Category: Social Realism

The Chicana/Chicano Biennial of 2009

Amanecer (Dawn) - Mark Vallen. 2006. 9" x 12". Oil on masonite panel. The painting depicts a group of striking workers huddled in the early morning light as they prepare for the day's rallies and picket lines. The title alludes to better days for organized labor.

Amanecer (Dawn) - Mark Vallen. 2006. 9" x 12". Oil on masonite panel. The painting depicts a group of striking workers huddled in the early morning light as they prepare for the day's rallies and picket lines.

Two of my oil paintings are on display at the National Chicana/Chicano Biennial of 2009, organized by MACLA, or the Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (Movement of Latin American Art and Culture). This will be the third biennial mounted by MACLA, which serves the community of San Jose, California, as well as the larger San Francisco Bay area of northern California.

My paintings portray striking Chicano/Latino/Immigrant workers, and the images were specifically inspired by a real world event, the massive Los Angeles Janitors strike of 2000. While based on that historic work stoppage, the paintings clearly allude to labor unrest in other cities, states, and countries - and they are timely expressions given the current international economic meltdown.

The L.A. Janitor’s strike was organized by Justice for Janitors/SEIU Local 1877, and at the time the labor action heralded a new militancy and organizational capacity for the union movement in the U.S.

With these particular paintings I wanted to praise the boldness of Latino workers, but also intended to instill an awareness of class, which in my opinion is as important as any exploration of cultural identity - especially in these times. In a press release for its 2009 National Chicana/o Biennial, MACLA stated;

“over the last thirty-five years, the field of Chicana/o art and scholarship has developed and expanded exponentially. As an arts movement that developed alongside the Chicana/o civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, Chicana/o art emerged in direct correlation to social change.”

I am in full agreement with that assessment, and so aspire to help reconnect contemporary Chicano art with its deep and profound history of social awareness. That is the basis for my participation in the MACLA Biennial. The MACLA Chicana/o Biennial opened on June 5, 2009, and runs until August 8, 2009. Visit the MACLA website at: www.maclaarte.org.

Edward Biberman Revisited

Edward Biberman was born in Philadelphia in 1904, but left his mark as a California Modernist painter. Now almost forgotten save for aficionados of the California Modernist school, Biberman is the subject of a fascinating retrospective: Edward Biberman Revisited, at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park.

While the small Biberman exhibit catalog that accompanies the show rightly describes Biberman as an important post war California Modernist artist, and notes his having created paintings of great social import, little is said about the artist’s embrace of social realism or the political controversies that swirled around him. This shortcoming is exacerbated by the layout of the show itself, which presents no coherent timeline for the paintings, but rather presents works from the early 30s and 40s alongside those created in the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately this makes it difficult to see how the artist progressed, and especially how he was buffeted by and reacted to, historic events.

Captions for paintings are also short on pertinent details, leaving all but the most stalwart students of history clueless about the subjects depicted in Biberman’s remarkable paintings. Despite these deficiencies, Edward Biberman Revisited is a must see exhibit and I commend the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery for presenting it to the public. In this article I will focus on just two of the noteworthy paintings in the show, Biberman’s contemporary Pieta, and the portrait of African American actor, singer, and political radical, Paul Robeson. I will also endeavor to present some of the background information on Mr. Biberman that was unfortunately left out of the exhibit.

In the early 1920s, the 19-year-old Biberman rented a studio in Paris, where he became familiar with exponents of Modernism and their works. Despite the experiments with cubism and abstraction that he witnessed all around him, Biberman would later say that he “quickly decided abstractionism was not for me.” He would not only embrace realism in painting, he would stubbornly continue to adhere to it even as abstract art became ascendant and completely dominant in the art world. From Paris he moved to Berlin, but felt uneasy with the rightward drift he witnessed in German society. He described his Berlin neighborhood as a “Nazi nest” and pulled up stakes for America, where he acquired a studio on 57th Street in New York. He did well, painting portraits of individuals like Martha Graham and Joan Crawford, but then came the stock market crash in 1929 and Edward’s father, a businessman ruined by the crash - committed suicide.

At this point Edward Biberman became committed to using his art in addressing the world’s injustices. He started to paint workers, the unemployed, and the disenfranchised. He respected the Mexican Muralist Movement to the highest degree, having met Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco while in New York. In 1935 Biberman decided to move to California, and so drove across country, stopping in New Mexico where he painted alongside Georgia O’Keefe before continuing to Los Angeles.

In 1939 Biberman painted his Pieta, a masterpiece that has as much relevance today as when the artist first painted it. There is no doubt that the work was inspired by his exposure to Mexico’s radical social realists, but one can also assume that what he discovered in Los Angeles, a segregated city where Chicanos and Mexican immigrants formed a permanent underclass, also contributed to the creation of the painting.

Pieta, painting by Edward Biberman

[ Pieta - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1939. 44 x 35 in. Image courtesy of Gallery Z. ]

Though Pieta depicts what appears to be a Mexican Indian woman mourning over the body of a slain worker, the painting has a universal and timeless quality to it.

The murdered proletarian lies face down on the ground in an ungainly position, his placard flung to one side as his blood coagulates around his head. The backdrop is an endless space where land, sea, and sky meet, lending a sense of the surreal to the scene. An up close examination of the painting reveals a masterly application of paint, with Biberman having built up layers of transparent colors to great effect. His gloppy brush strokes of golden ochre paint perfectly replicate a parched and unforgiving earth. Pieta is as good a work of social realism as I have ever seen produced by anyone, anywhere, and it should be known by all.

While in his new home city of L.A. Biberman met actress and artist Sonja Dahl at a meeting of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, an anti-fascist organization that helped German émigrés settle in the U.S. (the league helped famed author Thomas Mann settle in L.A.) Biberman and Dahl fell in love and married as WWII was approaching, moving into a modest home located just below the famous Hollywood sign.

