Anne Ryan, American, born Hoboken, NJ (1889-1954)

Anne Ryan #256

On November 22, 2020, I spoke about the artist Anne Ryan (1889-1954) at the Hoboken Historical Museum for the program NJWomenMakeHistory, an 8-part lecture series focused on New Jersey women prominent in politics, finance, philanthropy, art, poetry and sports. 

The image above is a collage by Anne Ryan, Untitled #256, 6 ¾ x 5 ½ inches (dated 1949), media: cut and pasted colored and printed papers, cloth and string on paper, collection: The Museum of Modern Art, gift of Elizabeth McFadden.  

Anne Ryan spent half her life as a poet and writer before she became a visual artist. She was a single mother with 3 children. Her first formal art training was in the early 1940s at Atelier 17, a major printmaking workshop founded by the British artist Stanley William Hayter. In 1948 collage became her passion. She created over 700 tiny collages from 1948 to 1954, the year she died. Her collages, and woodcut prints are included in all the major museums in the United States. 

Anne Ryan never gave her collages a title; she only gave them numbers. All her collages are tiny. Pay attention to the sizes listed for each image and think about how small they are.

Anne Ryan #353

Untitled #353 (above) is 7 ½ x 6 7/8 inches (dated 1949), media: pasted colored papers, transparent cloth in tiny geometric shapes, fabric with frayed edges, and string on paper, collection: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), gift of Elizabeth McFadden, 1978.  Notice how she created texture with overlapping fabrics. I want to touch this collage.

The Washburn Gallery represents the estate of Anne Ryan, and, with their help, I got to speak with Anne Ryan’s grandson, Tom McFadden. He and his wife are co-executors of the Estate of Anne Ryan. He told me he was seven years old when his grandmother died, and said his memories of his grandmother came from his close relationship with his aunt Elizabeth McFadden who shared a home with her mother at 92 Bank Street in Greenwich Village, NY the last 10 years of her mother’s life.  Elizabeth McFadden wrote a memoir: A Personal Remembrance (edited by Philip Jacobs, PhD). Like her mother, Elizabeth McFadden was a writer and visual artist. Her memoir was a wonderful resource for all the quotes I include here. 

Anne Ryan #538

Untitled #538  (above) is 12 ½ x 9 13/16 inches (dated 1953), media: paper and fabric on paperboard, collection: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. This collage looks like a quilt with pieces stitched together.

Elizabeth McFadden said her mother always labeled her collages with a number (never a title), and sometimes even duplicated her numbers. She said her mother signed her name A. Ryan because she felt there was prejudice against women artists. She said Sunday was the day her mother shared the week’s creative output with her.

Anne Ryan, Primavera

The image above is a color woodcut titled Primavera (dated 1947). The paper sheet is 14 ½ x 19 inches. The print image is 11 ½ x 15 ½ inches. Elizabeth McFadden said her mother would often add oil paint with her fingertips to enrich colors after the image was printed. Anne Ryan learned printmaking when she enrolled at Atelier 17, a world-famous workshop founded by Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988). Hayter brought Atelier 17 to New York in 1940 when he fled Vichy France and the Nazis. Anne Ryan studied printmaking for 4 years, and her preferred medium was the color woodcut print. Read about Stanley William Hayter.

Anne Ryan, Personal World

The image above is a color woodcut titled Personal World (dated 1946), printed on a black sheet that is 15 7/8 x 22 7/8 inches. The image size is 14 3/8 x 17 1/8 inches. This print was an anonymous gift to the Brooklyn Museum in NY. Anne Ryan printed on black paper (not on expensive white paper) because a photographer friend gave her the black papers that wrapped his photo papers. Anne Ryan ironed, repaired (if necessary), and recycled the wrapping papers and created a smooth surface for her woodcut prints. Notice how the wood grain in Personal World shows through the black paper. 

Woodcut printmaking is a vigorous enterprise. Artists who create woodcut prints gouge the image into the wood with sharp tools that always need to be re-sharpened. Applying and wiping ink also requires strength. Anne Ryan was 5 feet 10 inches tall.

Anne Ryan #13

In 1948, at age 59, Anne Ryan and her daughter visited the Rose Fried Gallery on 57 Street to see collages by Kurt Schwitters (German, 1887-1948). Elizabeth McFadden said her mother was struck by the abstract form and tactile quality of Schwitters’ collages, saying  – what he (Schwitters) could do in such a small space …how he transformed bits of paper and scraps of cloth! Anne Ryan’s collages are small. It is her homage to Schwitters. Her style was her own. Like Anne Ryan, Schwitters was also a poet and author. Kurt Schwitters is one of the 20thcentury’s greatest collage artists. Read more about Schwitters.   

