Category: Social Realism

Art Is For Everyone!

On September 27, 2013 the “liberal” American magazine, The New Republic, published an article by its editor-at-large Michael Kinsley. In the piece titled If They Replaced Detroit’s Art Treasures with Fakes, Would Anyone be Able to Tell?, Kinsley suggested that a proposal made by Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield 30 years ago might be the solution to the crisis at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Banfield had written that museum collections should be sold off and replaced by reproductions, his logic being that most people would not know the difference. Kinsley remarked that personally he “certainly couldn’t” tell the difference, and then went on to add his own smug ignorance to Banfield’s bottomless pit of philistinism by adding that fakes placed in the DIA would not even have to be good quality reproductions.

Kinsley claimed that “most people’s appreciation of art” comes from seeing “posters or postcards or beach towels or t-shirts,” and he concluded his piece of writing with the tongue in cheek intimation that the DIA’s masterworks could be replaced “secretly” by making “the switcheroo late one night.” Kinsley was being facetious of course, but his flippancy masked a barely concealed contempt for art and its enthusiasts. Kinsley neglected to mention that Edward Banfield was also opposed to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and that he was an advisor to Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. So much for liberalism.

But there is a precedent to the boorish notions of Banfield and Kinsley. At the end of 1962 the Louvre in Paris loaned Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the U.S. government for exhibit in the United States. The painting was endlessly hyped by the media, resulting in a sort of frenzy, or what arts writer and social historian Robert Hughes came to call, the Mona Lisa Curse.

On January 8, 1963 the Mona Lisa went on view at the National Gallery in the nation’s capital; U.S. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson were in attendance. The painting itself was given Secret Service protection at the same level ordinarily given to presidents. On February 4, 1963, the Mona Lisa went on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where during a three and a half week run, over one million people shuffled by the celebrated oil painting. When hearing that the Mona Lisa was coming to America, Andy Warhol made the oafish wisecrack, “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.”

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight apparently could not countenance Kinsley’s foolishness, and so fired a metaphorical “shot across the bow” at The New Republic’s editor-at-large titled, A suggestion to replace art with reproductions in bankrupt Detroit. Knight’s withering screed berated Kinsley for adding to the “rich tradition of know-nothings writing about art and museums,” and for advocating “Art for the aristocrats, reproductions for the peasants.”

Though I agreed with much of what Knight wrote, he concluded that Kinsley’s piece failed as satire because it labored under “the common misconception that art is for everyone, even though it isn’t. Art is not for everyone (that would be TV), it’s for anyone - which is not the same thing.” In those words I find an assessment as absurd as Kinsley’s. Knight contradicts himself by admonishing Kinsley for having an aristocratic view of art, then proceeds to express what is the quintessential patrician view of art - it is not for everyone.

I have no regard for the works of postmodern artist Tracey Emin, who I am told is one of Britain’s greatest living artists and a “leading light” in the circle of bloated art star frauds nicknamed the “Young British Artists.” But after she received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) at the investiture ceremony held on March 7, 2013 at Buckingham Palace in London, Emin said: “I think that art’s for everybody and everybody’s entitled to the best culture, the best literature, the best education, the best that everyone can have.” Emin, who has declared herself to be a royalist, voted for the Conservatives in the 2010 election, and accepted a commission from Tory Prime Minister David Cameron to create an installation piece for 10 Downing Street.  She can proclaim that “art is for everybody,” but the art critic at the “liberal” L.A. Times declares the exact opposite. My goodness… the world has been turned upside down.

If “art is not for everyone” as Mr. Knight tells us, why then is it part of the core curriculum of the U.S. public education system? Should we stop teaching children about art? Art education in U.S. public schools has suffered brutal cutbacks for the last few decades, and Mr. Knight’s unhelpful proclamation only serves to place the finishing touches on its demise. My point is that we are not born with language and writing skills anymore than we have an inborn sophisticated appreciation of art and aesthetics… all of these things are obtained through education and socialization. If, for whatever reason, we stopped teaching children the use of language and writing, we would not have to wait long to see the harmful results. Curtailing or eliminating arts education in American schools will have no less a detrimental outcome.

Knight rebukes Kinsley for his “slide into phony populism” and then stakes out the anti-egalitarian position for himself by writing: “a great thing about democracy is that it aspires to create opportunities for anyone to become an elitist (….) That’s a primary reason we even have places like the Detroit Institute of Arts.” Actually no, the great thing about democracy is that it takes power from the hands of elites and places it in the hands of ordinary people, at least in theory it does. I do not call for the defense of the DIA because it helps to develop and maintain elitism, I support the museum because making a great collection of art accessible to everyday working people is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society.

Kinsley’s open contempt towards art and its aficionados, and Knight’s doggedness that “art is not for everyone” are both unwise if not laughable positions. I find them irksome because I have always believed and advocated that art is for everyone. I say this not as an activist, a trendy dilettante, an academic, or God forbid, a bourgeois art critic. I make the pronouncement as an artist who has been creating drawings, prints, and paintings his entire life.

A foundation of this conviction of mine is partly based upon seeing how art and culture has operated on a grass-roots level in the Mexican American community. “Making due with what you have” is a partial definition for “rasquache,” a Chicano term that describes an aesthetic of necessity and defiance. Rasquache sprang from poor barrios where working class people had few resources and even less access to art, at least how the dominant society defined art. Creating something out of nothing was rasquache, it was a “people’s art” made by those untrained in art, and it became a primary force in Chicano art and aesthetics.

In this short interview with Dr. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, a foremost scholar of Chicano and U.S. Latino art, we are given a clear definition of rasquachismo and how it has shaped working class Chicano culture. Ybarra-Frausto makes clear that rasquache is not analogous to the kitsch or low-brow art of the postmodern “avant-garde.” Rasquache has a class dimension, it is rooted in poor Chicano communities and has always been a form of cultural resistance to the dominant society.

