On a recent early spring afternoon, pedestrians on Manhattan’s East 72nd Street moved quickly: Kids walked home from school, workers shuffled back from work, and Upper East Siders took their dogs on brisk walks. In typical New York fashion, few people slowed to look at the ground, but underneath their feet, the signatures of eight historic women artists lay carved into the concrete.
Artist Sarah Peter transformed the otherwise unassuming sidewalk outside of her home, on 72nd between Second and Third Avenues, in 1999. During a renovation, she commissioned calligrapher Barry Morentz to transpose the signatures of artists Angelica Kauffman, Isabel Bishop, Camille Claudel, Sofonisba Anguissola, Mary Cassatt, Gwen John, Berthe Morisot, and Rosa Bonheur into the wet cement.
“I wanted to slow it down and say, ‘These are names we should all know,'” Peter told Hyperallergic. “We know van Gogh, we know Gauguin, we know van Dyck, we know Vermeer.” Peter had been considering the work of the Guerilla Girls and wanted to shed light on women artists who have too often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries. The women she chose lived and worked from the 16th through the 20th centuries.
It took Morentz about an hour to transpose the names onto the sidewalk. “You have some time,” Peter said. “If you make a mistake you can erase it.” Peter remembered the contractors huddled around to admire Morentz’s work.
“It was so cool to watch,” she said.
In the 24 years since Morentz etched the signatures, Peter says only one person has recognized the easy-to-miss tribute: An art teacher walking by who had stopped to read the names inscribed in the concrete. When people ask her what the engravings mean, she points to Mary Cassatt as a clue. “Because she’s the most known,” Peter said.
As for her favorite signature, Peter is partial to that of Gwen John, a Welsh painter who lived in France and created quietly profound portraits of herself and other women.
“But they’re all artists I deeply admire,” Peter said.