Slums (Untitled), 1957, oil on Masonite, 24 x 20 inches, signed lower left, signed, and dated verso
About the Painting
In Slums (Untitled), Bendor Mark depicts the disturbing consequences of the Housing Act of 1954 which resulted in hundreds of thousands of poor Americans being displaced from their homes and packed into even more crowded inner city neighborhoods. Originally passed as a New Deal Program in 1934 and amended in 1949, the Housing Act was intended to support low-cost housing for underserved citizens. By the mid-1950s, however, the country’s attention turned to urban renewal as a means to revitalize areas that suffered from a reduced tax base caused by a flight to newly build suburbs which could be easily reached through the ever-expanding highway system that was increasingly crowded with family cars made possible by the explosion of wealth created in the post-war period. The 1954 Housing Act provided funding for the acquisition and demolition of “slums” to be replaced by commercial and industrial businesses, rather than new low-cost housing in city centers. By 1957, when Mark painted Slums (Untitled), inner city communities across the country were being displaced in the name of slum clearance and economic revitalization. Mark depicts a bespectacled government official addressing Black and Brown communities literally popping out of their overcrowded and sub-standard housing. The official sits on top of and reads from a stack of books, one with the prominent heading “Slums.” With a grin on his face, the official seems to be pitching the idea that the slum clearance project will be good for the community. The reality would turn out to be very different. Without replacement housing, many poor communities were further packed into even more overcrowded areas of inner cities which lacked government investment and private financial support due to “redlining,” a practice which denied private funding to poor neighborhoods. As Mark noted years later, “I have the ability to foresee the direction of social and political events while they are actually taking place.” In Slums (Untitled), Mark anticipates negative impacts of American urban renewal policies of the 1950s which would only become clear to many other Americans during the long hot summers of the 1960s and early 1970s.
About the Artist
Bendor Mark was an American modernist and social realist painter. Born as Bernard Marcus on June 5, 1912, in Brooklyn, New York, Mark trained at The Cooper Union during the 1920s where he studied with William Brantley van Ingen and became a prize-winning artist with a focus on painting the human figure. After his time at Cooper, Mark continued to live in New York and worked as a commercial artist and textile designer in addition to his pursuit of a career in painting. Like many Depression Era artists, Mark engaged with social progressives and in 1934, he joined the Artist’s Union which had the goal of advancing artists’ position as “worker.” Mark’s painting, Restaurant, which is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, appeared in the February 1936 edition of the Union’s publication, Art Front, as part of a review of an exhibition at ACA Gallery in New York.
Mark worked on the Federal Art Project and by the mid- to late-1930s, began a series of paintings exploring the working conditions and hazards of the mining industry. Mark believed that miners were “in the forefront of the struggle for emancipation” and that the mere “struggle for existence is like moving mountains.” He became passionate about the Spanish Civil War and painted sympathetic images in support of the Spanish Republic. Mark was a premature anti-fascist and throughout his career painted works critical of dictators and other oppressors. During the late 1930s, Mark entered mural competitions with designs influenced by the left-leaning Mexican muralists, taught adult art education in Queens, New York, and was an instructor at the WPA’s Queensboro Art Center. He was so committed to socially progressive art that by 1934, he had changed his name to Bendor Mark, in part, to distinguish his social realist paintings from his earlier work.