During the Chicano Arts Movement of the late 1960s, artists embraced rasquache and exalted the sleek modernist lines and intricate paint jobs of low-rider cars, the altars and religious icons of pious Catholics, the uniquely ornate placas (graffiti) found on the street, the attire of Cholos wearing button down flannel shirts with bandanas around their foreheads, the “Mom & Pop” storefronts painted in bright colors, the iconography of pre-Columbian civilizations and the Mexican Revolution, and so much more. Chicano artists were stirred by the life found in their communities, and they distilled that experience into a unique aesthetic. Those artistic sensibilities still largely imbue and guide contemporary Chicano art.

Rasquache is a word that once referred to things tawdry and cheap, but its meaning was changed in the late 60s to describe the assortment of visual cues, histories, and cultural identifiers that made up the new Chicano aesthetic. At the time there was an explosion of murals, theater pieces, and posters that were rooted in rasquache sensibilities, works that sought to uplift, beautify, defend, and unite the Mexican American community through art. This is something my friend and artistic associate Gilbert “Magú” Luján (RIP) discussed with me on more than a few occasions. Artists like Magú felt that art was for, and sprang from, the community. Mexican Americans have developed their art and culture from the ground up, nurturing and cultivating it even as it was denied a place in America’s cultural institutions. To Chicanos, Knight’s proclamation that “art is not for everyone” sounds not only ridiculous, but discriminatory.

But there was another dimension to the Chicano Art Movement in the late 1960s. We were inspired by the likes of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros of the Mexican Muralist School. Those artists created public works in the belief that art was for everyone, and that working people would be enriched by interactions with art. Though snubbed today by those who spout postmodern gobbledygook, that democratic impulse in art still survives.

I must remind the “art is not for everyone” crowd of the 1932 América Tropical mural created in Los Angeles by Siqueiros. Preserved in situ by the Getty Conservation Institute, the mural on L.A.’s downtown Olvera Street now has its own museum, which opened to the public in October, 2012 to great acclaim. América Tropical is one of L.A.’s finest historic examples of art being for everyone; it is a work that birthed a new phase in American muralism that eventually led to Los Angeles becoming the “mural capital of the world” by the early 1970s.

In some quarters art has become a cynical intellectual exercise that is incomprehensible without an art degree and knowledge in dubious and obscurest theories. Things are really much simpler; making and appreciating art is what makes us human. Art is but one facet of an ordered human community, it has always been so. If you want to know what mathematics are all about, you might want to ask a mathematician. If curious about the stars in the heavens, talk to an astronomer. It follows that if you want to know about art, you should ask an artist.

Leave the critics to argue amongst themselves.

Maurice Merlin & the Black Legion

Starting January 19, 2013 and running until April 15, 2013, Maurice Merlin and the American Scene, 1930–1947 will be on display at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Tracking the life and times of artist Maurice Merlin, the Huntington exhibit is the very first museum presentation of the artist’s works, even though he passed away sixty-six years ago.

The Huntington Library presented Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950, a first-rate showing (Oct. 6, 2007 to Jan. 7, 2008), that gave ample evidence of the influence and moral authority the school of American Social Realism once enjoyed in the United States. Maurice Merlin and the American Scene, 1930–1947 is a comparable exhibit, though on a smaller scale.

That Merlin’s work remains unknown gives evidence to the ahistorical nature of the contemporary art scene; The Huntington show is the perfect antidote. The exhibit includes some 30 works by the artist covering a wide range of mediums - oils, watercolors, screen prints, drawings, woodcuts, and lithographs. The show also includes nine works by other artists who were part of Merlin’s circle in Detroit. He was not just another “American scene” painter; The Huntington aptly described Merlin as a “Depression-era artist with a political edge.”

Maurice Merlin moved to Detroit Michigan in 1936 when the U.S. was in the throes of the Great Depression, and he found the Motor City beleaguered by social chaos and poverty, but Detroit also had much to offer an artist with a critical vision. Visiting the city four years ahead of Merlin, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted his Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts between the years 1932 and 1933. There is little doubt Merlin kept a sharp eye on Detroit’s intricate political landscape and social dynamics, or that he was inspired by Rivera’s murals.

In Merlin’s Detroit, workers were unemployed in the hundreds of thousands, the city’s African American population suffered the twin scourges of privation and racist oppression, and auto workers were launching massive strikes for better working conditions and the right to organize unions. Impoverished and unable to find work, Merlin found employment with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Like many artists of his generation, he began to document the social realities engulfing the nation and the world; his Black Legion Widow linoleum cut print displayed at The Huntington exhibit was one such work.

"Black Legion Widow" - Maurice Merlin. Linocut. 8 x 6 in. 1936. In this linoleum cut, Merlin depicted the widow Rebecca Poole, whose husband Charles Poole, had been assassinated in Detroit, Michigan on May 13, 1936 by the Black Legion terror group.

"Black Legion Widow" - Maurice Merlin. Linocut. 8 x 6 in. 1936. In this linoleum cut, Merlin depicted the widow Rebecca Poole, whose husband Charles Poole, had been assassinated in Detroit, Michigan on May 13, 1936 by the Black Legion terror group.

Though not especially indicative of Merlin’s oeuvre, Black Legion Widow is the one print from the exhibit that I wish to focus on in this review. While the narrative realism of the artist’s oil paintings and lithographs may provide a greater appreciation of Merlin’s artistic skills and accomplishments, Black Legion Widow is a consummate example of American social realism in that it captured real world events the artist was closely involved with.

While The Huntington is to be applauded for showing Maurice Merlin’s Black Legion Widow, the museum did not have much to say about the print or the history behind it, hence my compulsion to write this article.

It is my guess that the vast majority of Americans today have no idea what the Black Legion was, but in the 1930s the group grew to be worrisome national headline news familiar to tens of millions. Merlin’s print helps to reveal that part of American history no one can afford to forget. Lamentably, what the print says about America’s not so distant past continues to resonate in our all too uncertain present.

