Category: Social Realism

The Left Front: Defying Established Order

"Unemployed" - Alexander Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1930

"Unemployed" - Alexander Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1930.

The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940, is a significant exhibit of American art created during the Great Depression years in the United States. Presented by the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in New York, the exhibit displays 100 artworks by forty notable artists of the period; including works by John Sloan, Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh, Mabel Dwight, and Louis Lozowick. Lynn Gumpert, the director of the Grey Art Gallery, said the following about the exhibit and its relevance to the present:

“In the wake of our recent ‘Great Recession,’ many artists today find themselves grappling with the same questions of art and activism raised by this exhibition. Indeed, The Left Front both opens a window onto a fascinating period in the history of American art and politics and brings to mind artistic responses to many of the very issues being confronted today, including alarming inequality in income and opportunity. In so doing, it asks what revolutionary art was during the turbulent 1930s, and what it can be in our own era.”

Ms. Gumpert’s concern for what revolutionary art “can be in our own era,” a period where art has become, not subversive, but subservient to wealth and power, is an urgent question for the arts community. Faced with deepening inequality, resurgent racism, ecological catastrophe, and the ever increasing drumbeat of war, artists should strive to offer critical visions of these systemic problems. By necessity this means turning from a self-absorbed, exclusively inward looking art, to one that is engaged with everyday people and the global community.

Workers of the World Unite - Rockwell Kent. Wood engraving. 1937.

"Workers of the World Unite" - Rockwell Kent. Wood engraving. 1937.

Herein lies the value of The Left Front exhibit. It provides an in-depth look at one aspect of Social Realism, a type of art that has almost been erased from historic memory in the U.S., a great irony given that the genre began in America with the painters of the so-called 1908 “Ashcan School.” After a slew of art movements since the close of the 2nd World War; abstraction, pop, conceptual, etc., it has became difficult to imagine that the Social Realist school was once a leading art form in the U.S. and around the world.

The school was varied and nuanced, and included American scene painters like John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, as well as politicized African American artists like Aaron Douglas and Charles White. The Social Realist movement had three great centers, the U.S., Germany, and Mexico, each making their own unique contributions. Mexico gave the world Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco (Mexican creations are included in The Left Front exhibit). Germany gave us Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. Unfortunately Americans on the whole have largely forgotten about their homegrown Social Realist artists; you can attribute that in part to the Witch-hunts of McCarthyism.

Strike Breakers (Company Violence) - Morris Topchevsky. Oil on canvas. 1937.

"Strike Breakers, Company Violence" - Morris Topchevsky. Oil on canvas. 1937.

The Left Front exhibit presents works from the highly politicized branch of Social Realism, where artists used their work in an agitational manner to confront mass unemployment, class oppression, racism, lynchings, and the drive towards war that characterized the Great Depression years. The exhibit is comprised mostly of prints, although drawings, watercolors, paintings, and photos are also included. Inexpensive prints played a meaningful role for dissident artists during the Depression, they allowed low income people to bring art into their homes, and brought new aesthetics and politics to a wide audience.

Subway No. 2 - Alex R. Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1935

"Subway No. 2" - Alex Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1935. Unemployed and homeless in the U.S.A.

Much of the art in The Left Front exhibit came from artists working with the John Reed Club, a U.S. national federation of left-leaning cultural workers and intellectuals named after American journalist and socialist activist John Reed.

Founded in 1929, the John Reed Club was eventually disbanded in 1935. While associated with the Communist Party U.S.A., members of the John Reed club were not necessarily Marxists or even CP members. I detail some of this in I wanted to tell stories, an Oct. 2006 article I wrote about the American painter Philip Guston.

The young Guston started his art career in Los Angeles as a realist painter before becoming an iconic figure in the New York School of severe abstract painting; thankfully Guston returned to realism, albeit a cartoonish version, in the late 1960s. But as a young man in L.A. Guston attended meetings of the John Reed Club held at the Italian Hall on L.A.’s famous Olvera Street.

The Strike Is Won - Harry Gottlieb. Color silk-screen print. 1940.

"The Strike Is Won" - Harry Gottlieb. Color silk-screen print. 1940.

