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America Coast to Coast: Artists of the 1930s (Essay)

Jason (Jessie) Herron (1900 – 1984) Winged Male Figure, c. 1930s, polychrome bas-relief of cast aggregate, 12 x 26 inches

America Coast to Coast: Artists of the 1930s reflects the breadth and depth of our nation’s artistic output during the seminal years of the Great Depression.

In many ways, modern America was forged during this time of hardship and hope. Between the Wall Street crash in 1929 and the US entry into World War II in 1941, America’s will was tested like no other time since the Civil War. It was a time of unimaginable unemployment which reached nearly 25% in 1933, environmental devastation in the Dust Bowl and parts of the American South, wide-spread hunger and massive population dislocations as Black communities fled to the North in search of civil rights and economic opportunity, the underprivileged and dispossessed voted with their tired and barely shod feet to look for a better life in the West and many ordinary citizens shifted back and forth between countryside and city. Politically, the country was divided between Conservatives and Progressives, Isolationists and Interventionists, New Dealers and hardline Hoover Republicans. It was a time when America had Socialists, Communists, Anarchists and Fascists.

World War II started in Asia at the beginning of the decade in 1931 with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and in Europe in 1936 when Francisco Franco, with the support of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini's Italy, rebelled against the democratically elected government of Republican Spain. Throughout much of the 1930s, many wondered whether America would hold together or fray at the seams, eventually succumbing to the dual international threats of Communism and Fascism and the domestic threats of fear and want. But, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership, an alphabet soup of New Deal programs and in no small part due to the retooling of American industry leading into World War II, liberal democracy prevailed in the United States and set the stage for what many would call The American Century.

In this context of conflict and challenge American artists struggled to create. Many quit as they failed to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. By 1934, however, with the establishment of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) which was followed by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Federal Art Project (FAP), the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (Section) and Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), as well as smaller art projects tucked within other New Deal Programs, artists, both talented and untalented, became workers who received a modest barely living wage from the Federal government. Artists also became administrators, teachers and gallerists in addition to creators. They formed associations and networks sharing their interests and their craft within local, regional and even national communities.

As artists came home from Europe, they returned to towns and cities across the country and searched for a usable past. They looked to historic precedents as diverse as Native American and Mesoamerican material culture and the artifacts of the Colonial Era. They also looked to the metropolis with its tall buildings, long bridges, whirling machinery, engineering marvels and seething waves of humanity. The uniquely American spirit often embodied by the rural landscape and its people held sway for many as Regionalism gained purchase, while others worked in Social Realist and Expressionist modes depicting the tough, the gritty, the lonely, the forgotten and those on the margins of society. Under the influence of Mexico’s Los Tres Grandes, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, art became a mainstream vehicle for story telling and propaganda, as public murals spread across the country.

Despite the protests of some, European modernist influences continued to permeate American art as Cubism, Purism, New Objectivity and particularly, Surrealism found their way into studios and galleries across the nation. Hard-edged, biomorphic and pure abstraction also come of age during the 1930s. Although there was a degree of national coherence of philosophy and style driven largely by the network of major museums, art publications, critics and a growing number of important galleries in major cities across the country, it was also a time of local and regional variation as artists were influenced by the unique topography, flora, fauna and history of their surroundings, as well as their local teachers and art schools. In retrospect, it is hard to find a time in American history when art mattered so much to society and society mattered so much to artists.

Together with its companion exhibition Connected by Creativity: WPA Era Works from the Collection of Leata and Edward Beatty Rowan, which launched in late June, America Coast to Coast, focuses on artists from across the country who worked in a variety of media, genres and styles. The thirty-plus works in America Coast to Coast were created by painters and sculptors from thirteen different states and reflect many of the regional and stylistic variations that existed during the 1930s.

Roughly half the works are from West Coast artists based in California, Oregon and Washington. Being far away from traditional East Coast art centers, West Coast practitioners were free to explore their local environments and influences. Standish Backus, Jrs.’ Trailbreakers celebrates the beauty of the mountain West with clearly defined and mysterious shadows punctuating an otherwise bright sun-filled landscape, while Frances Baldwin’s gem-like Yellow Hills explores the dusty arid slopes of California’s ranchlands. Her desolate vista and totemic tree stumps suggest a western version of the type of Magic Realism practiced by Gertrude Abercrombie.