The Black Legion were a shadowy right-wing terror group that operated in Michigan and neighboring states in the 1930s. The Legion boasted six million members, but whatever their numbers, the organization considered it a holy mission to wage war against communists, socialists, anarchists, union organizers, Catholics, immigrants, and every other group the Legion considered undesirable. In their own words, the Black Legion opposed “all aliens, Negros, Jews, and cults and creeds believing in racial equality or owning allegiance to any foreign potentate.” [1]

New Legionnaires made an oath when submitting to the group’s initiation rites. Under cover of darkness an applicant got down on his knees while surrounded by black-robed Legionnaires. As the aspiring member knelt a pistol was aimed at his heart as he recited the official vows; “I will exert every possible means in my power for the extermination of the anarchists, Communists, the Roman hierarchy and their abettors. I further pledge my heart, my brain, my body and my limbs never to betray a comrade and that I will submit to all the tortures that mankind can inflict and suffer the most horrible death rather than reveal a single word of this, my oath.” [2]

In this 1936 image from the photo agency, Acme News Photos (ACME), Detroit police officers pose with weapons and regalia seized from Black Legion terrorists. The officers, dressed in the black robes and pirate hats of the Legionnaires, display a captured lever-action rifle, a .45 caliber 1911 pistol, and a leather whip used to flog victims. The image was an ACME "press photo" circulated to various news publications in '36. Photographer unknown.

In this 1936 image from the photo agency, Acme News Photos (ACME), Detroit police officers pose with weapons and regalia seized from Black Legion terrorists. The officers, dressed in the black robes and pirate hats of the Legionnaires, display a captured lever-action rifle, a .45 caliber 1911 pistol, and a leather whip used to flog victims. The image was an ACME "press photo" circulated to various news publications in '36. Photographer unknown.

Obdurately believing that the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt was “Marxist” and bent on destroying America, the Black Legion prepared for armed insurrection against the U.S. government. The group enlisted white Southerners who were streaming into Detroit, looking for work in the steel and auto industries.

Operating mostly at night, Legionnaires wore black robes and pirate hats emblazoned with skull-and-crossbones insignia - they implemented their political agenda through beatings, floggings, arson attacks, bombings, and outright murder.

For those reared on Disney’s frothy Pirates of the Caribbean adventure franchise, the Black Legion’s pirate regalia may seem nothing more than buffoonery, but in the 1930s the general public’s view of the iconic pirate was a darker vision shaped by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island. Up until 1929 Stevenson’s book inspired no less than twenty-two Hollywood films about ruthless pirates. Surely Black Legionnaires saw themselves as the same type of menacing outlaw buccaneers defying all authority.

Prior to Diego Rivera’s visitation to Detroit, Earl Little, a Baptist minister and supporter of the Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, died of mysterious circumstances. Little had been the target of Ku Klux Klan harassment before, but when the minister moved his family to Lansing, Michigan, they came under Black Legion persecution. When the family home was burned down in 1929, Little blamed the Legionnaires. In 1931 Detroit police reported that Earl Little had been run over and killed by a street car, but witnesses say he was pushed into harm’s way. Little’s son Malcolm, who years later became Malcolm X, insisted his father had been murdered by Black Legionnaires. [3]

Diego Rivera’s murals were based on the Ford Motor Company’s huge River Rouge factory located in Dearborn, Michigan. On March 7, 1932, just six weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit, thousands of unemployed workers demanding jobs and union representation held what they called the “Ford Hunger March” on the River Rouge factory. Dearborn police and Ford “private security” fired on the unarmed demonstrators, killing five and wounding up to 50; no one was ever charged with the killings. Union organizers suspected that Ford’s private security force included Legionnaire members, moreover, it was feared the Black Legion had infiltrated the union movement itself.

In Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out Of Desperate Times, author Susan Quinn wrote that, “with the aid of industry leaders opposed to union activity, the legion controlled hiring in certain pockets of the steel and auto industry as well as certain New Deal welfare jobs. Leaders boasted that they ran the entire Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Allen County, Indiana. Indeed, at a time when many were still without work, Black Legion members, even when they came from out of state - all seemed to have jobs.” [4]

On December 22, 1933 the treasurer of the Auto Worker’s Union, George Marchuk, was found murdered in a ditch in a Dearborn suburb. Not long after in March of 1934, the body of John Bielak, a member of the local American Federation of Labor United Automobile Workers, was found dumped at roadside near Monroe, Michigan. Bielak’s killers placed a stack of completed union membership applications beneath the slain organizer’s head, the message being perfectly clear. [5] Union activists believed the Black Legion were behind, not just the murders of Marchuk and Bielak, but the bombing of union halls and homes of labor activists.

After years of terroristic activity, the group’s downfall came about when it murdered an organizer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). On May 13, 1936, a Black Legion death squad kidnapped thirty-two-year-old Charles Poole from his home and took him on a “one way ride”. Poole, an unemployed auto worker and an organizer for the WPA, was driven to the outskirts of town and shot eight times by a Black Legion triggerman, [6] his crumpled body left at roadside. Police investigating Poole’s murder found a “collection of curious robes and deadly weapons” in the homes of Poole’s neighbors. [7] Dayton Dean, the Black Legion gunman in the slaying, was arrested and made a confession that unraveled the entire Black Legion underground.

Dayton Dean’s admission of guilt revealed that the Black Legion had indeed been recruiting Southern white workers in the auto factories of Detroit to fight in the Legion’s war against unions and communism. Dean testified that the same Black Legion squad that had conspired to murder Charles Poole in May, had also killed Silas Coleman that same month. Black Legionnaires took Coleman, a 42-year-old African American war veteran, into the countryside and made him run for his life before gunning him down. According to Dean, Harvey Davis, the head of the murder squad and chief of the Black Legion organization wanted to “see how it felt to shoot a Negro”.

