Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sunday at the CCP for the WPA*JOBS Show

On view through May 23, 2015

Gallery Loan Exhibition:

CCP executive director and exhibition curator Laura Einstein selected the show from our extensive WPA-era collection. A percentage of the proceeds of sales from the exhibition will be donated to the Center.

Link to Gallery Site for Show Loans:

Center for Contemporary Printmaking,
299 West Avenue, Norwalk, CT.
The Center is located in the old carriage house of the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion.

The show features prints made in the WPA-era. Louis Schanker and Lynd Ward, who served as supervisors of the relief division in NYC, are both featured, as are Will Barnet, Riva Helfond, Michael J. Gallagher, and Harry Sternberg, who also held teaching or administrative positions. In addition to New York, Pennsylvania, California, and Ohio are also represented.

Below is a selection of remarks from my talk on Sunday, April 19:

The Michael J. Gallagher, Boot-Leg Coal, 1935, speaks to the desperate situation in which so many Americans found themselves. For all the heartbreak and tragedy that was to follow, those terrible years of the 1930s never fail to tug at our collective memory – they effected every family in different ways but their lasting effects are equally profound.

Michael J. Gallagher, Boot-Leg Coal, 1935

People on the WPA were employees of the Federal Government. The New Deal programs were wide reaching and varied. It became the largest employer in the country -- building or repairing hospitals, schools, bridges, dams, playgrounds, swimming pools and wading pools, and over 600 and 50 thousand miles of highways and roads. It is still a wonder that artists were included along with engineers and authors, map makers and ditch diggers, but it is thanks to one man, FDR’s fellow Groton classmate, the artist George Biddle. Biddle reminded Roosevelt that artists are workers too.

The many art programs in New York City included mural painting, easel painting, photography, and printmaking. Printmaking was under the direction of Gustave von Groschwitz. It was further divided into lithography, intaglio (that is etching and engraving), relief printing which is to say woodcut and linocut, and serigraphy.

Each workshop in each town operated in its own way, but in general an artist would make a print and submit it for consideration. If the subject was approved for publication, it would be printed in an edition, usually 25 impressions, and then sent to public institutions such as libraries and schools. It is thanks to this practice that there are still troves of this material to be found across the country, especially in libraries. In New York the artist personally received three impressions; some other cities allowed only one. Also New York used a varied of ink stamps – usually with the words “Federal Art Project.” This stamp appears several times in this exhibition, but its use was not consistent. It’s generally placed at the lower left, just under the image, but sometimes it’s on the back of the sheet at the center, and there are many WPA prints without the stamp. Some cities used a blind stamp and others such as Philadelphia never seem to have ever had a stamp at all.

Artists like Will Barnet or Harry Sternberg, both teachers at the Art Students League, could be brought on for special roles and so by-pass the means test. This provided a large pool of trained teachers and administrative personnel. Furthermore artists like Sternberg were still free to submit proposals to the Treasury Department. He, Hugh Mesibov, Louis Lozowick, and others also worked on enormous mural projects.

In NY, with the large pool of applicants, many from other states, the WPA was able to diversify and thrive, while the typical artists’ network, a huge web of connections, grew. Riva Helfond (one of the less than 14% of WPA employees who were female) was among the women who benefited from the program and in turn she made an enormous contribution. She not only made prints published by the WPA but was hired as a master printer and teacher of lithography at the Harlem Arts Center. There she mentored Robert Blackburn who would later start the Printmaking Workshop with Will Barnet. At the League she was instrumental in guiding Sternberg to the anthracite-mining region of northeastern Pennsylvania and he in turn took many of his students there. The etchings and lithographs they produced, the urban or industrial views of work sites and weary laborers, are accepted as hallmarks of WPA printmaking. Further, the images clearly resonated in a country where unemployment had reached 25%.

The modernism found in Louis Lozowick and Hyman Warsagers’ lithographs also flourished in New York‘s Relief Division. Run by the printmaker and sculptor Louis Schanker along with the book artist Lynd Ward, their shop produced innovative and ambitious prints that paved the way for a woodcut revival in the 1940s and 50s.

The California-born woodcut artist Fred Becker made loose open linocuts as well as incredibly detailed wood engravings. He had friends from other WPA divisions – especially the artist Abe Hirschfeld and actor Zero Mostel. Becker, who said he had taken a Pauper’s oath to be accepted, remembered the joy of getting a weekly paycheck and felt enormously fortunate. At the end of the week he usually had enough left over to buy a bottle of wine and a jazz record. Nationally the average salary was $41.57 a month (or $2 a day), but it varied by location and specific role.  

The serigraphy or screenprinting division was the brainchild of Anthony Velonis. He had encountered the medium while working for a wallpaper manufacturer and then was able to suggest its use as a creative process on Mayor LaGuardia’s Poster Project that pre-dated the WPA. He then re-introduced the medium on the WPA and was given his own division. He brought it up yet a third time, to make posters while he was in the Army. Serigraphs featured in-expensive equipment, true colors, and a short learning curve.

Philadelphia’s workshop was particularly successful. The director was Michael J. Gallagher. He came from the same Pennsylvania Scottish-Irish American mining communities that captured the imagination of Sternberg and his Art Students League classes. Trained at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, he and his wife had supported their family through the 1920s by doing artwork for magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal and the New Yorker. As the Depression worsened their income dwindled, but as an already skilled printmaker he was an ideal candidate for the role of head of the WPA printmaking shop.

In an unusual move, he shared this role – he made Hugh Mesibov, of eastern European-Jewish background, and Dox Thrash, an African-American, his co-directors – a rare example of ethnically diverse authority. Further he encouraged them to bring in other artists they knew and so Black artists like Claude Clark and Raymond Steth found a welcome.

The shop thrived. Gallagher, Mesibov and Thrash together developed an entirely new printmaking process, the carborundum print, using the industrial abrasive that had been donated for grinding down the stones. The carborundum print was a medium perfectly suited to their industrial yet intimate subject matter. The US Government recognized their success when their shop was selected to represent the WPA in a travelling exhibition to Mexico in 1942. The other side of the story is that very, very few women show up on the Philadelphia roles. 

Cuts to the programs were made as early as 1937 and were firmly in place by 1939. And as the country anticipated the war and the economy improved, this pressure to shut down the New Deal projects became more intense. By 1942 the pink slips went out to most workers. At best the programs had reached about 25% of the unemployed. By 1943 the WPA (now under the title Works Projects Administration) was completely over and the country was geared up to make military equipment and to fight the Second World War.