Guston was one of those artists who worked with Siqueiros when the Mexican muralist came to L.A. in 1932. Guston joined Siqueiros’ Bloc of Mural Painters, artists who assisted Siqueiros in the painting of his famous América Tropical mural on Olvera Street. When the U.S. government unceremoniously deported Siqueiros in 1932, Guston continued working with the Bloc of Mural Painters. That same year the John Reed Club sponsored an exhibit of artworks created by Guston and the Bloc in opposition to racism and police brutality. Before the show’s opening the L.A.P.D. raided the John Reed Club gallery in Hollywood and destroyed the artworks, including Guston’s first public mural… the police shot the portable mural full of bullet holes.

"Workman" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. Lithograph. 1936.

"Workman" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. Lithograph. 1936.

The above is a perfect example of the political climate and repression that confronted oppositional artists during the 1930s, one should keep this in mind when thinking about The Left Front exhibition. Those who created prints depicting the terroristic lynching of Blacks won no favor from the art establishment; yet those artists defied the established order and pressed on with their wave-making art.

“Art as a social weapon” was the catchphrase of the John Reed Club. Before you laugh that off as a quaint and antiquated notion, I would suggest that art selected, curated, presented, and sold by elite art institutions has always broadly functioned as a social weapon. This was as true under the Ancien Régime of France’s Sun King as much as it is in the modern era.

It is my philosophy that a Jeff Koons is every bit as political an artist as those included in The Left Front exhibit. This matter is unequivocally nailed in the 1931 song, Which Side Are You On?, written during a miner’s strike by Florence Reese, the illustrious American folksong composer from Tennessee. Reese sang “Don’t scab for the bosses, don’t listen to their lies, poor folks ain’t got a chance unless they organize.” The song was tremendously popular with millions of down-and-out Americans in the 30s. The net worth of Jeff Koons is over $100 million, his kitsch baubles are popular with billionaires who prefer non-threatening art. Given the choice of standing with Koons or Reese, I will choose the poor folksinger every time.

The Mission - Raphael Soyer. Lithograph. 1933.

"The Mission" - Raphael Soyer. Lithograph. 1933.

One last word regarding Florence Reese and her famous workers’ rights song. On Oct. 4, 2014, during a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performance of Johannes Brahms’ Requiem, paying members of the audience who also happened to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement, peacefully delayed the concert when they stood beside their seats while singing an altered version of Which Side Are You On?

In the ten year period covered by The Left Front exhibit, artists created works against racism, poverty, and the drive towards war, that is… the very same problems we have today. But what of the present? Who wins favor with the art establishment? Why are artists failing so miserably in addressing the world’s problems? Those in The Left Front show entrusted to us a people’s history and a record of resistance. They bequeathed to us images of transcendent beauty, unbreakable spirit, and deep humanism in the face of bottomless cruelty and inhumanity. Now it is our turn.

"Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934

"Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934. The artist portrayed the Grim Reaper sitting in an expensive theater balcony, wearing an army helmet and gas mask while clutching a bayoneted rifle. The deathly phantom watches a parade of national leaders strutting across the stage. Which one will win Mr. D's respect and patronage? Why all of them of course!

"Christ in Alabama" - Prentiss Taylor. Lithograph. 1932. Taylor depicted the crucified Christ and Mary Magdalene as African Americans; the rocky fields of Golgotha replaced by the cotton fields of Alabama. The lithograph was created for the Langston Hughes book, "Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse." The print specifically illustrated Hughes' controversial and fiercely antiracist poem, Christ in Alabama.

"Christ in Alabama" - Prentiss Taylor. Lithograph. 1932. Taylor depicted the crucified Christ and Mary Magdalene as African Americans, the rocky ground of Golgotha replaced by cotton fields. The lithograph was created for the Langston Hughes book, "Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse." The print specifically illustrated Hughes' controversial and fiercely antiracist poem, Christ in Alabama.

"Lynching" - Lynd Ward. Wood engraving. 1932.

"Lynching" - Lynd Ward. Wood engraving. 1932.