In an AP story that ran in the June 11, 1936 edition of The New York Sun, it was reported that “The Bullet Club”, a unit of the Black Legion in Pontiac, Michigan, “included on its roles a large number of public officials” and that “the trail of Black Legion terrorism led into three large Detroit automotive plants” where Legionnaire intelligence squads gathered information on union activists who were undoubtedly targeted for assassination. [8]

In the end Dayton Dean’s testimony eventually led to convictions against dozens of Black Legion members. In the Poole and Coleman slaying cases, twelve Legionnaires were found guilty of first degree murder and given life sentences, including Dean himself. Thirty-seven other Legion members were sentenced to prison on charges of conspiracy, attempted murder, and other crimes. As it turned out, Wayne county prosecutor Duncan C. McCrea, the leader of the prosecution in the Charles Poole case, was discovered to be a member of the Black Legion! When this was revealed McCrea stated he had “accidentally” signed a membership card for the group, but Legion defendants in the Poole case swore prosecutor McCrea willingly participated in the fascist group’s chilling initiation rites. [9]

That the state prosecutor in the Black Legion murder trial turned out to be a Legionnaire fanned the flames of suspicion that government trials against the terror group were not so much a series of legal proceedings as much as they were cover-ups. A number of known Black Legion leaders and cadre were never arrested or rooted out of their positions in the private sector, government, and the police. It appeared the fanatical Black Legion, with its long track record of murder and mayhem, had influential friends in high places.

 Still from the 1937 Warner Bros. film, "Black Legion", starring Humphrey Bogart. In this photo Bogart's "Frank Taylor" character takes the terror group's oath.

Still from the 1937 Warner Bros. film, "Black Legion", starring Humphrey Bogart. In this photo Bogart's "Frank Taylor" character takes the terror group's oath.

The 1936 Black Legion trials captured national headlines in the U.S. The topic of a homegrown fascist terror organization so gripped the public (the Nazis had come to power three years earlier in 1933) that Hollywood produced two films on the subject. First came the 1936 effort from Columbia Pictures titled Legion of Terror with actor Bruce Cabot (who starred in the original King Kong). A better-known film titled Black Legion was released by Warner Brothers in 1937. The film’s cast included Humphrey Bogart in his first leading role. Bogart played the part of fictional character, Frank Taylor, who was no doubt modeled after the Black Legion trigger-man, Dayton Dean. The film closely mirrored the events that led up to and included the killing of Charles Poole, and ended with the Black Legion killers being convicted in court and sent to prison.

Still from Black Legion. In this photo Bogart, as a hooded Black Legion terrorist, shoots and kills one of the group's opponents.

Still from "Black Legion". In this photo Bogart, as a hooded Black Legion terrorist, shoots and kills one of the group's opponents.

A major flaw in the Warner Brothers film was that it gave the impression the Legion had set their sights exclusively on Polish and Irish immigrants. The reality of the group terrorizing union organizers, communists, and African Americans was not addressed.

Even so, the movie  contained powerful scenes, one being Bogart’s character going through the group’s initiation ritual and taking its blood-curdling oath. The film’s most daring scene depicted three industrialists discussing their financial backing of the Legion in order to expand their profits and defeat the union movement.

The Warner Brothers/Bogart film has long been forgotten, but it remains an electrifying indictment of false patriotism, intolerance, and political extremism (the film is available on Netflix).

Maurice Merlin’s Black Legion Widow print was created at a time of increased public awareness regarding fascism. He was a signatory to the original “Artist’s Call” issued by the American Artists’ Congress (AAC), an artist’s organization founded in 1935 for the express purpose of opposing censorship, fascism, and war. Signatories also included the likes of Ivan Albright, Ben Shahn, Edward Biberman, George Biddle, Margaret Bourke-White, Paul Cadmus, Pablo O’Higgins, Alexander Calder, Anton Refregier, Phyllis (Pele) de Lappe, and many others too numerous to mention.

The call was an appeal for all artists to attend the American Artists’ Congress in New York City on February 14, 1936. In part, the call read: “A picture of what fascism has done to living standards, to civil liberties, to workers’ organizations, to science and art, the threat against the peace and security of the world, as shown in Italy and Germany, should arouse every sincere artist to action. We artists must act. Individually we are powerless. Through collective action we can defend our interests. We must ally ourselves with all groups engaged in the common struggle against war and fascism.”

Hundreds of artists from across the U.S., Latin America, and Europe attended the 1936 American Artists’ Congress, including a Mexican delegation that included David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, and Luis Arenal. The AAC mass meeting also featured an exhibition aptly titled America Today. Over 100 works of art where shown, one of which was Maurice Merlin’s Black Legion Widow.

####

UPDATE: I received the following e-mail on 5/14/2014;

“My name is Mary Coulter. I am the granddaughter of Charles Poole who was killed in 1936 by the Black Legion. My grandmother Rebecca was depicted in the art work on your site. In the picture there is a boy next to her, but my grandmother had two girls. So much of the information surrounding those events were slightly off. In your article/blog you also said he was killed on May 13th. He was killed on May 12th and found on May 13th in the morning dead from the night before.

I never saw this artwork before and when I did it made me cry. I am currently doing a little research because I intend to write a book about my grandmother. I want to thank you for your caring about this issue and giving me the opportunity to find this all out. It touched my heart.

I think if you knew my grandmother you would be amazed how that picture captured her sorrow.  It’s like the artist knew her.  I felt the same sadness from looking at it that I felt from my grandmother when she talked about it. I would love to see it some day. I also would like to put a copy of it in my book, if I ever get to publish it.”

– // –

Footnotes

[1] Page 295. “The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America“. James Noble Gregory © 2005.
[2]The Black Legion Rides” By George Morris. Published by Workers Library - Aug. 1936. Reference found in Chapter II, “The Hood Is Lifted”.
[3]The Dark Days of the Black Legion” by Richard Bak. Published in Hour Detroit, March 2009. Pg. 1, paragraph 12.
[4]Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out Of Desperate Times“. Susan Quinn © 2009. Chapter nine, “It Can’t Happen Here”.
[5] Page 66. “Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence” by B.J. Widick © 1972.
[6] Front page story, The Montreal Gazette. June 4, 1936. “Black Legion Member Confesses Slaying Poole, Names Instigator“.
[7] Black Legion Rule Broken“, The Bend Bulletin - June 8, 1937.
[8]Another Plot To Kill Is Laid To Terrorists: Black Legion Executioner Also Supplies Link to Bomb Blast“. AP Wire story, published in The New York Sun, June 11, 1936.
[9]The Dark Days of the Black Legion” by Richard Bak. Published in Hour Detroit, March 2009. Pg. 2, paragraph 10.