Anne Ryan’s Untitled #13 (above) is 7 7/8 x 6 ¾ inches, media: cut and pasted colored and printed papers, cloth and crayon on paper (dated 1948), collection: the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Elizabeth McFadden. I love this collage for the layers and texture, and geometric design. Critics say Anne Ryan’s works all have a masterful sense of composition.

I saw 3 collages by Anne Ryan at the Museum of Modern Art’s mega-exhibition Making Space: Women Artists and Abstract Expression. The show included 100 works by 50 artists, all women, who were active during the post war period (1945-1970).

I was very upset to see the following wall text posted next to Anne Ryan’s works:

A poet and longtime resident of Greenwich Village, where her neighbors included many artists and writers associated with the New York School, Ryan began painting at the age of forty-nine. Ten years later, in 1948, an exhibition of work by the German artist Kurt Schwitters inspired Ryan to adopt the medium of collage. Deeply attuned to subtleties in color, texture, and pattern, Ryan achieved rich variation in these small-scale works made from paper, cloth, and found materials such as string, foil, and sandpaper. The all-over compositions and linear movements of the woven, often frayed papers and fabrics evoke the gestural energy of Abstract Expressionism.

Every museum website that includes images by Anne Ryan includes some variation of this text.


A poet and longtime resident of Greenwich Village, where her neighbors included many artists and writers associated with the New York School, Ryan began painting at the age of forty-nine. Ten years later, in 1948, an exhibition of work by the German artist Kurt Schwitters inspired Ryan to adopt the medium of collage. Deeply attuned to subtleties in color, texture, and pattern, Ryan achieved rich variation in these small-scale works made from paper, cloth, and found materials such as string, foil, and sandpaper. The all-over compositions and linear movements of the woven, often frayed papers and fabrics evoke the gestural energy of Abstract Expressionism.

Anne Ryan #175

Every museum website I visit includes this text or a variation on this text. 

Untitled #175 (above) is undated, 4 ½ x 4 ½ inches, media: silk, netting, handmade rag paper and Japanese rice papers. Anne Ryan and many other artists used the handmade papers created by Douglass Morse Howell, an important pioneer in papermaking. Joan Miro, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock and many more artists worked with Howell’s papers – for prints, collage, drawing and watercolors. Anne Ryan also found worn, threadbare fabric scraps in baskets when she visited Howell. She asked for the fabric scraps. They were waiting to be beaten down further because the paper-making process requires a lot of beaten-up fabrics. Read about Howell (1906-1994) and papermaking.

Anne Ryan became a member of the Betty Parsons Gallery in NY and was in shows that exhibited her paintings and collages in 1950 and 1954. Parsons mounted a memorial exhibition for Anne Ryan in 1955, and included Ryan’s collages in another exhibition in 1970. 

In 1951, Anne Ryan was one of seventy artists who participated in the self-organized Ninth Street Show that marked the formal debut of Abstract Expressionism, and the emergence of American art with international influence. Fourteen of the 70 artists, like Anne Ryan, were members of the Betty Parsons Gallery. Male artists in the show, including Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Willem deKooning were reviewed. Anne Ryan’s work was not reviewed. Before the 1970’s wave of feminist writers, curators and activists challenged the male power structure, women artists were ignored and their careers were marginalized. Anne Ryan’s works were small. After Pollock, big was in and small was out.

The poster for the 9thStreet Show includes a hand-written note from Robert Motherwell to Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art – inviting him to see the show. The list of the 70 participating artists included Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, both Elaine and Willem De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Anne Ryan, Tony Smith…

The image above shows a smiling Anne Ryan. I think she is standing on a rooftop. I told the audience the photo was taken in the 1940s (maybe the late 1940s), and Anne Ryan was probably smiling because she had just sold four prints to the Metropolitan Museum of Art – or had just gotten Betty Parsons to come to see her new collages. Notice her ruffled lace collar. Elizabeth McFadden said her mother was part Victorian (she sewed all her clothes) and part modern woman (she was living the life of an artist as a single woman in Greenwich Village). I asked the audience to notice a ship in the photo behind the buildings. Anne Ryan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood was near the Hudson River, and the view directly across the river was Hoboken, NJ. 

The photo is part of the Archive of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC. Elizabeth McFadden donated her mother’s photos, journals, poems, studio and exhibition documents and tools she used for printmaking and collage to the Smithsonian Museum.

Anne Ryan’s family arrived in Hoboken, NJ in 1850, emigrating from County Meith, Ireland. Anne Ryan’s grandmother, Ann Smith, was 18 when she arrived. The family lived in a multi-generation row house on Garden Street in Hoboken. The family was not rich but was comfortably well off. Anne Ryan became an orphan in 1902 at age 13, and her grandmother, Ann Smith, became the most important person in her young life.

