Category: Obituaries

Pele deLappe: RIP

Life long social realist painter, printmaker and activist, Pele deLappe (pronounced: “Peelee Dahlap”), died from a stroke on Monday, October 1st, 2007, at the age of 91. Ms. deLappe’s art captured the life and times of her native San Francisco during the depression years and beyond, but the universal humanistic themes addressed in her artworks also gave them an eternal quality. She remained active and productive as an artist until the very end.

Painting by Pele deLappe

Self Portrait - Pele deLappe. Oil on board? Date unknown.

Already sketching the people of her city as a precocious 14 year old, deLappe met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera when the famed Mexican artists visited San Francisco in 1930. Rivera had been commissioned to paint murals for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Undoubtedly inspired by the couple and the experience of making drawings with Kahlo, deLappe traveled to New York to attend art school. When she returned to San Francisco in 1934 at the age of 18, she threw herself into the city’s maritime strike, contributing drawings and cartoons to the newspapers of striking workers, getting arrested twice while supporting the work stoppage, and making a series of portrait paintings depicting rank-and-file union members. It would be the beginning of a lifelong commitment to creating social engaged works of art.

Ms. deLappe’s 1937 lithograph titled, Street Scene, is a stunning example of her genius as a printmaker and social commentator. The depression era image depicts a well-heeled woman as she haughtily walks by a legless beggar and a rather tough looking dwarf, who’s counting the handful of change he’s earned from selling newspapers on the street. A nun can be seen in the background - totally indifferent to her abysmal surroundings. But it is deLappe’s composition and handling of the lithograph’s delicate tones and deep shadows that makes the print so hauntingly evocative.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

Street Scene - Pele deLappe. Lithograph 1937.

If I’m not mistaken, Street Scene, was created at the art department of the California Labor School - an institution that in the 1940’s attracted artists like Pablo O’Higgins, Louise Gilbert, Giacomo Patri, and Victor Arnautoff. Faculty from the California Labor School founded the Graphic Arts Workshop in 1952, it was a studio that provided - and continues to offer - facilities and presses to artists interested in traditional methods of printmaking, from lithography to serigraphy (silkscreen). The California Labor School was forced to close in 1957 because of McCarthy era repression - but the Graphic Arts Workshop survived as an independent artist’s printmaking collective. In the late 50’s its artists were creating prints and posters in support of the growing civil rights movement, and in the 1960’s its members turned their skills towards opposing the war in Vietnam.

Another print that I believe deLappe created at the Graphic Arts Workshop is the 1998 lithograph, The Playground, New York City. Here the artist depicted a homeless man sleeping in a cardboard box in the shadow of multi-million dollar corporate office towers. A porn shop called “The Playground” can be seen in the background, its lurid signage advertising adult videos and peepshows.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

The Playground, New York City - Pele deLappe. Lithograph 1998.

I’m delighted to say that works by Ms. deLappe are included in the exhibition, Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905 -1950, a remarkable exhibit now running at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Featuring 163 etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and silkscreen prints from 82 artists such like John Sloan, George Bellows, and Edward Hopper, the exhibit focuses on the period when American modernist artists expressed a progressive idealism and social activism through their art. It is a show that I will most definitely be reviewing on this blog in weeks to come. As fate would have it, Ms. deLappe was interviewed by the Huntington just weeks before her stroke and the opening of Pressed in Time. Her narrative will be included in the show along with her featured works. A detailed obituary for Ms. deLappe appears on the San Francisco Chronicle website.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

Lost in America - Pele deLappe. Lithograph 2006. Created in response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Printmaker and current member of the Graphic Arts Workshop, Anthony Ryan, wrote to inform me that Ms. deLappe’s 1937 Lithograph titled Street Scene, was created while she was attending classes at the Art Students League of New York and not at the Graphic Arts Workshop. A must read article about Pele deLappe appeared in the 2002 edition of MetroActive. The insightful piece, published when deLappe was 86, was in part an interview with the artist. When asked how she found the sense of urgency to respond to current events, deLappe replied: “I don’t have a choice. I’m still alive and still part of society and still an artist. I can’t stop functioning in relation to other people. And - I refuse to take it lying down.”

In 1999, Ms. deLappe published her autobiography - Pele: A Passionate Journey through Art and the Red Press.

Carlos Cortez, Chicano Printmaker -RIP

The Struggle Continues - by Carlos Cortez

Famed Chicano printmaker Carlos Cortez died of heart failure this past January 19th, 2005, at the age of 81. Jailed for 18 months as a conscientious objector during the second world war, Cortez joined the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”), in 1947. He drew illustrations for the IWW paper, The Industrial Worker, from the early 50’s until his last days.