Oct 9th unveiling of L.A. Siqueiros Mural

Black and white detail from the 1932 "América Tropical" mural by Siqueiros.

Black & white detail from the 1932 América Tropical mural by Siqueiros. "City fathers immediately censored the artwork because of its anti-imperialist sentiments".

I am thrilled to announce the October 9, 2012 public unveiling of David Alfaro Siqueiros’ fully preserved 1932 mural América Tropical, at the site of the mural’s original location, a rooftop wall at the Italian Hall located on Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street.

Concurrent with the unveiling of the mural will be the official public opening of Olvera Street’s América Tropical Interpretive Center.

October 9th will be a momentous occasion for the arts community and the people of L.A., as well as a significant event for people around the world… since it represents a victory for artistic freedom over the forces of reaction and censorship.

If any one person can be credited for bringing about the preservation of América Tropical, it would be the art historian Shifra M. Goldman (1926-2011), who almost single-handedly waged a campaign to save the Siqueiros mural starting in 1968. She even approached Siqueiros in 1972 with a proposal to recreate a modified version of the mural, a plan the artist agreed to but never completed due to his death in 1974 at the age of 78. Certainly the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and all of its dedicated staff must be applauded for their massive efforts in saving and preserving the mural. I believe the preservation of the Siqueiros mural represents one of the GCI’s finest hours, and their keen efforts will add to the deep and meaningful history of Los Angeles.

The director of the GCI, Tim Whalen, said this of the upcoming unveiling, “Providing public access to América Tropical has been central to this project. From the Getty Conservation Institute’s initial involvement in 1988, it has been a persistent advocate for the conservation of the mural, and the construction of the shelter, and a public viewing platform. We are so pleased to bring América Tropical back to the people of Los Angeles.”

There are many others too numerous to credit by name for helping to bring América Tropical back to life, but the most important factor behind the renovation of the mural is the countless numbers of people who refused to forget the mural and its destruction by a coat of whitewash ordered by city authorities in 1932. As a child my parents took me to Olvera Street on numerous occasions in the late 1950s, where my mother told me the story of the whitewashed mural. It was a tale I did not fully understand until the late 1960s, when Chicano movement activists began to rediscover the works of Siqueiros and other Mexican social realist artists, pointing to L.A.’s América Tropical as a symbol of what Chicanarte (Chicano art) could achieve… if only the will could be found. One can easily say that L.A.’s much heralded mural movement actually started when David Alfaro Siqueiros painted his contentious Olvera Street mural.

I must add that the Los Angeles based organization, Amigos de Siqueiros (Friends of Siqueiros), has played a crucial role in the mural preservation project. I was inducted into the group, and now proudly sit on its Board of Directors. Amigos de Siqueiros has as its mission, the protection, conservation, and promotion of América Tropical and the long-term stewardship of the mural, as well as to advance the legacy of Siqueiros. In my capacity as a member of the Board of Directors of Amigos de Siqueiros, I invite people everywhere to come to Olvera Street on October 9, 2012, to join in the historic unveiling and celebration. In 2002 I attended the public unveiling ceremony the Santa Barbara Museum of Art held for its Siqueiros mural, Retrato del Mexico de hoy: 1932 (Portrait of Mexico Today: 1932), thousands attended the event. The América Tropical unveiling will no doubt attract as large, if not a greater crowd of enthusiastic art lovers.

The Getty Conservation Institute has published press releases in English and Spanish, announcing the Oct. 9th unveiling, as well as a number of other public events coordinated with Amigos de Siqueiros; from movie screenings and speakers forums to symposiums and a tour of Eastside Los Angeles murals. The entire schedule of events are listed in the GCI press releases.

The village that became the modern City of Los Angeles now has a new wrinkle in its complex history. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels), was the settlement founded in 1781 by Spanish colonizers; it became the largest city of Mexico’s Alta California after Mexico won its independence from Spain. The municipality was seized by Americans when they invaded Mexico during the American war on Mexico (1846-48), taking 55% of Mexico’s territory under the spurious postwar “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo“. In the late 20th century Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted his América Tropical on a wall in El Pueblo; city fathers immediately censored the artwork because of its anti-imperialist sentiments. In early 21st century Los Angeles the mural returns as a ghost image to remind us all of the folly and transient nature of empire.

América Tropical is not just a faded mural brought back to life, it is a distillation of experiences lived on both sides of the U.S./ Mexico border. It is a collaboration between a master Mexican artist and his “Bloc of Painters” - those 29 U.S. artists that helped paint the Olvera Street mural; the mural is a fusion of cultures and histories, and a sign-post for the way forward in art. It is a consummate example of social realism, that socially engaged school of art that flourished in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe during the years of the Great Depression. Siqueiros and his associates confronted the world crisis of their day through their art, and now artists once again face a global crisis of unparalleled dimension. Perhaps the rebirth of América Tropical will help spark a resurgent social realism for the 21st century…  that just might be the real legacy of Siqueiros.

The public unveiling of América Tropical and the opening of the América Tropical Interpretive Center will occur at noon on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. The ceremony takes place at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, Sepulveda House, 125 Paseo de la Plaza, in downtown L.A.

Coit Tower Crisis

View of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

View of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

I visited San Francisco, California in late 2011, for the most part to photograph the impressive murals in the Bay Area that were painted in the 1930s and 1940s. A few of the murals are still well known, especially to those living in San Francisco, but by and large the great majority of these public works have long been forgotten - even by arts professionals. Furthermore, nearly all of the artists that painted the murals have largely fallen into obscurity, and very few people today can recall their names.

In months to come I will publish on this web log my photographs of a number of the murals, along with biographical information on those artists responsible for their creation. I have long been perplexed by the small number of high-quality, close-up photos of the murals to be found online, something I hope to correct to some small degree with this series of posts. More importantly, my upcoming illustrated essays will offer insights into how the murals were actually produced, providing a unique artist’s viewpoint of the historic paintings.