Lost Horizons: Edward Biberman

In August of 2014 the Social And Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice, California, presented a small but important exhibition titled Lost Horizons: Mural Dreams of Edward Biberman. The American realist painter Edward Biberman carved out a place for himself in mid-20th century Los Angeles, despite the ascendancy and domination of abstract expressionism. His figurative paintings examined social inequality, racial oppression, and the plight of workers, placing him in the school of Social Realism. But his paintings focusing on the architecture of Los Angeles and the newat the time, freeways of L.A., exposed his modernist side.

I encourage one and all to read my February 2009 article, Edward Biberman Revisited, an appraisal of a retrospective exhibit of the artist’s works that was shown at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park. My review included biographical details about Biberman, as well as providing a social context to his works by taking into account the times and events he lived through. In May of 2012 I followed up with a second article titled Biberman Redux, which focused on the artist’s illustrated biographical book, Time and Circumstances: Forty Years of Painting.

In this evaluation of SPARC’s Lost Horizon show, I offer a few observations about some of the works that were exhibited, but mostly I will allow Biberman to speak for himself by inserting those quotes by the artist that SPARC used as plaques in the exhibition.

Lost Horizon takes as its theme the studies for “unrealized” murals that Biberman planned for L.A., but for one reason or another never got the chance to create. The show presents more than a dozen vibrant preliminary sketches and small oils related to proposed murals, as well as a few large paintings that were completed as stand alone easel paintings, such as an oil painting of the African-American artist and communist activist, Paul Robeson. Let’s not forget that Robeson won the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, and that he praised Joseph Stalin for his “deep humanity.”

It should be noted that Biberman leaned to the hard-left, and there’s little doubt he was more than sympathetic to the Communist Party USA. In the late 1930s he attended meetings of the L.A. based Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL), which warned of the rising threat of fascism in Europe. Biberman’s association with the HANL brought him to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), who identified the HANL as a communist front organization. In 1947 HUAC convened in Los Angeles and began investigating communist subversion in the motion picture industry. In October 1947 Edward’s brother, screenwriter and director Herbert Biberman, was called before HUAC. When he refused to cooperate with the committee, he was found guilty of “contempt of Congress,” fined $1,000, and sentenced to six months in a federal prison. Herbert was later blacklisted by the Hollywood studios and banned from Hollywood until 1965. The brothers Biberman never fully recovered from the HUAC investigations.

 "Chains" - Edward Biberman. Mixed media. 1940. Study for a mural never created. On view at the Social And Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), located in Venice, California.

"Chains" - Edward Biberman. Mixed media. 1940. On view at the Social And Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), located in Venice, California.

On display at Lost Horizon was a work charged with historic meaning, Biberman’s 1940 mixed media drawing titled Chains. An unusual depiction of racial harmony for its time, the art depicts blacks and whites standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, defiantly holding hands as if determined not to let someone pass through their lines. Technically, the drawing was produced on a board painted with white gesso. Once that ground was completely dry, Biberman blocked in fields of color, then completed the work with a drawing in black chalk. Throughout the artwork the brushstrokes set in the gesso add amazing textures to the paint washes and chalk drawing.

One must understand how completely segregated U.S. society was when Biberman created Chains. A year after he made the artwork, mass rallies by blacks protesting racial discrimination in the defense industry resulted in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 8802, which desegregated war production factories and banned discrimination in defense plants. In 1948 the U.S. armed forces would be fully desegregated by Executive Order 9981 made by President Harry Truman – eight years after the creation of Chains.

The crucial beginnings of the mass Civil Rights Movement were still a decade away, making Biberman’s artwork look prescient. Chains was an appeal to blacks and whites for unity in the face of virulent racism; given the state of race relations in the U.S. at the time, the artwork was explosively controversial.

"The Civil War and the Role of the Black Soldier: Full Scale Battle" (Detail) - Edward Biberman. Pastel and oil paint on paper. Preparatory study for a mural never created. Circa 1938.

"The Civil War and the Role of the Black Soldier: Full Scale Battle" (Detail) - Edward Biberman. Pastel and oil paint on paper. Preparatory study for a mural never created. Circa 1938.