Edward’s brother, Herbert J. Biberman, arrived in Hollywood to pursue work as a director, screenwriter and producer of films. Herbert also became active in the Anti-Nazi League, and Sonja Dahl-Biberman later recalled that at the time, anyone who was anti-Nazi was suspected of being a communist. When the war ultimately broke out, Edward served as a corporal in the state guard, and Sonja joined the Women’s Ambulance and Defense Guard. The war lasted four-and-a-half years, and with the defeat of fascism the Biberman’s and their friends felt they had won a great collective victory - but then came the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the anti-communist hysteria that came to be known as McCarthyism. In her December 2003 article for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, A Place in the Sun, Catching Up with Edward Biberman’s Los Angeles, Emily Young wrote:

“Though his portraits of Lena Horne and Dashiell Hammett are in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the left-leaning Biberman initially devoted more of his energy to depicting Depression-era bread lines, the struggles of organized labor and the Communist witch hunt in Hollywood that undercut his career. (….) Biberman remained popular until social realism, a style he used for his politically charged paintings, fell out of favor. When his brother was branded a member of the Hollywood Ten, he suffered further from guilt by association. Still, Biberman continued to paint, teach and write, developing a pre-Hockney Los Angeles aesthetic that would influence the art world’s next generation.”

While Ms. Young’s recollection of Biberman’s early work is technically accurate, she fails to convey to the reader the noxious atmosphere of political repression Biberman was laboring under, or exactly why social realism “fell out of favor.” Lena Horne, the great African American singer and actress, and Dashiell Hammett, author of detective stories like The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, were both named as communists at HUAC hearings and found themselves blacklisted. In 1947 Ms. Horne was marked as a “communist sympathizer” for her civil rights activism and friendship with Paul Robeson, and was thus unable to perform on television, radio or in the movies until the late 1950s.

Political repression came home for Edward Biberman in a profoundly personal way when he was identified as a communist by a “friendly witness” to HUAC because he had helped to organize an Artist’s Union within the WPA project. His beloved wife Sonja was also identified as a communist by a “friendly witness” to HUAC. Then his brother Herbert was accused in 1947 of participating in “communist activities” by HUAC, along with nine other Hollywood professionals who became known as the Hollywood Ten.

At the HUAC hearings Herbert took the 5th amendment, refusing to name “fellow communists” or to confirm or deny the allegations made against him. In 1950 he would be sentenced to six months in prison and barred from working in Hollywood. Even though he had little money Edward worked tirelessly to get his brother out on parole and help pay his legal fees, actions which made him suspect in the eyes of the government. Dashiell Hammett would later be found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to name communist associates and was sent to prison for six months in 1951.

One of Biberman’s paintings in the Municipal Art Gallery exhibit is titled, Conspiracy. It depicts a group of white men in suits, huddled before a bank of microphones. Painted as a simple agitated line drawing in burnt umber filled in with a limited palette of mute earth colors, the image suggests a plot of some sort. The gallery provides absolutely no information as to what the painting gives a picture of, but it is not had to see that the oil on masonite painting is a direct reference to the HUAC witch trials and the persecution of Mr. Biberman, his wife, brother, and their professional associates.

In his celebrated biography Paul Robeson, author Martin Bauml Duberman described the political atmosphere in the U.S. at the time of Robeson having his portrait painted by Biberman in Los Angeles. Duberman specifically writes about a live performance Robeson gave at a 1949 NAACP Youth Council Rally in Los Angeles. It should be noted that just prior to his L.A. appearance, Robeson had given an August, ’49 performance in Peekskill, New York, where a huge violent mob motivated by racial hatred and anticommunism had almost succeeded in killing the black singer:

“The (Los Angeles) City Council dubbed Robeson’s coming concert an ‘invasion’ and unanimously passed a resolution urging a boycott. One councilman, Lloyd C. Davies, went out of his way to ‘applaud and commend those in Peekskill who had the courage to get out there and do what they did to show up Robeson for what he is. I’d be inclined to be down there throwing rocks myself.’ An FBI agent reported to J. Edgar Hoover that ‘the Communist Party logically might endeavor to foment an incident at the concert in order to arouse the crowd.’

Hollywood gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Jimmy Fidler fanned the flames with rumors of violence, and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals published ads red-baiting Robeson. Charlotta Bass, publisher of the California Eagle, the black newspaper that sponsored Robeson’s Los Angles appearance, was swamped with threatening phone calls and denied insurance coverage.

Robeson’s supporters fought back. The Los Angeles NAACP Youth Council passed a resolution calling on all young people, black and white, to attend the concert. The prestigious national black fraternity (Robeson’s own), Alpha Phi Alpha, announced that it would host a luncheon in his honor the day following the concert. His supporters deluged the City Council with angry protests over its call for a boycott, and they turned out in force for the event itself. A tiny group of race-baiters did go to hear a local realtor call for the expulsion of all blacks and Jews from Los Angeles - but fifteen thousand went to hear Robeson, and the rally came off without incident.

A special force of black police officers (among them future Mayor Thomas Bradley) was assigned to protect Robeson. He thanked them from the podium and asked that the L.A. police protect ‘every colored boy, every Mexican-American boy, every white boy on the streets of Los Angeles.’ He thanked the Jewish people of Peekskill for having turned out in numbers to protect him in that town. And he thanked the crowd in front of him for having turned out to defend its own liberties. He would continue, he said, ‘to speak up militantly for the rights of my people’; he told the rally that when asked the question ‘Paul, what’s happened to you?’ he replied, ‘Nothing’s happened to me. I’m just looking for freedom.’ Then he sang ‘We Shall Not Be Moved,’ and the last verse, ‘Black and white together, we shall not be moved’ brought the crowd to its feet.”

In an interview with Biberman conducted in 1977 for the UCLA Special Collections, Biberman described Robeson sitting for his portrait; “We were never alone. He would always make several appointments here for the time that he was posing. Earl Robinson (who accompanied Robeson on piano during performances) would be sitting at this piano banging away a new tune that he wanted Paul to hear, and somebody would be reading a script, and somebody else would be interviewing him.”