The plaque affixed to Coit Tower. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The plaque affixed to Coit Tower. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Constructed in 1933, Coit Tower is unquestionably the most well known locale for some of the best 1930s era murals; currently around 200,000 people, mainly tourists, visit the historic landmark each year. In all likelihood the majority of tourists visit because the tower affords the most remarkable view of San Francisco and the entire Bay Area. On any given day one can see hundreds of vacationers disembarking from sightseeing buses to view the famous building that sits atop Telegraph Hill. But all is not well for one of the city’s best known tourist attractions.

Since their creation in 1934, the Coit Tower murals have undergone several restorations. Photos from 1960 show the murals so disfigured by graffiti that the city sealed the paintings off from public view in order to conduct an extensive restoration that lasted from 1987 to 1990. Today the murals are again in poor shape, mostly from water and salt damage due to San Francisco’s well-known fog. During my visit to the tower I was shocked at the level of disrepair; chips and scratches have certainly taken their toll, and water damage is apparent everywhere; the walls and ceiling are peeling, and salt build-up has caused streaks on a number of paintings.

Detail from the Coit Tower mural, "Animal Force", by artist Ray Boynton. The artist painted the celestial eyes over an  elevator doorway on the building's first floor. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail from the Coit Tower mural, "Animal Force", by artist Ray Boynton. The artist painted the celestial eyes over an elevator doorway on the building's first floor. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

An October 2011 article titled Depression-era Coit Tower murals need touch-up published by the San Francisco Chronicle details some of the problems. A January 2012 PBS NewsHour ran a special segment about the Coit Tower murals that detailed the state of disrepair of the historic wall paintings as well as efforts to preserve the murals.

It was Diego Rivera’s 1930-31 visit to San Francisco that truly began the explosion of mural painting in the Bay Area, which I noted in the first essay of this series, Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco. At the time many Bay Area artists were involved in the school of American social realism, and more than a few of them traveled to Mexico in order to encounter first hand the masters of the Mexican Muralist School. Bernard Baruch Zakheim comes to mind; having made the trek to Mexico City to meet and work with Diego Rivera in 1930, Zakheim and fellow artist Ralph Stackpole successfully lobbied the U.S. government for a commission allowing artists to paint murals on interior walls of San Francisco’s newly constructed Coit Tower.

Upcoming posts will include close-up views of the Coit Tower murals by Zakheim and Stackpole, but also extreme close-up shots of mural paintings by John Langley Howard, William Hesthal, Clifford Wight, Maxine Albro, Suzanne Scheuer, George Harris, Frede Vidar, Ray Boynton, Victor Arnautoff, Otis Oldfield, Jose Moya del Pino, Rinaldo Cuneo, and other notable masters of American social realism.

The Teaching American History Project of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, and the Oakland Museum, provides an overview of the Coit Tower Murals titled “A Social Narrative Depicting ‘Aspects of California Life’ in 1934” (click here for the .pdf document). The online teaching guide quotes extensively from this writer regarding some of the finer details and controversies around the Coit Tower mural project. The document also presents some reasonably sized, clear photos of the Coit murals.

Homeless Woman at Coit Tower. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

"Homeless Woman at Coit Tower". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When I visited the historic landmark that is Coit Tower, I found a destitute woman sleeping near the building entrance; her worldly possessions were held in a small pushcart adorned by the American flag.

It is no small irony that the depression era realities depicted in the Coit Tower murals are today seen on the streets of the U.S. during the reign of the Obama administration. One difference between the mid-30s and the present is that contemporary artists have yet to challenge the systemic failures that give rise to economic collapse, mass poverty, and war.

POSTS IN THIS CONTINUING SERIES:

Arnautoff & the Chapel at the Presidio
Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco
Diego Rivera: Pan American Unity

Biberman Redux

In February of 2009 I wrote about one of California’s great modernist painters from the post WWII period, Edward Biberman. At the time the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park was running its splendid exhibition Edward Biberman Revisited, so my timely article was not simply a review, but an in depth look at one of L.A.’s forgotten artistic geniuses. If you are not familiar with the life and work of Mr. Biberman, I encourage you to read my ‘09 article.

I recently acquired a long out of print hardback copy of Time and Circumstance: Forty Years of Painting, a book Biberman wrote in 1968 that detailed his life and works. To further the reader’s appreciation of Mr. Biberman, I am posting reproductions of five paintings from his book along with his original captions. Published by Ward Richie Press, the rare hardback presents 118 full-page illustrations accompanied by the artist’s comments and observations. Unfortunately only a handful of the illustrations were printed in color, one of which - The Headless Horseman - I present here.

Edward Biberman wrote the following paragraph, which appeared in the foreword to his book; his artwork and captions follow:

“By pure coincidence, just as I was wondering how I might mark the fortieth year of my career as a professional painter, Mr. Joseph Simon, of The Ward Ritchie Press, asked me if I would be interested in having his company publish a book of my work. I was very intrigued with the idea and suggested that the book combine selected photographs of my paintings with enough written material to establish an autobiographical continuity. The publishers agreed, and as I began to choose the paintings and write the text, all the material seemed to fall into place quite easily and naturally. Here then, with my own narrative comments and a few quotes, are the paintings which I chose from the full body of work done in forty years span, 1927 to 1967.”

"The Unseen Wind" - Edward Biberman

"The Unseen Wind" - Edward Biberman

The Unseen Wind. “By the late 1930s all of us looked with fear and foreboding at a world which was careening toward a holocaust. Mussolini’s dive bombers were cutting down the spear-carrying soldiers of Ethiopia: Spain was wracked by civil war and the silence of most of the world; and Picasso, outraged by the destruction of a Spanish town by German Stukas, became one of an increasing number of artists who felt impelled to protest directly through their art. And Guernica became a household word. Concentration camps, a foretaste of the genocide to come, were filling, and Hitler was preparing his march across Europe.”