Biberman’s sketch, The Civil War and the Role of the Black Soldier: Full Scale Battle, was one of several preparatory studies for murals that the artist never actually painted. On the whole, the dynamically composed drawings depicted circumstances through the eyes of African-Americans. Here I present a mere detail of Full Scale Battle, just to show the technical virtuosity of Biberman. The sketch was first laid out using a pencil to establish a line drawing, broad areas of color were then defined with pastel chalk, and final touches indicating highlights were then daubed in oil paint. A chaotic battlefield comes to life in Biberman’s study; one can almost hear the shrieks of wounded men and the thunder of rifles and cannonade. But the visuals of armed blacks fighting for their liberation was no doubt unsettling for mainstream America in the late 1930s, and Biberman’s vision was never realized as a public mural. Lost Horizons was worth attending if only to view these particular mural studies.

Oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938. This oil sketch was part of a larger composition intended as a mural for the San Pedro Post Office; the mural was never created.

Oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938. This oil sketch was part of a larger composition intended as a mural for the San Pedro Post Office; the mural was never created.

The last series of studies shown at SPARC that I will mention here are from Biberman’s proposed 1938 mural, History of Writing. He planned to install the mural at the San Pedro Post Office located in San Pedro, California, a major international seaport and city with a rich history of radical labor organizing. The mural was beautifully composed and meant to hang on an interior wall of the post office between the lobby and the main workroom. As the title implied, the mural presented important moments in the development of written language.

Rather than have his mural start with the cuneiform of ancient Mesopotamia, Biberman boldly focused on the “talking knots” or “Quipus” of the ancient Inca. “Quipus” were knotted cords that recorded data using binary code similar to modern computer language. Anthropologists have concluded that the Inca used the talking knots to record numerical information regarding time, taxes, census records, and the like, but only recently have anthropologists started to consider the talking knots as an actual writing system.

Detail of oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938.

Detail of oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938.

On the left side of his composition study for History of Writing (the original full study for the mural was on display at SPARC), Biberman depicted a number of Inca elites grouped together. The artist created small oil on canvas portrait studies for each figure, two of which appear here as illustrations. I believe that in part, it was his exposure to the Mexican Muralist school that led Biberman to feature the Inca in his History of Writing mural; he had already met Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco while living in New York.

In 1934 Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads fresco mural in New York’s Rockefeller Center was ordered destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller. Why? Because Rivera had refused to remove from his composition a portrait of the Russian communist revolutionary, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. That same year, American artists inspired by Rivera painted murals in San Francisco’s Coit Tower; some objected to the pro-worker murals and demanded their destruction. Public support prevented the obliteration of the artworks, but the city Park Commission did censor one of the mural panels by artist Clifford Wight, who had included the hammer and sickle symbol of communism in his composition – the symbol was painted out by the authorities.

Oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938.

Oil study for "History of Writing" - Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1938.

I cannot help but think that Biberman was thinking of all this when he created preliminary sketches and paintings for his 1938 History of Writing mural. In his oil painting study of an Inca chieftain , he portrayed the leader wearing heavy gemstone earplugs and a cap decorated with a red star – the cap bore more than a little resemblance to the early Soviet Red Army “Budenovka” cap. While visiting Los Angeles in 1932, Siqueiros painted the mural, Retrato del Mexico de hoy (“Portrait of Mexico Today”); the mural included a Soviet Red Army soldier wearing a Budenovka cap.

I am closing this article with some statements made by Edward Biberman, quotes that appeared as wall plaques in the Lost Horizon exhibit. The source of the quotations were a series of interviews conducted in 1975 under the auspices of the Oral History Program of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Biberman’s ideas about art are every bit as relevant to our present circumstances as they were in decades past, and contemporary artists have much to learn from him.

Here is what Biberman said about Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco…

“I had enormous admiration, particularly in this period, for the motivation that drove these artists (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros) to do the work they did. And although I had no sense of how this might happen in our own country – because this was prior to the whole New Deal art period – I had a feeling that something had to give, that the premise upon which we had all been operating in the past was no longer valid.

Well, the business of being an easel painter and producing what the economists call a ‘commodity’ in the hope that somewhere, sometime, someone would buy it, this is what I mean by the premise. The premise of public art is totally different. You don’t paint an enormous wall in the hope that someday, someone will build a building for it. In public art, you have a building, you have a premise, you have an opportunity, and the opportunity and the audience are both public. Therefore, it seemed to me at the time, and I still feel it is true, that given a different premise, one arrives at a different conclusion in art, as well as logic.”