Painting of Paul Robeson by Edward Biberman

[ Paul Robeson - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1947. 50 x 34 in.  Image courtesy of Gallery Z. ]

Biberman’s portrait of Paul Robeson is a focal point of the exhibit at the Municipal Art Gallery, and it is an imposing work indeed, conveying all of the pride, determination, and dogged tenacity of the internationally famous singer. But aside from being an impressive painting of a formidable character, it is also confirmation of Biberman’s own valor, for it took no small amount of courage to stand up to HUAC and create a sympathetic portrait of Robeson during such trying times.

For those unable to attend the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery exhibition, a gallery of artworks by Edward Biberman can be seen here. Also, a fascinating interview was conducted with Biberman on April 15, 1964, for the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution. The interviewer asked Biberman for his evaluation of the WPA Federal Arts Project, and the artist’s timely answer has great resonance in the present:

“Well, of course I have a very partisan attitude to this whole matter. I am unequivocally in favor of it. I think it was one of the brightest spots in the history of American art, and I hope that we will see a revival of a government program. I fervently hope it will not be necessitated by another depression, which of course is what started the WPA project. That was a relief measure primarily, not a cultural measure.

But irrespective of what brought it into being, and irrespective of the arguments against any government art program, and I think I’m familiar with all of the “anti” arguments, I find that this was an enormously productive period in American art. I think it actually brought into being and furthered the careers of many painters. The names of these artists are legion.”

Edward Biberman Revisited runs at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park until April 19, 2009. The Gallery is located at 4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027. Phone: 323-644-6269. Hours, Thursday - Sunday, noon to 5:00 pm. Admission is free. On March 6, 2009 at 7:30 pm, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Associates (LAMAGA) will be screening Jeff Kaufman’s 2006 documentary, Brush with Life: the Art of Being Edward Biberman. The film will be followed by a talk with Jeff Kaufman, the film’s director, and Suzanne W. Zada, curator of the Edward Biberman Revisited exhibit. Seating is limited and reservations are required, call 323-644-6269 to reserve seats. A $25 donation is requested.

Irving Norman Exhibit in New York

On October 30th, 2008, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City opened the exhibition, Irving Norman, a major display of the artist’s paintings, drawings, and prints. For those who possess an appetite for art with deep humanistic meaning - this is definitely an exhibit not to be missed.

Oil painting by Irving Norman

[ Persecution - Irving Norman. 1950. Oil on canvas. Norman’s work offered unflinching examinations of the human condition, often portraying humanity at odds with authoritarian forces. The artist became the target of unrelenting and brazen government spying. ]

In early 2007 I published an enthusiastic article on this web log titled, The Social Surrealism of Irving Norman, written after viewing the retrospective of his work presented by the Pasadena Museum of California Art. My piece also marked what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday (1906-1989). I received numerous e-mails from people who discovered the works of Norman through my article, so I am thrilled to announce the exhibit of his works at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Established in 1989 and now the exclusive representative of the Irving Norman estate, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery specializes in twentieth-century American art, from social realism and surrealism to abstract expressionism. Irving Norman runs from October 30th through December 20th, 2008.

1930s: The Making of “The New Man”

Those fortunate to see the latest exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, 1930s: The Making of “The New Man”, will not only have the opportunity to feast their eyes upon some of the greatest artworks of the 20th century - they will be given ample evidence of how artists once responded to calamity and social crisis. On view until September 7, 2008, the exhibit presents over 200 paintings, sculptures, and photographs from world renowned artists the likes of Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, John Heartfield, George Grosz, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Rodchenko, Walker Evans, Salvador Dalí, Philip Guston, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, Otto Dix, Henri Matisse, and others too numerous to list here.

My general praise of the exhibit however, does not come without criticism. There is an inexcusable lack of women artists represented in what purports to be “a new look at this important historical era”, and I am dubious of the museum’s premise for the exhibition; which stresses how “in the 1930s, biology became a force for change”.

In the 1930s those on the left and center of the political spectrum used the metaphorical phrase, “a new man”, to articulate a belief in the betterment of society and the advancement of humanity, not through eugenics, but by the application of economic policies and scientific progress. The popular expression was optimistically tied to modernist conceptualizations of communal development and a utopian future. It was the Nazis who twisted the concept of biological determinism into a nightmare of forced sterilizations and mass killings in the pursuit of racial purity. For the National Gallery of Canada to suggest that 1930s modernism on the whole was fixated on biology as “a force for change” is indeed a bizarre stretching of the facts.

My misgivings regarding curatorial approach aside, I feel the National Gallery of Canada has brought together an amazing number of profound works for their “New Man” exhibit, and I would like to comment on two of my favorites. Those with an appetite for more information on the art of the 1930s should purchase the exhibition catalog.

Aficionados of surrealism will be happy to know that L’Ange du Foyer (Fireside Angel), by German painter Max Ernst, is included in the exhibit. Like many German artists of the period, Ernst served four hellish years as a soldier on the battlefields of World War I (1914-1918). Immediately after the war he co-founded the Cologne Dada group, which introduced him to an ever widening circle of radical artists. He left Germany in 1922 to settle in Montparnasse, France, where he joined the Surrealist group founded by André Breton.

Painting by Max Ernst

[ Fireside Angel - Max Ernst. Oil on canvas. 1937. Private collection. On view in "The New Man" exhibit. ]

While in France he created the masterwork Fireside Angel in 1937. It was not exactly a prescient work, as anyone who was following events closely could see what was becoming of the world. The reign of Hitler had begun in 1933, the Italian fascists under Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936, while General Franco and his fascist movement were in arms against the Spanish Republic. Nevertheless, Ernst’s painting well expressed the gathering menace then engulfing the world. Fireside Angel is the depiction of an indescribable creature as it storms with rage through a desolate landscape. By referring to his impossible beast as an “angel”, the artist warned that in embracing lofty and exalted ideas, we sometimes end up with the devil. It seems we never succeeded in banishing the Fireside Angel Ernst caught a glimpse of, and if we would only pay close attention - we could see the monster riding roughshod over humanity today.