Anne Ryan, #6 – Rumpelmayers

The image (above) is an early Anne Ryan collage titled Rumpelmayers.  Elizabeth McFadden said she and her mother visited Rumpelmayers, a fancy tea and pastry café down the street from the Rose Fried Gallery on the last day of the Schwitters show. McFadden said she saw her mother put several cubes of paper-wrapped hard sugar in her pocket – adding – her mother was an avid collector now of things that “might do” – and the wrappers showed up in this collage. The collage Rumpelmayers is in the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

SOLO EXHIBITIONS after 1954

The Brooklyn Museum, NY mounted a solo exhibition – Anne Ryan: Collages, March 24, 1974 – April 21, 1974 with more than 50 collages by the artist.

In 2010, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY mounted a solo show – The Prismatic Eye: Collages by Anne Ryan, 1948-54 (June 4 – September 6, 2010). It included 23 works by the artist. The online text says… Ryan’s earliest collages emulated those by Schwitters – by including snippets of language or bits of discarded materials, like sugar-cube wrapping from New York’s famous Rumpelmayers restaurant, but she abandoned this media in favor of materials that allowed her to focus on collage with a more formal approach to abstraction. 

Anne Ryan #159

Untitled #159, (above) is 4 3/8 x 3 3/8 inches (dated 1948), media: a small piece of text, pale blue grey fabric, and a lot of tiny frayed white and brown pieces of fabric that show thin transparencies and texture. The collage is a horizontal oval mounted on dark tan paper on a white substrate, collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Elizabeth McFadden.

Anne Ryan #534

Untitled #534 (above) is one of my favorite collages by Anne Ryan (dated 1954), 12 9/16 x 9 5/8 inches, paper, fabric, photomechanical reproduction, ink stamp, sand and charcoal on paperboard, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Dc. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1972. I love the texture and geometric design, the ways Anne Ryan organized her media, and the monochromatic tonality of the papers and fabric she used.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

What I most admire about Anne Ryan is how she lived the life she wanted – no matter the obstacles she faced. I admire her creative output: the sheer volume of woodcut prints and collages she produced, and the fact that she exhibited with the most important Abstract Expressionist artists in her time – and she knew them all. I admire her daughter Elizabeth McFadden’s devotion and diligence to keep her mother’s creative memory alive after she died.

I spoke in person on November 22nd, in the midst of COVID 19, wearing a mask with a small audience on site, who were also wearing masks and socially distanced. We knew we are living in the midst of a pandemic. Anne Ryan lived through the Spanish flu, WWI, the Great Depression and WWII. Most of the audience was viewing a virtual presentation. I spoke for an hour and took a lot of questions. See the talk on YouTube.  See my previous post about Anne Ryan, dated December 12, 2018.

I asked Anne Ryan’s grandson, Tom McFadden if the Washburn Gallery is planning another Anne Ryan exhibition. He said one word: COVID. How can anything be planned? I think it’s time.

7 thoughts on “Anne Ryan, American, born Hoboken, NJ (1889-1954)

    1. Hi Neala: Thank you for reading this very long post. I had so many quotes I wanted to include that I found in the PDF memoir by Elizabeth McFadden.I was also thrilled to speak with Anne Ryan’s grandson, Tom McFadden. Anne Ryan is so inspiring.

  1. Hi Nancy: Have you read “Ninth Street Women” by Mary Gabriel? It is a great book about the women abstract expressionist in New York in the 50’s and about their struggles to be recognized by critics and galleries.

    Linda Penrod

    1. Hi Linda: I read Mary Gabriel’s book, and was disappointed she did not mention Anne Ryan – only focused on the women who were either married to the top male AbEx artists or were sleeping with the various other male artists. It’s a hugely popular book and possibly will become a movie. I participated in a book group of women artists and we talked about Gabriel’s book over several meetings. I also read a book about Lee Krasner, written by Gail Levin. Like Gabriel’s book, it includes a lot of the history of the time, the poverty they all lived with during the Depression as starving artists. Levin’s book is a slow read until the midpoint when she gives more personal information about Krasner. She knew her well. You may know that most of the AbEx artists, men and women, were outraged that Krasner controlled Pollock’s estate and got rich in the process. It’s so fascinating to see this new interest in the women artists and the time they lived through. I hope you liked the post. Did you read it all? It was long because I wanted to include Elizabeth McFadden’s quotes and my personal comments.

    2. Hi Linda,
      I read Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel. I am part of an artist’s book group and we spend more than 2 (or 3?) meetings discussing the book. Too bad Gabriel didn’t include Ryan. Probably because she was older than the female cohort. Thanks for your comments.

    1. Thank you Terri for your support and comments in this post and others. I am so inspired by Anne Ryan’s life story and her
      dedication to her art practice. She’s a woman to admire!

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