traveling to the moon, the sound barrier had been broken, travel was becoming easier with the help of airplanes, and nuclear power was being developed and used. Sveinsson embraced the modernity of the world he lived in and believed that it would improve people’s lives. These changes in society influenced later works of his, and he started creating more abstract forms and using different materials. 

The change in Sveinsson’s influences is clear when examining the titles of his artwork. Some examples of the titles of his later work, after the 1950s, are “The Future,” “Electricity,” and “Through the Sound Barrier,” titles of his earlier work are “The Washerwoman” and “The Water Carrier.” The Reykjavík Art Museum explains Ásmundur’s work perfectly, “Many of his pieces were conceived as a part of public space, an integral part of the surroundings, or were developed as design and craft works.” 

Exterior shot of Ásmundur Sveinsson’s home and studio in Reykjavík, Iceland. The Water Carrier is in the foreground and in the background, additional buildings are in the process of being built. Taken 1958-1959.

Sveinsson surrounded himself with his art, to the extent that he designed and built his own home and studio. The building took eight years to construct and was finished in 1950. The building’s exterior is white concrete and features geometric shapes, clean lines, slanted walls, and a large circular room with a domed ceiling. The design was inspired by Greek, Egyptian, and Turkish architecture. Ásmundur wanted the architecture of the building to be in harmony with the landscape, which he said was “treeless and naked.” He felt that buildings should complement their surroundings and thought that the stark whiteness of the building and design was perfect for the traditional Icelandic landscape. 

The grounds of his home/studio are filled with large scale sculptures of his own creation, some as tall as the building itself. The combination of the sculptures and the unique architecture of the buildings created a feeling of other-worldliness. 

Ásmundur wanted his art to be accessible not just by society’s elite but by the public as well. Not only are many of his pieces created to be in public spaces, but his home and studio were also donated to the city of Reykjavik after his death in 1983.

Images of Ásmundur Sveinsson with his sculptures from the Rhoden Collection.

For more information on Sveinsson’s early works, visit the Ásmundarsafan website at the following link: https://safneign.listasafnreykjavikur.is/en/%C3%81smundur

Sources

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

Rhoden papers discovery: Penn Station South development

Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

John and Richenda Rhoden’s studio and home at 23 Cranberry Street in Brooklyn, NY played a major role in their artistic and personal lives. It was their home base, as well as their work space. It was where they held social events, community gatherings, and even a wedding. It housed most of their artwork and decades of memories.

Richmond Barthé’s 1952 lease for the apartment he shared with John.

But before the Rhodens settled into their Brooklyn townhome, John and Richenda lived and worked in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. They occupied the fourth floor of 285 8th Avenue in Manhattan, NY. John first moved into this home and studio space in the late 1930s with fellow artist and mentor, Richmond Barthé. 

In 1956, the area surrounding the Rhoden’s home in Chelsea was subjected to Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 – a slum clearance project widely criticized for being discriminatory against minorities. This project, known as Penn Station South, cleared the vast majority of the structures between 8th and 9th Avenues and West 23rd and 29th Streets, displacing around 2,600 families. 

The project for a cooperative housing development was sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and was first proposed in 1956. The project was endorsed by the state of New York in June of 1956 and was recommended for federal funding by August of that same year. In June of 1959, the New York Times reported that the residents would have to be fully relocated by July 1960. The project came to a total cost of $34,000,000 and $500,000 of the sum was allocated for relocation of the original tenants. Tenants relocating themselves would receive $275 when vacating a 1-3 room unit and up to $500 when vacating a 6+ room unit. 

Many of the original residents of the Penn Station South/Chelsea area organized to protest the I.L.G.W.U. project. The development was slated to displace roughly 7,500 people and the Title I relocation measures were deemed to be inadequate. Many of those subjected to Title I relocation reported that they were relocated to inferior dwellings or that they were relocated to other sites already scheduled for demolition by the Housing Act and were subsequently forced to move again. 

The original Chelsea residents withheld their rents from their new landlord, the I.L.G.W.U. and demanded that the project be halted until enough low-income housing was made for them to relocate to. Despite early success on the part of the residents, which saw the project leaders conceding to the community and agreeing to preserve two (ultimately four) churches that were to be demolished, the community organizations were ultimately unable to stop the project. The Citizens Watchdog Committee was rife with tension and ultimately dissolved and other vocal community supporters were accused of being influenced by communism. 

Draft of John’s letter to David Dubinsky from 1959.

During this time of unrest in the neighborhood, John was travelling the world. As the project was announced, John was just completing a world tour with the State Department, and by the time it was announced that the residents were going to be displaced, he was halfway through a tour of the Soviet Union with the State Department. This worldly perspective led John to advocate for promotion of and assistance for artists. 

Despite facing struggles in finding his own housing to relocate to, in December of 1959, John wrote to David Dubinsky, the president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, requesting that he consider providing housing and workspace for artists in the cooperative development (above). 

John and Richenda received compensation for their relocation due to the Penn Station South project in 1960.

Ultimately, John and Richenda relocated to their forever home at 23 Cranberry Street by 1960 and there is no evidence that Dubinsky ever even acknowledged John’s request for artist housing. Regardless of the role he played, it is interesting to note John’s involvement in these interesting moments in history. We will be sure to highlight more of these connections between John Rhoden and historic moments for your entertainment as we are all laying low during this difficult time. 

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

PAFA will temporarily close to the public beginning Saturday, March 14, until further notice.

The health and safety of our community is, and must be, our highest priority. PAFA will continue to monitor the global and local situation with regard to COVID-19, including advisories from local and national health authorities, while the Museum is closed to the public.

As a result, all research requests have been suspended until further notice. We urge patrons to use our Digital Archives to access historical records and online resources to supplement your research needs for the time being.

Any relevant updates related to PAFA’s museum operations will be posted on our website’s dedicated COVID-19 page. We encourage you to check back often.

An interesting find in the John Rhoden papers!

Contributed by Jahna Auerbach, Assistant Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

In a folder of unsorted 120mm color slides, we discovered some slides from a trip John and Richenda took out west. They give a glimpse into a 1965 Sullivan Chevrolet car dealership. John must have been fascinated with this building because there are multiple images of the interior, exteriors and the cars inside. At this time, Chevrolet was one of the most popular cars in America – one out of every ten cars sold in America was a Chevrolet. We hope that you find this blast from the past as interesting as we do! 

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

Update: John Rhoden papers

Contributed by Kelin Baldridge, Project Archivist for the John Rhoden papers

Time has flown by working on the John Rhoden papers, and we are quickly approaching our 5,000 digitized items goal. As such, our work for the last few months has largely consisted of scanning and cataloging – not the most riveting activities to report on.

In the absence of captivating and varied activities, we have provided some photographs from the collection of John Rhoden at work for your viewing pleasure!

Next up, Assistant Archivist Jahna Auerbach will report on an exciting discovery she made this week!

ABOUT THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.