Painting by Rudolf Schlichter

[ Blinde Macht (Blind Power) - Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas. 1938. On view in "The New Man" exhibit. In 1937 Schlichter was forbidden by the Nazis to create or exhibit artworks. That same year the fascist authorities displayed seventeen of the artist’s paintings in their infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibit, and Schlichter’s response to being banned was to secretively paint this canvas. It depicted a brawny warrior blinded by his own power, brandishing a sword and workmen’s tools - walking off a cliff. Demons are clasped to the doomed warrior’s chest, eating him alive. In the background all the accomplishments of civilization burn to the ground. ]

The American surrealist painter, Peter Blume (1906-1992), was once highly regarded as an American figurative painter, though today he is unfortunately almost entirely forgotten. Employing the same techniques utilized by Renaissance artists, Blume’s paintings made use of a near photographic realism, but his narrative works were permeated with surrealist vision and social realist spirit. Blume spent 1932 in Rome, Italy, on a Guggenheim grant, the same year the Italian fascist movement celebrated the tenth anniversary of its so-called “March on Rome”, the coup d’état that brought dictator Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party to power. After returning to the U.S. Blume brooded over what he had witnessed before starting work in 1934 on The Eternal City, a painting that would take him three years to complete and which is now part of “The New Man” exhibit.

As he was working on the final touches of his painting in 1936, Blume wrote a proclamation against war and fascism titled “The Artist Must Choose“. In his essay he exclaimed; “We, as artists, must take our place in this crisis on the side of growth and civilization against barbarism and reaction, and help to create a better social order.”

Painting by Peter Blume

[ The Eternal City - Peter Blume. Oil on board. 45 ½ in. x 59 ½ in. 1934-37. On view in "The New Man" exhibit. ]

Blume used a contemporaneous view of the Roman Forum, the political and religious center of the ancient Empire, as the setting for his picture, but the charming ruins made a farce of the city’s nickname - The Eternal City. In the painting’s distant background Fascist troops can be seen attacking a worker’s demonstration, while in the foreground a number of portentous images vie for our attention. On the left can be seen a polychromed wood statue of Christ situated in a building without a roof, sunrays illuminating the religious figurine mockingly bedecked with military epaulettes and swords. Directly below that tableau a crippled beggar can be seen sitting amongst the broken marble statues and columns of civilization laid low. At right, Mussolini as a gaudy and malevolent jack-in-the-box looms over the entire scene, and lurking in the disintegrating tunnels of the Forum beneath Il Duce’s giant green head, a grinning blackshirt thug and his capitalist paymaster can be seen.

Upon completing The Eternal City in 1937, Blume exhibited the painting at the Julien Levy Gallery in Manhattan. Even though the message of Blume’s anti-fascist work was unambiguous, especially when combined with his written proclamation, numerous critics voiced thickheaded and imperceptive remarks concerning the work. The New York Sun’s widely read art critic, Henry McBride, made this vinegary comment about Blume and his painting: “He won, it seems, a Guggenheim fellowship, and went to Italy nominally as an art student but actually as a political spy, and returns with a picture that pretends to mock Mussolini. This, of course, is an odd undertaking for an American artist.” Edward Alden Jewell, art critic for the New York Times wrote: “The political aspects of this treatise are not altogether clear. We are left in doubt as to whether the propagandist considers this modern dictator a self-sprung megalomaniac or a figurehead manipulated by social forces that have taken control of the situation in Italy. Scarcely more convincing is the religious symbol employed. There is nowhere evident the great transfiguring principle itself of Christian love and Christian sacrifice.”

That Edward Alden Jewell referred to Blume as a “propagandist” is revealing, especially since The Eternal City was the only explicitly political painting ever created by Blume. The open hostility that American art critics displayed towards Blume’s painting was but one indication of the growing disfavor to fall upon figurative and social realist artists in the late 1930s. In a letter to the New York Times in 1943, painters Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman called for an art that would transcend real world issues in favor of pure abstraction. Refuting realism, they declared that meaning in art can only “come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker”, further stating that “We want to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms, because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.” Abstract Expressionism soon came to dominate American art, and to the detriment of us all, the realism practiced by Peter Blume was declared hopelessly passé by “serious” critics, collectors, and museums.

Spectators of the exhibition, 1930s: The Making of “The New Man”, will no doubt be left with some gnawing questions regarding the state of contemporary art. After taking in the exhibit and seeing Pablo Picasso’s composition studies for his Guernica mural, Philip Guston’s painting excoriating the air war against civilians during the Spanish Civil War, the acerbic wit displayed in the photomontage works of John Heartfield, and the compassion shown to America’s underclass in the photographs of Walker Evans; the viewer might ask, “Why are we not seeing socially conscious art today?” I would argue that such works are indeed being created, as to why we are not seeing them, or hearing of them - is another matter entirely.

Edward Hopper: A Retrospective

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is the subject of a major retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, the last venue for a traveling exhibition that included stops at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Encompassing nearly 100 of the artist’s most notable prints and paintings, the exhibit features some of the artist’s most iconic canvases, New York Movie (1939) and Nighthawks (1942) to name but a few. As a youngster Hopper’s paintings provided me with an entry point into the art of the Great Depression period, and I recall as an adolescent being mesmerized by his works. So without hesitation I cite Hopper as one of my influences.