Robert Bruce Inverarity, Washington State’s Director of the Federal Art Project, draws on material culture from the Haida and other Native American peoples. In Northwest Coast Indian Forms, Inverarity cleverly combines native imagery with early hard-edged abstraction, resulting in a uniquely West Coast form of Modernism that predates the East Coast Indian Space painters by at least several years. Another modernist composition, Ruth Powers Ortlieb’s striking Bird on a Thermos Bottle, was exhibited in 1940 at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, the West Coast answer to the New York World’s Fair. With its precisely defined and simplified natural forms, Ortlieb’s painting draws on the same sources as the work of fellow California women painters Helen Lundeberg and Henrietta Shore. Frank Tolles Chamberlin’s Mack was also exhibited at the Golden Gate International Exposition and reflects the artist’s ability mediate between traditional portraiture and modern trends during the late 1930s.

Scenes of San Francisco, Los Angeles and their environs include Hedvig Armendinger’s Workers, Tom Craig’s Sunset Lumber and James Hollins Patrick’s Factory Worker. A trio of sculptors working in these cities demonstrates the variety of perspectives and media present on the West Coast. Jason (Jessie) Heron was the Sculpture Supervisor for the WPA in Los Angeles, an unfortunately all too rare honor for a women during the 1930s. Her polychrome bas-relief Winged Male Figure is a streamlined art deco-influenced tour de force. From a second woman sculptor, San Francisco-based Avis Zeidler’s Kossack, is a monolithic modernist image derived from Eastern and Mediterranean traditions. Using a direct carving technique, Zeidler explores similar artistic territory as her teachers, Ralph Stackpole and William Zorach.

The last of the trio is Philip Paval. In the mid-1930s, Paval, a Los-Angeles-based jeweler and silversmith, bid on a blind lot of metal. Much to his chagrin, the winning bid was for a box of sheet brass, rather than silver. Deciding to make the best of the situation, Paval created around twenty sheet brass constructions during the mid to late 1930s, many celebrating themes close to the hearts of Angelenos – Cinema, Dance, Hollywood, Radio. Included in Coast to Coast America is Paval’s salute to music with its cutout conductor and notes symbolized by arcing wires, all set against a starburst background that puts us in mind of a summer evening at the Hollywood Bowl.

The Exhibition includes public works project mural studies by two West Coast artists, Edward Biberman and John Ballator. A transplant from Philadelphia by way of Paris and New York, Biberman became one of California’s most significant modernists whose reputation was built in part as a muralist who exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers. Coast to Coast includes a charming easel painting of workers and two studies Biberman completed for the Treasury Department’s Section of Section of Fine Arts competition for the San Pedro, California Post Office in 1936-7. The exhibition also includes Portland-based John Ballator’s egg tempera study, Industry and Commerce, a classic New Deal Era scene which honors both labor and capital. A final mural study in the exhibition comes from Indiana artist Cecil Head. A delightful regionalist composition, Head’s mural study features a tidy and verdant farmscape where the animals outnumber the farmer and remind us of the idealized fecundity of the American Midwest.

Other Midwestern artists include a pair of Ohio painters. Reginald Grooms’ Refreshment and Intermission is a prime example of the interest many artists had to paint the unique American Scene in their own home region. In this case, Grooms featured Pennsylvania's Amish community as the backdrop for a Renaissance influenced, but decidedly rural American Last Supper. This painting was part of a series of egg tempera works Grooms created in the late 1930s, including The Bridegroom Toss, which was exhibited in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The other Ohio artist represented in the exhibition is Joseph (Green) Butler III, Director of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown. Butler’s Knight’s Lodging is a cheeky play on words and symbols as the artist portrays an unhoused man assuming the part of a knight contemplating his evening’s accommodations in an abandoned carpenter gothic railroad depot.

