715 Washington Street, Greenwich Village
Walter Augustus Simon (American, 1916–1979)
Height x width: 36 x 24 in. (91.4 x 61 cm)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas with additional mixed media
Lobby into American Modern: The 1920s and 30s ( 326A)
Heralded as a “child prodigy” by his hometown newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the mid-twentieth-century painter Walter Augustus Simon exhibited great artistic talent at an early age and undertook commissioned portraits from the age of eleven. link He was interested in both the practice of art and in its history, first studying at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Harlem; after serving in World War II, Simon would use his G.I. Bill benefits to return to school, earning his bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1948 and later his master’s and doctoral degrees in art history (with a dissertation on the African-American expatriate painter Henry Ossawa Tanner link).
Living on the fifth floor of 715 Washington Street with his wife, Virginia, and their two children, Simon constantly invited fellow students from all disciplines, both in and outside of the arts, back to his home to meet his family and to view his paintings. In so doing, the gregarious painter and his family became a part of the diverse, international, bohemian community that characterized New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 1940s. Simon’s time as an NYU student, immersed in a thriving artistic community, had a great impact on his style. The urban vitality of his environment and the dynamic creativity of his fellow Lower Manhattan artists inspired Simon to turn from his traditional, figurative work to abstraction. 715 Washington Street, Greenwich Village marks this pivotal period in his career. The composition makes clear that Simon had embraced what his mentor, prominent African American painter and educator Hale Woodruff link, referred to as the “modern spirit.” “It’s here,” Woodruff said, “there’s no use to argue against it.” link
715 Washington Street, Greenwich Village is an autobiographical painting. Simon used the visual idiom of the “modern spirit” of abstraction to capture his multisensory experiences in a dynamic, lively urban city. Employing a synthetic Cubist aesthetic with a muted, earth-toned color palette (with the exception of a few eye-catching patches of red), Simon emphasized texture to evoke the tactile realness of his personal experiences. Sand, impasto techniques, and letters reminiscent of Cubist wordplay combine and contrast with each other in a fractured, collage-inspired rendition of Simon’s own residence. His apartment building, here more of a living entity than an inanimate structure, appears as a kind of montage of Simon’s impressions of his former home, a visual idiom appropriate for the selective and disjointed nature of human memory. Simon’s rendering of the structure takes up almost the entire canvas, conveying the profound influence that his experiences in this building, and his time as a student in Greenwich Village, had on the artist. Simon’s known body of work is small, and the personal, spirited nature of this painting, both an autobiographical work and one of Simon’s first abstractions, makes this a rare and richly evocative piece.
1. “14-Year-Old Artist Prodigy Hopes to Study in Paris,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 12, 1931.
2. L. D. Reddick, “Walter Simon: The Socialization of an American Negro Artist,” Phylon 15, no. 4 (Fourth Quarter, 1954): 388.
Signed in oil, lower left
1979, the artist's estate, Va. October 7, 2008, African-American Fine Art Sale #2156, Swann Galleries, N.Y., lot 23, to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 17, 2008)
The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection
Reproduced with permission.