Automat - Oil painting by Edward Hopper

[ Automat - Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 1927. From the permanent collection of the Des Moines Art Center and currently part of the traveling Edward Hopper exhibit. ]


The figurative realist paintings of Edward Hopper continue to be extremely popular with the general public and a good number of critics. In 2004 the Tate Modern in London mounted an exhibition of Hopper’s works that turned out to be the second most popular show in the museum’s history - pulling in nearly half a million visitors during its three month run (a 2002 exhibit of paintings by Matisse and Picasso was the Tate’s most popular show). I think it’s a mistake to ascribe Hopper’s continued popularity to simple nostalgia, as I’m certain the allure of his work is based upon a modern audience seeing itself reflected in the portrayals of alienation he so often depicted. In essence Hopper was a social realist, and what he quietly revealed about late 20th century American society still rings true today. Conceivably, another explanation for Hopper’s lasting popularity might be found in his final written statement, published in the Spring of 1953:

“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design. The term ‘life’ as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.”

Of course, Hopper made his statement when Abstract Expressionism was the dominant force in the American art scene, and more importantly, at a time when art elites had pronounced realist painting to be woefully old-fashioned - a viewpoint we are still largely saddled with today. But then, Hopper was impervious to the avant-garde movements that swept over the later half of the 20th century; Surrealism, Action Painting, Pop Art - all had absolutely no impact upon him whatsoever. Now that the chilly detachment of postmodernism has become the prevailing fashion in art, many are looking towards artists like Hopper for craft, beauty, technical virtuosity, and narrative without the tedious yoke of irony.

Night Shadows - Etching by Edward Hopper

[ Night Shadows - Edward Hopper. Etching. 1921. Included in the traveling Edward Hopper exhibit. ]


Hopper’s social realism was of a psychological bent, showing individuals who were estranged from each other and at odds with their surroundings - even his depopulated cityscapes suggested disquiet. Hopper’s evocative paintings provide just enough of a story to pull in the viewer, even while maintaining impenetrable mystery - one is never quite certain what the people in his canvases are thinking or doing. While Hopper’s themes often dealt with alienation they were never alienating, and despite the depictions of emptiness and seclusion, Hopper’s works somehow imparted - and still do - a deep and unshakable humanism.

As a student Hopper studied painting and illustration at the New York Institute of Art and Design, where artist Robert Henri was his favorite instructor. Hopper would later be associated with the Ashcan School of social realism launched by Henri and his rebellious cohorts, in fact Hopper first exhibited in a 1908 group show in New York organized by some of Henri’s students. Early on in his career Hopper sustained himself by working discontentedly as a commercial illustrator, a profession he positively detested, and it wouldn’t be until the later half of his life that he met with any success as a painter. He sold his first painting at the 1913 Armory Show, and wouldn’t sell another for ten years. His premier solo exhibit in 1920 was a depressing affair that generated neither critical acclaim nor sales. Thankfully Hopper had the fortitude to press ahead with his work despite the difficulties he faced - a determination that should inspire anyone who swims against the conformist mainstream.

Office in a Small City - Oil painting by Edward Hopper

[ Office in a Small City - Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 1953. Alienation and emotional isolation in consumer society - a critique more applicable today than ever before. Painting in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. ]


Hopper was a private man of few words, and he made but three written statements concerning his views on art. The following quotation came from Notes on Painting, a short discourse published in the catalog of his 1933 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art:

“My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impression of nature. If this end is unattainable, so, it can be said, is perfection in any other ideal of painting or in any other of man’s activities. The trend in some of the contemporary movements in art, but by no means all, seems to deny this ideal and to me appears to lead to a purely decorative conception of painting. (….) I believe that the great painters, with their intellect as master, have attempted to force this unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions. I find any digression from this large aim leads me to boredom.”

The Edward Hopper retrospective runs at the Art Institute of Chicago until May 11, 2008.

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.
CORRECTION - UPDATE:

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.

The Social Surrealism of Irving Norman

Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism, is an extremely important exhibition of paintings that will be on view at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art in Logan, Utah, starting June 5th, 2007. Until his death in 1989, Irving Norman had painted in California since the early 1940’s - and my having discovered the art works of the brilliant artist only a few years ago is a testament to the state of a blinkered art world. The irony of my discovery is that it wasn’t facilitated by a fellow artist or an art historian, critic or journal, but by a political activist who wrote to me one day in November of 2003 to ask if I had ever heard of the painter. Embarrassed by my unfamiliarity with the artist, I did a bit of research on Norman and was astounded at what I found.

Michael Duncan, a curator of contemporary art and corresponding editor for Art in America, wrote a July 2003 article for that magazine in which he described the paintings of Norman as “jaw-droppingly effective social indictments that would have been endorsed by Orwell and Huxley. The unrestrained passion and monumental energy of this work blows most contemporary political art out of the water.” Duncan’s remark is no understatement - all the works of today’s supposed “guerilla artists” who’ve made careers out of radical posturing, look feeble compared to those of Norman, especially when one considers the personal sacrifices he made in pursuit of his art.

Oil painting by Irving Norman

[ Spain 1938 - Irving Norman 1942. Oil on canvas. This stark painting of a bomb shattered tree filled with bloody human body parts, is based on the artist’s battlefield experiences in the Spanish Civil War. While Picasso’s Guernica is the most famous painting depicting the war, Norman’s canvas is imbued with a frightful immediacy that came from his direct wartime encounters. ]


An émigré from Poland in 1923, Norman first lived on New York’s Lower East Side before settling in Los Angeles in 1934. In 1938 he joined the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade, part of the international brigades who fought to save the Spanish Republic from fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Norman’s experiences in that conflagration not only shaped his world view, they inspired him to become a painter. Returning to the states in 1939, he enrolled in art school and by 1941 had a solo exhibit of drawings at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Norman’s works began to garner praise in the press, even though his drawings and paintings portrayed troublesome realities. In 1946 he would study with Social Realist Reginald Marsh in New York City and travel to Mexico to see the works of the Mexican Muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco.

Although influenced by the Social Realists of his time, Norman’s style of figuration was set apart by a predilection for caricature - a realism inflamed by the fantastic rather than the natural. The horror and futility of war as experienced by the artist in Spain certainly equipped him with an apocalyptic vision. Norman was creating meticulously detailed realistic paintings and making use of “cartoon” aesthetics decades before the advent of Photorealism or the current “low-brow” fad as exemplified in magazines like Juxtapoz. But unlike those genres, Norman’s gripping critical visions possess a knife-edge clarity, empathy, and non-pretentiousness - a seriousness and compassion for humanity not found in the postmodern.