Biberman said the following about the Great Depression and social realist art…

“But this became a time of deep personal tragedy. This was the bottom of the depression years, and the entire country seemed mired in despair. In the early summer of 1933, my father, despondent over financial worries and seeing no light ahead, took his own life.

The tragic act brought into sharp focus a state of unease, which has been growing in me for several years. Though I had been very fortunate, as a young painter, in getting my work seen, I was sorely troubled by such acts of desperation as that which had now struck our family, and I saw this as but a part of the larger travail of a nation with seventeen million unemployed. I questioned the relevance of my own work, and that of my colleagues, in times such as this. By contrast I had met Diego Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros at various times in New York in these years, and I could not but feel that what they were painting, and the uses to which their work was being put, had a pertinence which I deeply envied.”

On abstract art…

“I always find it not without a kind of coincidental interest that the height of the abstract expressionist movement was also the height of the McCarthy period. This may be, again, speculative, but I have always found the point of view of nonobjective art to be a very limited one. Action painting, abstract expressionism, and the avoidance of associate values in painting have, for me, not been constructive, despite the fact that historically this has been considered to be the emancipation of American art. Most people who write about the art of the middle of the twentieth century speak about the fact that the center of art and the center of the experimental movement moved from Europe to the United States, and that the so-called New York School (which means the abstract expressionist and the action school), signaled the emancipation of American art, and that for the first time American art moved to the center of the world scene.

From my point of view, if this is the center of the world scene of art, it’s not a very good center. I don’t enjoy it, I don’t feel comfortable with it, and I don’t feel it’s a very contributive point of view. My speculation as to why this particular point of view, which avoids subject matter, coincided almost exactly with the Cold War is something which one cannot prove. The painters of the abstract expressionist and action schools did not have to wrestle directly with contemporary social issues. A great many artists and critics maintain that this is a very positive outgoing manifestation of the individualist, a democratic, forward-looking point of view in art. I do not subscribe to this thesis.”

Biberman’s suspicions as to why abstract art became dominant during the Cold War were borne out in research done by British journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders and published in her 1999 book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. Using declassified U.S. government records, Saunders documented how the CIA – from the late 1940s until the late 1960s – ran secret operations that promoted American Abstract Expressionism and modern art as a weapon in the Cold War. From covertly funding museums and galleries that showed abstract art, planting positive stories about abstract artists in newspapers and magazines, and secretly organizing traveling national and international exhibitions of abstract art, the CIA helped to shape abstract art and its successes.

One can only imagine how Biberman would have reacted to Saunders’ findings. While Biberman could only speculate on the existence of a secret U.S. government program that exerted control over the arts, Saunders has provided clear and verifiable evidence of the extensive covert operation, vindicating Biberman’s suspicions. It is instructive that today’s art critics and art press have not yet initiated a discussion regarding the facts brought to light by Saunders.

“Murder in Mississippi”

On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights activists, a 21 year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi named James Chaney, and two white Jewish youth from New York, Andrew Goodman (21), and Michael Schwerner (25), were kidnapped and savagely murdered in Neshoba County in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They had been working in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register African-American voters in Mississippi when they met their end at the hands of racist killers. At the time only 6.7% of black Mississippians were registered to vote.

One can imagine the American social realist Ben Shahn creating prints extolling the memory of the murdered civil rights activists, but it is harder to think of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) doing the same. I always found his works too saccharine for my taste, though I respected his considerable skill as a painter. However, the postmodern art world long ago turned its collective back on Rockwell, regarding him disdainfully as a hopelessly old-fashioned “illustrator” and purveyor of quaint mythic Americanisms. But Rockwell’s homage to the heroes Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner—Murder in Mississippi, a dark and brooding work, revealed something not even Rockwell could veil.

Since its rise to prominence in the 1970s, postmodernism has not produced a single work of art as profound as this Rockwell painting.