"Still Life With Rope" - Edward Biberman

"Still Life With Rope" - Edward Biberman

Still Life With Rope. “In our own land, there remained an old and recurring sickness. I began to turn more frequently now, to a world in ferment for my themes. But it soon became obvious to me that the technique which had served me well for other ideas and circumstances was inadequate for these new concepts. The basically two-dimensional, highly pigmented idiom which I had been using for almost ten years, was simply not able to carry the weight of these new intentions. I needed a more solid, three-dimensional, less chromatic approach. I had no hesitancy in making these changes. For then, as now, the form of my work was basically determined by its content.”

"The Headless Horseman" - Edward Biberman

"The Headless Horseman" - Edward Biberman

The Headless Horseman. “The specter of another world war filled our mind’s eye. But this was totally unlike the mood which had unified our country almost to a man after Pearl Harbor. This vision was of something foreboding and divisive – needless, cruel, corrosive.”

"Woman of Mexico" - Edward Biberman

"Woman of Mexico" - Edward Biberman

Woman of Mexico. “Though this head was painted a few years later, it belongs emotionally to the work of that summer. It is a free interpretation of the Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played the leading role in the motion picture, Salt of the Earth, directed by my brother in 1953. The present director of the Los Angeles Municipal Arts Commission, Mr. Kenneth Ross, was at this time art critic on a Pasadena newspaper. He had written, ‘Biberman can affect a striking balance of heart and mind.’” [Editor's comment: You can view the entire Salt of the Earth film as a streaming video on YouTube. Read about the history of the film here].

"Winged Victory of Los Angeles" - Edward Biberman

"Winged Victory of Los Angeles" - Edward Biberman

Winged Victory of Los Angeles. “Once, by chance, I happened to drive under an uncompleted section of one of these soaring ribbons of concrete. I suddenly felt the same sensation of imminent flight that I experienced when I first saw the “Winged Victory” at the head of the stairway, at the end of the long corridor in the Louvre. I could not resist this slightly facetious title for the painting. Most of these urban landscapes were shown at my one-man exhibition at the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962, and this gallery has remained by representative since that time.”

MAYDAY: TAKE A HOLIDAY

Workers/Obreros - Mark Vallen. Work in progress. Oil on masonite 2012 ©.

"Workers/Obreros" - Mark Vallen. Work in progress. Oil on masonite 2012 ©.

“No more deluded by reaction, on tyrants only we’ll make war. The soldiers too will take strike action, they’ll break ranks and fight no more.” - Excerpt from L’Internationale, written by Eugène Pottier - Paris, June 1871.

¡ADELANTE! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond

I will be premiering two new oil paintings at ¡ADELANTE! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond, the latest museum exhibition to explore the world of Chicano art. Presented by the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale, California, the exhibit runs from September 9, 2011 through January 1, 2012, and offers the paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and photographs of some forty artists. Included are artworks from “veteranos” of the 1960s Chicano Arts Movement, as well as from a whole new generation of artists involved in creating Chicanarte (Chicano art).

Those influential artists participating in the exhibit include the likes of Judith F. Baca; David Rivas Botello; Barbara Carrasco; Margaret García; Ignacio Gomez; Wayne Healy; Leo Limón; Frank Romero; Patssi Valdez, and a host of others. A few of the works on view are from the Cheech Marin Collection, one of the most important private collections of Chicano art in the United States. Adelante is Spanish for “advance” or “forward”, making the perfect title for an exhibit that surveys Chicano art as it moves into the second decade of the 21st century.

La Causa (The Cause) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 40" x 36" inches. 2011. On exhibit at the Forest Lawn Museum, Sept. 9, 2011 through Jan. 1, 2012.

"La Causa" (The Cause) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas. 40" x 36" inches. 2011. On exhibit at the Forest Lawn Museum, Sept. 9, 2011 through Jan. 1, 2012.

When Joan Adan, curator and exhibit designer for the Forest Lawn Museum, requested my participation in the Adelante show, I made a commitment to create a pair of new oil paintings especially for the occasion. I would have barely four months to complete the works. I had been conceptualizing a number of large canvasses based upon observed life in the city of Los Angeles, so when Ms. Adan offered inclusion in Adelante - my ideas became concrete. I was determined to paint narratives that typically get little attention in Chicanarte exhibits. I chose to create paintings inspired by a major event in Mexican-American history, the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War, telling the story of how that event continues to resonate in the present.

The Chicano Moratorium march took place in East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970, and was partly organized by the Brown Berets, a militant Chicano group that fought for the civil and human rights of Mexican-Americans. The Brown Berets were originally organized in East L.A. in 1967 as an outgrowth of the burgeoning Chicano civil rights movement. In 1968 the group organized the first student walkouts to protest racism and substandard schools in East L.A., electrifying an entire generation. Soon Brown Beret chapters sprang up throughout California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and beyond - but it all started in the city of Los Angeles.

Some 30,000 people took part in the 1970 moratorium march, which culminated in a rally at Laguna Park; dozens of Brown Berets acted as marshals, providing security for the protest. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department attacked the gathering, initiating a riot. Ultimately police killed four citizens that day, Lyn Ward, José Diaz (both Brown Berets), Gustav Montag, and L.A. Times reporter Rubén Salazar. Salazar was slain as he sat in the Silver Dollar Café; a deputy sheriff fired a tear gas projectile into the cafe, striking Salazar in the head and killing him instantly.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, on August 27, 2010 I joined 5,000 others in walking the original march route along Whittier Blvd. Instead of the Vietnam War, we protested the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A new generation of Brown Berets provided security for the march - as well as inspiration for my painting, La Causa. The Brown Berets disbanded in 1972, but were re-activated in 1993 under the group’s original charter and mission statement; the organization currently seems to be flourishing. As the multitudes passed where the Silver Dollar Café once stood, piles of flowers were placed on the spot where Rubén Salazar was killed. We rallied at Rubén Salazar Park (formerly known as Laguna Park), where forty-years ago the police provoked the riot now recorded by history.

 La Causa (Detail) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas.

"La Causa" (Detail) Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas.