Oil painting by Irving Norman

[ Persecution - Irving Norman 1950. Oil on canvas. Norman’s work offered unflinching examinations of the human condition, often portraying humanity at odds with authoritarian forces. Not surprisingly, the artist himself became the target of unrelenting and brazen government spying. ]

You’d think that an artist as talented and dedicated to painting as Norman would have been on the fast track to success, but in late 1940’s America two portentous trends were about to sideline the artist’s works to obscurity - McCarthyism and Abstract Expressionism. In the introduction to the excellent catalog book, Dark Metropolis, Scott A. Shields, Chief Curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, wrote:

To FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the link between the Communist Party and the Spanish Civil War made all veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade suspect of potential disloyalty. With the approval of President Roosevelt, Hoover ordered the surveillance of all ’subversive activities,’ which included the investigation of propaganda ‘opposed to the American way of life’ and the oversight of agitators who aroused ‘class hatred.’ Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were promptly put under surveillance by the federal investigators. Many were blatantly harassed at home and at work, both in person and by telephone, and many lost their jobs and faced occupational blacklists.

Hela Norman believes that her husband was the victim of such a blacklist. ‘Curators and museum directors would come to visit and were jumping up and down they were so excited by the work,’ she remembered. ‘They would promise to purchase work and host museum exhibits - and then nothing. We would never hear from them again.’ The FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act confirm that Norman’s activities were heavily monitored and perhaps stifled. The degree to which these government activities negatively impacted Norman’s stature as an artist may never be known. Entire pages of the FBI files are redacted. Those pages that are legible include clear documentation that Norman’s career and progress were closely tracked by the government for over twenty years, beginning in the early 1950’s, first by FBI agents and then by the United States Postal Service.

(….) The harassment of the Normans became so great that in 1958 the couple sought the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully persuaded the FBI to stop their visits and interrogations. However, the Postal Service continued its surveillance until 1974, when Norman’s file finally stopped growing. Hela Norman remembers the FBI’s last visit, when an agent told Irving, ‘We consider you unfriendly.’”

But government repression was perhaps the lesser of Norman’s problems, because by the late 1940’s figurative realism fell out of fashion and gave way to the detached and non-narrative world of abstract color field painting. Adam Gopnik, a writer for New Yorker magazine, described the dominance of abstract art during this period in the following manner: “Oversized abstract watercolors had become the single style of the American museum, forcing two generations of realists to live in basements and pass still-lifes around like samizdat.” By the late 1950’s abstract expressionism had become what could only be described as art official, and there was little room in the art world for those who contested the canon of conformity. Under these conditions Irving Norman worked in isolation, heroically painting gigantic canvasses in his studio that flew in the face of prevailing tastes as dictated by art elites. As modern art grew empty to the point of meaninglessness, Norman’s tremendously detailed and defiantly humanist paintings screamed the nightmares of modern society. Though it’s true the artist had a small circle of supporters, especially in the San Francisco Bay area where he lived and worked, it’s also a matter of fact that he was largely ignored by the art establishment.

Oil painting by Irving Norman

[ The Bus - Irving Norman 1953. Oil on canvas. Much of the artist’s work depicted people trying to survive in the brutal, heartless environs of a "dark metropolis" - a place driven by alienation, power and greed. ]


In retrospect, the shunning of Irving Norman seems wholly ridiculous. The stylistic tyranny of abstract expressionism is thankfully but a memory, and a socially engaged artist is no longer thought of as an eccentric in the arts community. It seems the art world has at last caught up with Norman’s vision - or has it? The so-called pluralism of today’s postmodern art scene makes room for the type of outsider art Norman championed decades ago; but given contemporary art’s present flight from social responsibility, it’s more than likely that Norman’s aesthetics will be embraced - while his humanistic vision and belief in art as a force for social change will be ignored. That being the case, there is much work to be done in preserving Norman’s legacy.

[ War and Peace - Irving Norman 1964. Triptych. Oil on canvas. 106" x 210". Filled with extraordinarily rich detail, this painting is indicative of the artist’s finest work. I’m standing before the canvas in this photo to give you a sense of the painting’s size. The central panel depicts two gargantuan warriors battling one another while crushing humanity underfoot. The side panels present the world at "peace," but these are glimpes of an oppressive urban world devoid of justice. From afar the painting has the luminescent appearance of a Gothic stained glass window, but up close one can see the painting is composed of hundreds of small vignettes, each telling its own unique horror story. There are easily a thousand tiny portraits of people included in this mind-boggling painting. The image below is a detail from the central panel, depicting the combatant shown in the right-hand side of the composition. ]

Detail from central panel of, War and Peace

Irving Norman deserves not only to be a recognizable name, but a lauded one. The Dark Metropolis traveling exhibit and catalog are blazing steps in the right direction, both should be given full support, and hopefully they’ll lead to further exhibits, retrospectives, academic attention, and public awareness. But most importantly, these social surrealist works should provide inspiration to contemporary artists, who with any luck - will pick up Irving Norman’s banner and run with it.

Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism, will next show at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum in Logan, Utah, where it will run from June 5th, 2007 to October 20th, 2007. After that the exhibit will travel to the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, D.C., where it will show from November 13th, 2007 to January 23rd, 2008. The show at the Katzen should be especially interesting since the Abu Ghraib paintings of Fernando Botero will be exhibited there during the same time frame (Nov. 6th - Dec. 30th, 2007 - a show not to be missed! ) For those unable to attend these exhibits, be sure to visit www.irvingnorman.com, the official and very informative website maintained by the artist’s estate. The beautifully illustrated and enlightening catalog book, Dark Metropolis: Irving Norman’s Social Surrealism, is available from Amazon.com.