"Murder in Mississippi" - Norman Rockwell. Oil on canvas. 1964. Intended as the illustration for the Look magazine article titled, "Southern Justice," by Charles Morgan, Jr. The painting remained unpublished © Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

"Murder in Mississippi" - Norman Rockwell. Oil on canvas. 1964. Intended as the illustration for the Look magazine article titled, "Southern Justice," by Charles Morgan, Jr. Norman Rockwell Family Agency ©. All rights reserved. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were arrested by Neshoba County police officer Cecil Price on a trumped up traffic violation. The three were held in the Neshoba County jail for several hours. During their brief imprisonment, officer Price, who was also a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, arranged with his fellow Klansmen the evening release and subsequent murder of the young men. Let out of jail at around ten in the evening after paying a fine, the trio attempted to drive out of town. Just as they were about to cross the county line officer Price stopped them once again, this time turning the three over to more than a dozen KKK terrorists. Goodman and Schwerner were each shot once in the heart, Chaney was beaten and shot three times. The men were then secretively buried beneath an earthen dam.

Fellow civil rights activists were naturally alarmed when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner disappeared, and a manhunt was immediately launched. Hundreds of federal authorities were sent to Mississippi to conduct the search. Racist violence was no stranger to the black community of Mississippi or to Freedom Summer activists, that summer 37 black churches, businesses, and homes were firebombed by white supremacists. When the bodies of the three activists were at last found, the news gripped the nation. It had taken 44 days of searching before the badly decomposed bodies of the young men were located. The tenor of the times was well captured by Nina Simone in her 1964 song, Mississippi Goddam.

In the aftermath of the killings, no one was charged with the murders for four decades. Finally, on Jan. 6, 2005, a grand jury indicted Edgar Ray Killen on three counts of murder, the prosecution describing Killen as the mastermind of the assassinations and the one who assembled the men who would actually kill the three civil rights workers. On June 21, 2005, Killen, then 80-years old, was found guilty and sentenced to sixty-years in prison for manslaughter.

"Southern Justice" - Norman Rockwell. Oil sketch. 1964. Used as the illustration for the Look magazine article titled, "Southern Justice." Norman Rockwell Family Agency ©. All rights reserved. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

"Southern Justice" - Norman Rockwell. Oil sketch. 1964. Used as the illustration for the Look magazine article titled, "Southern Justice." Norman Rockwell Family Agency ©. All rights reserved. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

Rockwell’s first son Jarvis (one of three), posed in the painting as the central figure of Michael Schwerner. The artist tacked press photos of Schwerner to his easel as reference material during the process of painting.

The canvas was completed after five weeks of intense work, and Rockwell titled it, Murder in Mississippi.

The editors of Look magazine rejected the final painting (shown at top) for publication, arguing instead that Rockwell’s preparatory oil sketch for the canvas (shown at left) made for a more poignant illustration.

The study had taken the artist less than an hour to paint. Rockwell objected, but yielded to the editors on the matter.

The sketch was published in the June 29, 1965 edition of Look, and served as a single-page illustration for Southern Justice, a short article by famed civil-rights lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr. (1930-2009). The oil sketch became known by the title, Southern Justice.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, and Norman Rockwell’s response to the politically motivated killings, the Mississippi Museum of Art presents Rockwell’s tour de force in a special exhibition titled, Norman Rockwell: Murder in Mississippi. Running from June 14 to August 31, 2014, the exhibit displays the original painting, oil sketch, and related ephemera.

Exhibit: Indigenous Roots

I will be premiering two new paintings at the exhibit, Indigenous Roots, to be held December 14, 2013 to January 25, 2014, at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles, CA. Curator Raoul de la Sota said of the exhibit: “I have invited 13 artists to discuss and interpret visually in their work the ethnic, cultural and racial history that has influenced their work as artists perhaps living physically distant from their homeland but closely tied by their heartstrings to its past.”

"L.A. Subway" - Mark Vallen, 2013 ©. Oil on masonite.

"L.A. Subway" - Mark Vallen, 2013 ©. Oil on masonite.

One of the oil paintings I will be showing I have titled, L.A. Subway. As with the portrait of this Latina I encountered on a Los Angeles Metro Rail subway train, it is the lot of the 99% to daily trudge to and from work.

Perhaps she is a nurse or care worker, one of millions in a service industry that does not receive the rewards or appreciation they deserve. My father, an immigrant from Mexico, labored in L.A.’s upscale restaurants, mostly working two shifts a day for his entire professional career. While I celebrate my ethnic heritage, being of the working class has also shaped my life and art.