During World War II, Mark worked as an artist for military contractors. After the war, he was employed as a graphic artist and in the printing industry before moving to Southern California in 1948, where he returned to a fine art practice the following year with politically and socially charged images which reflected the shortcomings of post-War America, the continued threat of fascism, and the international tensions of the Cold War. As the mood of the country shifted towards the right during the McCarthy Era and the art world’s attention focused on abstraction at the expense of figuration, Mark’s career as a painter suffered. By 1955, his works were no longer being widely accepted to national exhibitions. His canvases became more satirical, strident, and deeply personal.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, Mark continued to depict the events that shaped the world around him, often employing a highly stylized approach characterized by dynamic multi-figure compositions, a subtle muted palette, and exaggerated expressive features. A review of Mark’s oeuvre suggests that few people escaped Mark’s attention. He painted presidents, prime ministers, royalty, evangelists, musicians, and dictators (and their henchman), along with miners, farm workers, the urban poor, protesters, the unemployed and dispossessed. He laid bare the arrogance, cruelty, and hypocrisy of the world’s elites. Mark noted, “A work of art cannot be fully appreciated or wholly understood without considering the socio-political and cultural ambience that gave it birth.” He continued, “I have the ability to foresee the direction of social and political events while they are actually taking place.” He was not himself a direct political activist, however. Although Mark commented, “It’s a misconception to separate art from the social aspect of life,” he viewed artists as being neutral. According to Mark, “An apolitical attitude reflects the fact that the artist is passive. . . An artist never affects society; he merely reflects it.”
In addition to the Mexican Muralists, Mark was influenced by the old masters Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Masaccio, as well as the more modern master, Van Gogh. Mark’s writings directly acknowledge these influences and archival material from his estate includes magazine articles, pamphlets and transparencies related to these artists. Mark also collected materials related to several of his social realist contemporaries, including Reginald Marsh, Ben Shahn, Leonard Baskin, and Raphael Soyer, who was Mark’s good friend. For years, Soyer sent Mark holiday cards and Soyer inscribed a message of friendship on a self-portrait he gifted to Mark in the 1970s, all of which are still held in the collection of Mark’s family.
From the late 1920s through the mid-1950s, Mark’s work was well received. His paintings won prizes and were accepted into major juried exhibitions including at the Brooklyn Museum, the New York World’s Fair and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He gained national recognition for paintings depicting the oppressed and the common worker. Despite the decline in popularity of representative art during the 1950s and 1960s, Mark stayed true to his interest in depicting the human figure and by the last two decades of his life, his work underwent a reassessment as curators included Mark’s paintings in exhibitions showcasing the role of labor in art during the Depression Era. This recognition continued in recent years when Mark was honored by having his work included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s ground-breaking exhibition, Vida Americana, which explored the pioneering role that the Mexican muralists played in the development of modern American art during the inter-war period. The influence of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco on Mark is unmistakable and his paintings from the 1950s (and beyond) sit comfortably in dialogue with other Los Angeles artists who continued to paint in the social realist tradition long after the mainstream art world had moved toward abstraction. Mark’s concern for underserved Brown and Black communities was shared with artists such as Charles White and his ally, Edward Biberman. Moreover, Mark’s stylization of the human form, his tightly packed compositions, and the exaggerated facial expressions of his subjects merit comparison to White’s work from this period.
There is an other worldly quality to Mark’s work which combines elements of social realism, modernism, magic realism and political cartooning. Mark’s synthesis of these genres and the resulting paintings are unique testaments to his distinct artistic vision and the times in which he lived. Many of his paintings have an overt narrative quality with clear references to his subjects and the underlying messages of his art. Once a viewer becomes familiar with the work, Mark’s paintings are immediately recognizable, as no other artist pursued a similar style. Whether portraying the famous, the infamous or the common, Mark’s work leaves little doubt about his concern for the individual and the fundamental rights of humanity. Although many of the topics he depicted were visually hard-hitting and troubling, his goal was to provide a sense of “hope, dignity, and a determination to better things.” He was an intellectual artist. Mark stated, “Painting for me is more than meets the eye, its what’s on the brain.” For Mark, his observations of the world around him where just as valid as any essay, lecture, or scholarly book and he prophesized that if the world did not destroy itself in a nuclear holocaust, then his paintings would forever be a part of American history.
Mark is listed in Who was Who in American Art and other standard references, and his paintings are in the permanent collections of major institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Butler Institute of American Art. Mark’s paintings have rarely been offered and no major paintings have been presented at auction. For the first time, Mark’s family is making a selection of paintings available to collectors and institutions through CW American Modernism. We are proud to bring Mark’s unique and thought-provoking images to the art community.