Canvases by Minnesota’s Lois Wilde Hartshorne and Oklahoma’s Charles W. Adams demonstrate the diversity of approach and subject matter during the period. Hartshorne’s New Road is a spare modernist work composed in light almost pastel-like colors which depict rural development during the New Deal with a diesel tractor, a team of horses and a handful of workers laboring in the Minnesota summer. In contrast, Charles W. Adams, Jefferson Market Library, is a detailed scene painted with a deeply saturated pallete of one of New York’s iconic structures, a subject that was also tackled by Stuart Davis, Francis Criss and scores of other artists.

Midwesterners with ties to the Kansas City Art Institute, a major training ground for American Scene painters, include Edward Laning and Joseph Meert. Like Grooms, Laning drew deeply on Renaissance traditions for his Prairie Woman – Portrait of Elizabeth Nottingham, an authentic and heartfelt depiction of the artist’s lover and fellow student at New York’s Art Students League. Nottingham posed in costume for Laning as part of Kenneth Hayes Miller’s mural class and the portrait then passed through Nottingham’s heirs. Meert’s Goldmine, Central City, Colorado is a major work from the artist’s most desirable period. It depicts the decrepit and lonely Colorado town which had nearly a century earlier been heralded as the richest square mile on Earth. Against the backdrop of the towering gold mine, is a mother and child trudging up a dirt road. Although the town experienced a brief revival as the price of gold rose during the Great Depression, it does not appear that wealth had trickled down to this solitary pair.

Philadelphia-based Stella Drabkin’s Mother and Child also concerns the same familiar relationship. Drabkin, a Jewish woman, was unusual in her time for painting working class Black communities in Philadelphia. Although many of Drabkin’s compositions are lighthearted and action-packed American Scene paintings, Mother and Child is a quiet contemplation of a front porch Madonna and Child rendered with the Eastern Orthodox sensibility of a religious icon.

Examples of Modernism in America Coast to Coast come from George Biddle and Hananiah Harari. Chronologically, Biddle’s 1927 Winter fittingly begins the exhibition. From a wealthy Philadelphia family, Biddle was a school mate of FDR and served as the primary catalyst for the public works art programs which became a hallmark of American Depression Era art. Visually, Winter also provides a good starting point with its focus on the grandeur of the American landscape painted in edited, stylized, and abstracted patterns typical of early American Modernism. By 1939 when Hananiah Harari completed Abstract Street, a small but influential group of artists, mainly working in New York, had moved away from mimetic representation of any kind. Harari was an early member of the American Abstract Artists which was founded in 1936 to provide a forum for abstraction in the US. With its large blocks of color, incised lines and pictographic images of stylized birds, planes and people, Abstract Street is a prime example of Harari’s abstract work from this period.

Any exhibition of 1930s American art would be incomplete without depictions of Labor. Leon Bibel’s Flagbearers is arguably one of the most stereotypical images in America Coast to Coast. The artist was a committed Leftist and much of his art addressed concerns for workers, in this case, adopting overt references to Soviet Social Realism. Less heroic, but no less impactful, is Alexis Many’s Quarry Workers in which the laborers mirror and even merge into their surroundings in both form and palette. Nearly a generation older than many of the artists in the exhibition, Many’s style changed dramatically in the final years of life during the early 1930s as he came under the influence of the Mexican muralists and dedicated himself to depicting what some critics called “grim” scenes. The workers in Ernest Stock’s widely exhibited and award-winning Subway Construction take us back to the metropolis as we have a bird’s eye view of the construction of the 8th Avenue train line, which The New York Times’ Howard Devree described as “clever and well designed.”

Not all art in America Coast to Coast addressed the existential political, economic, and social issues of the day. Particularly as the most significant deprivations began to ease toward the end of the 1930s, some artists explored the pleasures and distractions of everyday life in America. Whether depicting a shopping trip in Indiana, a game of horseshoes on the commons of a New England hamlet, or the day the circus comes to town, artists like Lorena Phemister, Louis Durchanek, and Millard Sheets turned their gaze to easily digestible quotidian scenes.


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