As a resident of Chicago in the early 1970’s, Cortez was part of the Chicano mural movement that painted its visions of struggle and pride on the walls of the windy city. He switched to printmaking after being inspired by the works of the great Mexican printmaker, Jose Guadalupe Posada -and it would be for his woodblock and linoleum prints that Cortez became most well known. He co-founded Movimiento Artistico Chicano (MARCH), the first Mexican American arts organization in Illinois, in 1975.

Around that period Aztec elders gave Cortez the name, Koyokuikatl (Singing Coyote), and ever since the artist signed his prints with an image of a coyote. As a frequent exhibitor at Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Cortez bequeathed over 100 wood and linoleum blocks to the institution. The museum’s president, Carlos Tortolero said of the artist, “As an arts advocate, he argued that art is essential to the human experience.”

Cortez was exhibited in galleries and museums from Mexico to Germany, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Remaining active to the very end, his last project was involvement in a traveling art exhibit and art book on the history of the IWW called Wobblies! -A Graphic History, organized by Paul Buhle.

Ossie Davis -RIP

Brother Ossie Davis has left us. The remarkable actor and civil rights activist passed away at the age of 87 on Friday, February 4th, 2005. He was found in a Miami hotel room while working on a new film titled Retirement. Ossie was married to actress Ruby Dee for more than 50 years, and the couple not only worked together artistically… they struggled together politically. Ossie and Ruby had been involved with the civil rights movement from the very beginning, and Ossie spoke at the funerals of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The eulogy Ossie delivered for Malcolm in February 1965 at the Faith Temple Church of God is one of the most poignant testimonials ever given… and marked a people’s transition from “Negro” to African American. With an acting career that spanned more than half a century, Ossie’s list of accomplishments in movies and television are too numerous to list. He helped combat and destroy the “color line” that kept Black folks off of America’s TV and movie screens. He combined his artistry with a fierce commitment to social justice and peace, and he remained true to those principles his entire life.

Speaking at the historic Riverside Church on March 27th, 2003, just days after the US invaded Iraq, Davis lambasted the war and its supporters by saying, “They have their sense of duty; I have mine. They are loyal to their commander in chief, and I am loyal to mine. My commander in chief is Martin Luther King Jr., and more than 30 years ago he stood in these sacred halls and gave me my marching orders.” Brother Ossie Davis was, and remains, a true man of the people, an artist’s artist.

Compañero Rostgaard, Presente!

My associate Lincoln Cushing wrote to me this afternoon to inform me that famed Cuban poster artist, Alfredo Rostgaard, died this past December 27th. Rostgaard was an extremely talented graphic designer who created posters for the Cuban Film Institute, and from 1960 to 1975 he was the art director of the Organization in Solidarity with Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL).

The brilliant posters of OSPAAAL inspired artists all over the world with their bold designs, and Rostgaard’s contributions to the organization were significant. He created some of the institution’s most well known images. I might add that Cushing is the author of the ultimate illustrated collection of Cuban propaganda art, Revolution!: Cuban Poster Art, a volume that all art lovers should have on their bookshelves.

Critic & Writer Susan Sontag - RIP

Susan Sontag, cultural critic par excellence, died on December 28th at the age of 71. Known as the author of numerous novels, stories, plays, and works of non-fiction, she was also celebrated as a leading commentator on art and aesthetics. Her writings, Against Interpretation, On Style, Notes on Camp and On Photography, significantly influenced modern aesthetic sensibilities. Sontag was also an outspoken feminist activist and opponent of war, with her candor making her a favored target of conservatives. Overseas she was highly regarded as an American intellectual who spoke truth to power (In 2003 Sontag won Germany’s highest literary honor, the German Peace Prize).

Rest In Peace Bernarda Shahn

Lithograph by Bernarda Shahn

Bernarda Bryson Shahn, renowned artist and illustrator and the wife of the famous artist Ben Shahn, has died at the age of 101. She passed away at her artist colony home in Roosevelt New Jersey where she had lived since 1939. Bernarda worked in all mediums, but was perhaps best known for her lithographs. For President Roosevelt’s depression era Resettlement Administration, she created a beautiful suite of lithographs, watercolors, and drawings titled The Vanishing American Frontier (one example shown above).

Bernarda continued painting throughout her life and presented gallery exhibits well into her 90’s. Ben Shahn was well known for his socially conscious paintings and prints. When Bernarda met him in 1932 he was an assistant to the great Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera. From that point on Bernarda and Ben became lifelong companions, marrying in 1969 just before Ben’s death. Their art had a great impact upon me, and their vision helped me to formulate my own ideas concerning a new social realism.