Philip Guston: “I wanted to tell stories.”

Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico, is a wonderful survey of paintings by these two promethean artists showing at The Santa Monica Museum of Art until November 25th, 2006. The twenty-six canvases on display reveal the far reaching influence the European Surrealist de Chirico had upon Guston, presenting works from both artists that trace the startling development of their careers over the decades.

Photograph by Mark Vallen

Musa Mayer, reading from her book “Night Studio” at the Santa Monica Museum of Art Nov. 25th, 2006. In the background is one of Guston’s emblematic Klan paintings. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

During the evening of Oct 3rd, 2006, I attended Remembering Guston, a special event at the Santa Monica Museum of Art attended by some 80 individuals. Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, read from her book Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston. Mayer’s compelling personal insights into her father’s life held the audience in sway - and cemented my affection for the eccentric artist. She touched upon many aspects of her father’s professional career; his ardor for the works of the old masters, his driven nature to create - which kept him working in the studio until late at night (hence the title of Mayer’s book), the torment he felt when former admirers attacked him for “betraying” pure abstraction, and the disillusionment suffered over the treatment he received at the hands of a capricious art establishment.

It may come as a surprise to some that I’m an admirer of Guston, who for a while was a leading light in the extreme “non-objective” abstract movement of the early 1950s, but then, he was so many things, and if people delved into his life and works they just might come to share my fascination. Many superlative accounts have been written about the life and work of Philip Guston, so rather than repeating well known facts, I’d like to make a few personal comments regarding his oeuvre, as well as making a stab at contributing new information about what he accomplished in Los Angeles - the city of my birth.

A few of the artist’s statements might make clear my admiration for him. When he was at the height of his fame as a pure abstract painter in 1958, he said, “I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image or symbol should be celebrated as a freedom. It is this loss we suffer, this pathos that motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.” In a 1970 interview, he revealed what was behind his leap from pure abstraction to figuration, “I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories.” And in a 1974 interview he said, “When the 1960’s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man was I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?” Considering the state of the world, these are all ideas contemporary artists should be mulling over.

Poor Richard - Drawing by Philip Guston, 1971

“Poor Richard” - Philip Guston, Ink on paper. In 1971 Guston created eighty satiric drawings that expressed his contempt for President Richard M. Nixon. Portrayed here as the iconic Klansmen of Guston’s late visual language, are Nixon, his Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, and Attorney General John N. Mitchell. Though not on display at the the Santa Monica Museum of Art, you can see the entire suite of Guston’s little known Nixon drawings here, as well as read about their creation.

While most think of Guston as a New York artist, he began his career in Los Angeles, which of course I find endlessly fascinating as an Angelino. It all began in 1919 when the Goldstein family moved to L.A. from Montreal, Canada, which means Philip (who changed his last name to Guston in 1936), lived in L.A. from the time he was six years old until he was twenty-three - making him an honorary Angelino in my book. He started drawing profusely at around thirteen, and upon entering Manual Arts High School in downtown L.A., made friends with another young student deeply interested in art - Jackson Pollock. Guston received a Scholarship to Otis Art Institute in 1930, but became disillusioned and left after three months. That same year he befriended Reuben Kadish, who was himself to become a great painter. This is where the story begins to take on mythic proportions, and for an L.A. artist like myself, the confluence of historic actors and events that played out in my city is almost overwhelming - especially since my passionate interest in these histories has shaped my life as an artist.

Guston, Kadish, and the painter Herman Cherry, began attending meetings organized by the left-wing John Reed Club (named after the American journalist and well-known revolutionary), in fact it was Cherry who gave Guston his first exhibit at Hollywood’s Stanley Rose bookshop and gallery in 1931. The John Reed Club met at a number of venues across the city, including the Plaza Art Center in the Italian Hall on L.A.’s famous Olvera Street. David Alfaro Siqueiros arrived in L.A. in April, 1932, and addressed a meeting of the John Reed Club in Hollywood, presenting his approach to art in a paper he titled The Vehicles of Dialectic-Subversive Painting. I’m not certain if Guston attended that meeting, but the influence exerted upon him by Siqueiros and the Mexican Muralists was no doubt considerable. When José Clemente Orozco began painting his Prometheus mural at Pomona College, Guston and Jackson Pollock were there to watch.

Millard Sheets, a teacher at the Chouinard Art Institute at the time, invited Siqueiros to paint a mural at the institute, where the Mexican master formed a team of over twenty assistants he called the Bloc of Mural Painters. Philip Guston was a Bloc member, along with Rubin Kadish, Harold Lehman, Fletcher Martin, Murray Hantman, Luis Arenal, Barse Miller, Phil Paradise, Paul Sample (President of the California Arts Club), and others. Various members of the Bloc helped Siqueiros create three murals in L.A., América Tropical (atop the Italian Hall at Olvera Street), Worker’s Meeting (at Chouinard), and Portrait of Mexico Today (at the Pacific Palisades home of film director, Dudley Murphy). Since he was a Bloc member, it’s difficult to imagine Guston not assisting Siqueiros in painting any of the three murals, but I’ve yet to see him credited as a direct assistant. However, he was certainly on that Olvera Street rooftop along with Pollock - listening to Siqueiros talk while working on América Tropical.

In November, 1932, the U.S. government deported Siqueiros because of his leftist politics, but the Bloc of Mural Painters continued to be productive. It was around this time that the chief of the LAPD, James E. Davis, established a “Red Squad” to attack Communists and smash up their organizations. Interestingly enough, every biography of Philip Guston that I’ve seen has overlooked, down played, or ignored what I’m about to bring to light - that his first public mural was most likely destroyed by the Los Angeles Police Department Red Squad. The few sources that do mention this little known event fail to present an illustration of the painting, damaged or not.