I have two distinct sets of memories from my childhood. One collection of reminiscences has to do with my father making monthly trips from L.A. to San Diego to visit his mother and extended family, most of which were born in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico.

My strongest recollections are of my father’s mother, who came to San Diego as a young woman and found work at the original Chicken of the Sea canning plant. I remember her as the greatest cook in the world, and as a child I spent hours with her in the kitchen as she cooked tamales, menudo, and the most amazing hand made flour tortillas from scratch.

The other group of memories have to do with my father being a working man. He labored in L.A.’s restaurant industry, working his way up from bus boy to maître d’ in some of the city’s most elite private clubs. He inadvertently taught me about class as I watched him endure exhausting work and long hours while serving wealthy patrons. From my experience, ethnic and cultural identity intertwine with working class sensibility and outlook. These points of view have always informed my art.

The second oil painting I have in the exhibit is titled, Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti (seen directly below).

"Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. <br>Oil on canvas. 30" x 50" inches.

"Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Oil on canvas. 30" x 50" inches. "Struggling to survive in a hostile urban environment."

While Urban Landscape was inspired by observing the streets of Los Angeles, the canvas depicts a reality now present in virtually every large American city; working class youth struggling to survive in a hostile urban environment during very difficult economic times. The subject of my painting is a young Latina, but she could just as easily be of any racial background; she holds a book, perhaps the only weapon that can free her from a life of ignorance, poverty, and want.

 Detail, "Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©

Detail, "Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©

I am very satisfied with Urban Landscape, and consider it to be my strongest social realist painting to date. The canvas, which took more than a year to complete, represents something of a turning point for me, as I was more interested in achieving paint textures than ever before. The juxtaposition of a painterly “abstract” background, a fair representation of actual city walls these days, with the precision realism of the foreground figure, I found to be a particularly pleasing accomplishment.

Our cities are decaying, basic social services and school budgets are being cut to the bone, unemployment is rampant, and crime is ever present. As a rule the artless scrawls of wannabe or real gangsters that deface city walls denote communities in decline – it has little to do with art and everything to do with collapse. This is something to be opposed, not celebrated and romanticized. Urban Landscape stands as a counterpoint to today’s trendy nonsense concerning graffiti and the attempts by hipster aesthetes to commodify it.

Indigenous Roots opens on December 14, 2013 and runs until January 25, 2014.

An Opening Reception with the artists will be held on Dec. 14th, from 7 to 10 pm.

The group show also includes artists: Armando Baeza, Patricia Boyd, Yrneh Brown, Lawrence Garcia, Raul Herrera, Andres Montoya, Ferril Nawir, Djibril N’Doye, CCH Pounder, Cindy Suriyani, Lamonte Westmoreland, and Katsu Yokoyama.

Avenue 50 Studio is located at 131 North Avenue 50, Highland Park, CA 90042. (Map: Gallery Hours: Tue-Thurs, 10am-4pm. Sat-Sun, 10am-4pm.

Detail, "Urban Landscape" - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Going abstract while playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today.

Detail, "Urban Landscape" - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Going abstract while playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today.

One last note. In titling my painting I could not help but pay homage to a forgotten, or is that unknown, historical aspect of the megalopolis that is Los Angeles. “She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti” paraphrases Electrify Me, a song by the Chicano punk band The Plugz. Founded in L.A. in 1977, I attended the band’s early riotous concerts; their verse about graffiti stuck with me, as it exemplified the dark and foreboding underbelly of the modern concrete jungle.


UPDATE 12/31/2013: On Jan. 5, 2014 at 2:00 pm, there will be a panel discussion with the artists from the Indigenous Roots show. Moderated by the exhibit’s curator Raoul De la Sota, the round table dialogue will explore ideas pertaining to art and culture that are at odds with the mainstream art world. Join this painter and fellow artists Ferril Nawir, CCH Pounder, Raul Herrera, Andres Montoya, Yrneh Brown, Lawrence Garcia, Cindy Suriani, Armando Baeza, and Katsu Yokoyama, for the lively conversation.