My oil painting, La Causa (The Cause), is a depiction of two of the female Brown Beret cadre I caught a glimpse of at the 40th anniversary protest march. The title of my canvas is taken from the words that appear on the emblematic patch worn on the berets of the organization’s members, the “cause” being the liberation of the people.

I felt it important to portray these young Chicana activists as a counter-balance to the stereotypical images of Latinas. Despite their legendary public image, at least as it is known in the greater South West of the U.S., I think mine might be the first serious painting of Brown Beret members. My canvas is not a wholesale endorsement of the group’s cultural nationalist political philosophy, but rather an acknowledgement of the role the organization has played in the history and collective consciousness of Mexican-Americans.

It is ironic that while working on my La Causa painting, I received word that the FBI and the SWAT Team of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department raided the home of Carlos Montes on May 17, 2011. Montes, a co-founder of the Brown Berets and a leader of the historic student walkouts in East L.A., had his cell phones, computer, notes, and other personal affects seized by the authorities. Apparently the Obama administration has targeted Montes for his antiwar activities, part of an underreported repressive sweep the Obama Justice Department has initiated against antiwar activists as reported in the Washington Post. As of this writing, the government’s case against Carlos Montes is still pending.

What initially attracted me to the Chicano Arts Movement in the early 1970s was its innovative merging of aesthetics and political concerns; it was a populist, anti-elitist school of art that sprang from a people’s struggle for equality, democratic rights, and self-determination. Chicanarte took inspiration from the Mexican Muralist School of social activist art, but it succeeded in creating its own unique visual language that reflected the distinctive Mexican-American experience. While the elite art world discarded painting altogether in favor of postmodern conceptualism and its rejection of “grand narratives”, Chicanarte never abandoned figurative realism in paintings, drawings, prints, or sculpture; a fact that largely remains so today.

Chicano artists continue to address the dreams, aspirations, history, and lived experience of la gente (the people), which is the genre’s one consistent and unbreakable grand narrative. The Chicano Arts Movement has certainly expanded since the early 1970s, nowadays incorporating performance, installation, abstraction, and other disciplines, but for the most part it still retains the activist spark of its founding years. The state of U.S. society today, with its austerity budgets, numerous wars, economic decay, and xenophobic anti-immigrant stance, gives impetus for the social realist activist component of Chicanarte to once again move front and center.

¡ADELANTE! runs from September 9, 2011 through January 1, 2012. The Forest Lawn Museum is located at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 1712 South Glendale Avenue, Glendale, California. 91205. The museum is open every day except Monday, from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission and parking is free. Phone: 1-800-204-3131. Website: www.forestlawn.com. A larger reproduction of La Causa can be viewed here.

Two L.A. Lectures on Siqueiros

On October 23rd and November 6th, 2010, I will be lecturing at the following two venues concerning the Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros. Press Release statements for the two talks are as follows:

 Vallen at the Siqueiros mural, Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe ©.

Vallen at the Siqueiros mural, "Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932," at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California. Photo by Jeannine Thorpe ©.

Siqueiros & the Mexican School of Social Realism
As part of the José Vera Gallery’s cultural programming surrounding their Siqueiros print exhibit, Confronting Revolution: A Siqueiros Aesthetic, Vallen will present a multi-media lecture on the Mexican school of social realism and how it continues to be relevant in the 21st century.

Saturday, October 23, 2010. 6:30 p.m.
José Vera Fine Art & Antiques
2012 Colorado Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90041

The second speaking engagement is sponsored by Amigos de Siqueiros and the Mexican Cultural Institute:

David Alfaro Siqueiros & the “Bloc of Painters” - American Social Realism in the 1930s
When Siqueiros arrived in Los Angeles in 1932 he assembled what he called the “Bloc of Painters,” a group of American artists whose members assisted the Mexican muralist in painting three monumental wall paintings in L.A. Bloc members included Rubin Kadish, Harold Lehman, Fletcher Martin, Phil Paradise, Murray Hantman, Barse Miller, Paul Sample, Philip Guston, Millard Sheets, and many others. Who were the Bloc Painters and what contributions did they make to art and culture in the United States? By combining projected images with his lecture, Los Angeles artist Mark Vallen brings to light that buried history.

Saturday, November 6, 2010. 6:30 p.m.
Mexican Cultural Institute, 125 Paseo de la Plaza - Olvera Street. L.A., California.

The American Scene: New Deal Art 1935-1943

pele_delappe

"The Transients" - Pele deLappe. Lithograph. 1938. From the collection of the George Krevsky Gallery, San Francisco. On view at "The American Scene" exhibit.

Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Art Project (FAP), which put thousands of artists to work during the Great Depression, the Bedford Gallery in Northern California is presenting The American Scene: New Deal Art 1935-1943.

Running from October 3 through December 19, 2010, the exhibit features art from the likes of Diego Rivera, Ben Shahn, Raphael Soyer, Bernard Zakheim, Emmy Lou Packard, Mine Okubo, Pele deLappe, Harry Gottlieb, Beniamino Bufano, Otis Oldfield, Anton Refregier, and others too numerous to mention. The Bedford Gallery’s Press Release for the exhibit can be viewed here in .pdf format.

A scant number of museums and galleries in the United States have bothered to mark the 75th anniversary of the WPA and the FAP. The Bedford Gallery is not only one of the few to have done so, they are offering a superlative exhibition of historic works drawn from the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; most of the works on view at the Bedford have been in storage and have not been seen since the 1940s.

While a number of artists included in the exhibit are well known, more than a few will be unfamiliar to the general public, consequently The American Scene holds quite a lot of surprises. Walter Quirt (1902-1968) is one of those revelations; his works are a bolt out of the blue. He was one of the first American artists to identify with surrealism, but he painted in the “social-surrealist” style, which placed emphasis upon contemporary political events - much like the paintings of Irving Norman. A good introduction to the life and works of Walter Quirt can be found at the official website for his estate.

The American Scene exhibit is not simply a time capsule, though artworks from the social realist painters and printmakers of America’s Great Depression era will no doubt capture the tenor of times past. The works in the show are humanistic, poignant, optimistic, and politically engaged, displaying the type of critical approach needed in today’s art.