Soon after the forced departure of Siqueiros, the Bloc of Mural Painters organized an exhibit in opposition to the brutal racism that oppressed African Americans, and the exhibition was sponsored by the John Reed Club of Hollywood. Six members of the Bloc each created two large portable mural panels for the exhibition, and Guston was one of the artists - choosing the trial of the Scottsboro Boys as his theme. The available information on the exhibit is sparse and conflicting. There’s a chilling account provided by participating Bloc artist, Harold Lehman, stating the show was “scheduled to open in the Barnsdale in Los Angeles in December, 1932,” and that the L.A.P.D. attacked the John Reed Club’s headquarters in Hollywood where the artworks were stored, destroying them all so “the controversial images would never reach the light of day.”

Philip Stein, the American artist who painted murals with Siqueiros in Mexico for ten years, and later wrote the biography, Siqueiros: His Life and Works, also mentioned the incident, stating that the Red Squad had “confiscated the paintings, all rich with political content. When eventually the paintings were returned, they were full of bullet holes.” Robert Storr’s biography on Guston erroneously placed the incident as having occurred one year earlier, and recounted the story in the following manner; “By 1931 Guston had executed his first public work, a series of portable panels based on the notorious racist trial of the Scottsboro Boys. He then watched in anger and amazement as the panels were mutilated by members of the Police “Red Squad” and a gang of American Legionnaires, who took pleasure in using the eyes and genitals of the black figures in the painting for target practice. The persecution that Guston had only imagined thus became all too terrifyingly real.”

The only other account I’ve found so far came from Jean Bruce Poole and Tevvy Ball, in their authoritative history, El Pueblo: The Historic Heart of Los Angeles. The entry in that book states; “Early in 1933 the L.A.P.D. Red Squad raided the club offices, and a number of paintings and frescoes were damaged. The club brought suit against the city, claiming that these were valuable works fashioned by Siqueiros’s students and alleging that officers had removed a number of paintings and shot or poked them full of holes.”

The pieces of the puzzle all fell into place for me when I viewed a reproduction of the July 15th, 1933 edition of the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express, an L.A. paper that ceased publication in 1950. The newspaper printed a short article, Club Raid Told by Man Behind Curtain, detailing the police assault on the John Reed Club in Hollywood and the subsequent trial over the damaged art. The opening paragraph of the article read; “How Harry Buchanan hid behind a curtain in the John Reed Club and witnessed the details of a raid by the police red squad on the Club at which valuable art objects were damaged or destroyed, was set forth in the testimony of Buchanan on record today in Judge J. A. Smith’s Court at the trial of a suit for $5,200 damages brought against the city as the result of the raid.”

Scottsboro Boys - Portable mural attributed to Philip Guston

Scottsboro Boys - Portable mural attributed to Philip Guston. Destroyed in 1933 by a unit of the LAPD Red Squad.

However, it was the photograph that accompanied the story that really got my attention, it showed one of the artworks in question, before and after being damaged. Despite the fact that both the article and the photo’s caption failed to identify the subject matter of the artwork or the name of the artist who created it - there’s little doubt that it is the panel of the Scottsboro Boys described by Robert Storr in his biography on Philip Guston. My educated guess is that the photo is of Guston’s first public mural.

Further circumstantial evidence comes from comparing the newspaper photo of the damaged painting with photos of Guston’s renowned Mother and Child (1930), his first fully realized easel painting created when he was just 17. Both compositionally and stylistically, they appear to be the work of the same artist - especially in the treatment of the faces. Remarkably, this early painting and the circumstances surrounding it have been written out of most of the accounts of Guston’s life and work - a situation that I hope will in part be remedied by the research I’ve presented here.

Political Art: Timely & Timeless

This past April, fellow painter and printmaker, Art Hazelwood, exhibited his suite of ten antiwar engravings titled Hubris Corpulentus, at the library of the University of Rhode Island. The exhibit included a panel discussion under the heading, Political Art: Timely & Timeless. Hazelwood delivered an important address on the topic that I encourage everyone to read - and with his permission I’ve published a few excerpts from his speech to whet your appetite. I’m in complete agreement with Hazelwood’s stance, and only take exception to his use of the term “political art.” As I see it, all art is political, whether it’s produced by David Hockney, Thomas Kinkade, or Art Hazelwood - but that’s a topic for another blog post.

[ Hazelwood’s excerpted comments: ]

“Over the last several years I’ve talked to lots of people about political art and there has been a gradual shift. Before the Iraq war there seemed to be an attitude that political art was out of date or people had a general hostility towards it. But recently I’ve noticed a shift in people’s attitudes. People I have talked to are changing their minds. There are still the purists who believe that any concession will debase the temple of art, but their voice, once supreme in the art world is now growing weaker. And it is obvious why. Political art might always have a place but in a time of war, and in a time of a rising police state political art becomes a necessity.”

“I’ve been enraged by the Bush Administration and its policies, specifically the Iraq War, but in general the ideology of the Bush doctrine of ‘good and evil’, ‘us and them’, ‘with us or against us.’ But how do you oppose this simplistic idea of good and evil without falling into the same mental trap. The world is more complicated. Life is more complicated, and art is more complicated. You can’t oppose that smug, ironic, detached and disconnected worldview that is the Bush administration with a smug, ironic, detached and disconnected cultural movement. What is needed is an engaged culture. An engaged populous. Not engaged through fear, but engaged through passion.”

“Some people say that political art has no effect in changing people’s minds; that it is preaching to the converted. To which I would answer three things, first no one ever measured the value of a painting of the crucifixion by how many converts it made. Political art is cumulative in its effect. Its not merely one political print that changes the world. It is a part of a cultural movement. Second, doing political art has certainly changed me, and that is some measure of its effectiveness. My experience of working with homeless groups has deepened my understanding of the problem and my desire to do something about it. It has made my artwork stronger and clearer and the clarity of the artwork I have made has in return made me want to push for a greater clarity of form and meaning. And I would say finally when asked if I really think art can change the world. I will answer in all truthfulness and humility, that certainly, yes, that is exactly the point of it, to change the world.”