6. THE ART PROJECT: MURALS AND INTRIGUE

By the middle of 1936, the Federal Art Project was employing some 5,000 mural and easel artists, printmakers, sculptors, poster artists, and art teachers. The conservative press and politicians sneered that this was a gigantic boondoggle, but were not yet hurling accusations of Communist influence and infiltration.

This was not the only federal artwork program. Acting on a suggestion by Roosevelt’s old friend George Biddle, the Treasury Department had started its Public Works of Art Project in 1933 under the Civil Works Administration to decorate new and existing federal buildings. This had evolved into the Treasury’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, still with the adornment of federal buildings as its goal. But the Treasury program awarded contracts based on competition among artists. This meant it hired artists who were already likely to have work. The WPA, however, was commanded to take its artists, excluding supervisors, from the relief rolls. Their talents varied widely, requiring Holger Cahill and his staff to create opportunities for every level of ability as well as for emerging styles, such as expressionism and other abstract forms, that had not gained wide acceptance.

The Federal Art Project, like the other arts projects, was confusing to accountants who tried to apply standard guidelines to purchases and productivity. Robert Asure, the Federal One finance officer, remembered hours of negotiations “about the purchase of paints, because they thought you write specifications like you do for tons and shiploads and trainloads, carloads of other things, and [they could not fathom] the notion that one artist wouldn’t like the kind of paint that some other artist wants, or that they might have to import these from abroad, or something.”

These same accountants also wanted to be sure the government got its money’s worth from the WPA artists. But they didn’t have a clue about the way artists worked. Cahill resisted having them punch a time clock, since most worked in their own studios at their own pace. They might go for days without painting a stroke, and then work for days and nights without stopping. He tried to set production quotas instead, giving watercolorists three weeks to produce a painting and oil painters four to six, depending on the size of the canvas; printmakers had a month to produce an etching, lithograph, or block print. Cahill thought this was sufficient to prove they were actually working.

But WPA administrators in the states and in New York City, which was treated as a state, still retained some measure of control since they issued the paychecks, and they echoed Washington’s demands and shared the inability—or unwillingness—of officials there to understand the world of artists. This was especially true in New York City, where Hopkins had installed Lieutenant Colonel Brehon Somervell as the administrator after work shut down on the Florida Ship Canal. Somervell insisted on time cards, with the resultant petty inconveniences. Mabel Dwight was a Staten Island printmaker with a wry touch to her work. In 1926, she was sixty years old and too deaf to trust herself to wake to her alarm clock, so she forced herself to stay up all night in order to take the ferry to Manhattan at first light, board the subway, and sign in at the project offices. Then she went home again.

“What good did the signing in do her?” Cahill asked rhetorically in an interview long after the project’s close. “Nothing. It just meant that she was reporting…. This was the phoniness of this sort of thing.”

In fact, recalled Audrey McMahon, the Federal Art Project director for the New York region, “to say that Colonel Somervell did not like and did not understand the project or the artists is a vast understatement. He was not only of the school of critics who felt that ‘his little Mary could do as well’ as, shall we say, a distinguished painter like Ben Shahn or Stuart Davis, but in addition, he had a profound conviction that to create ‘pictures’ was not ‘work.’”

The artists, of course, developed ways of coping, not all of which were legal. Twenty-three-year-old Jackson Pollock started on the project in 1935 as an assistant to a muralist because the work rules for murals were easier. Later, when Cahill relaxed the rules for easel artists, he switched. At the time Pollock was living in a downtown New York loft with his brother Sanford, called Sande, who was also on the project. When they learned that only one member of each household with the same last name could collect a WPA paycheck, Sande changed his name to McCoy, an ancestral name, so they could both stay on the rolls. The deceptions artists were willing to employ highlighted the fact that for most of them, the WPA was allowing them to work full-time at art for the first time in their lives, and not have to supplement their usually meager income from art with teaching or other jobs.

Cahill was a perfect leader for the mix of talents and temperaments at his command. He had no interest in conforming to artificial academic standards, preferring a range of experience and experimentation to the rigidity often associated with art “movements.” This was how he had lived his own life. His family had left Iceland when he was an infant, first for western Canada, then to North Dakota. When he was eleven, in 1898, his father abandoned the family, and so Cahill spent his youth in orphanages or working on farms in Canada and the Midwest, occasionally taking to the road in search of his mother and his sister. Eventually he found them working on a farm in North Dakota, but after a brief reunion, he struck out on his own again. He worked as a cattle driver, a railroad clerk, and a coal shoveler on a boat to Japan and China, where he jumped ship in Shanghai. When he finally returned to the United States, he landed in New York, attending college classes at night while working as a dishwasher and a short-order cook. It was about that time, near the end of the world war, that he changed his birth name, Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarsson, to Edgar Holger Cahill—Eddie to his friends—and took up journalism. In the 1920s, he plunged deep into the art world and began to write about art. Painters were his friends, among them John Sloan, Max Weber, and Joseph Stella. He joined the staff of the Newark Museum in 1922, where he curated important shows on American folk art. In 1932, when he was the acting director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he brought together the work of early American folk artists in a show that proposed that their art and popular culture fertilized fine art and high culture. Other shows he curated also linked primitive art with the work of modern masters. Along the way, he also found time to write books and essays about art, as well as novels and short stories, and his reputation in the art world grew. He was thus a natural choice for the short list to head the Federal Art Project. He accepted the job, intending to stay for just six months, after hearing that the other leading candidate was the head of the American Academy, a prescription for buttoned-down academic standards.

It was inevitable that most project art would fall into the representational school known as American scene painting. While European artists had embraced modernism as a departure from the past, at this time American artists believed that depictions of real people in real settings would help them reveal American democracy and create a uniquely American art form. Still, they fell into two camps; both were shaped by the depression, but one tended to highlight the country’s virtues, the other its flaws. Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton practiced American regionalism, evoking in their paintings the simplicity of the heartland—farms and small towns where life was orderly and crops grew from land curiously untouched by drought. The social realists had a different take. Artists such as Joseph Hirsch, Ben Shahn, and Jack Levine looked at urban and industrial America; found corruption, slums, and blighted lives; and created paintings and prints filled with outrage and a sarcasm that often featured scathing caricatures.

Benton taught WPA artists, including Jackson Pollock, and Hirsch, Shahn, and Levine all worked for the WPA. Many project artists, however, had more earnestness than verve; their depictions of poverty and poor working conditions strove to deliver a political message. Critics were inclined to find such works “depressing.” “Gloom pervades practically all” the paintings, reported the New York Times about one WPA easel show.

But then there were the murals. In an America that was striving to make sense of itself, to review its origins and trials and mark its progress, these WPA creations would evolve into a form all their own. Their muscular men at work in fields and factories, women tending hearth and home, historical figures and events, street scenes, and magnificent machines would become what people thought of when the phrase “New Deal art” was spoken. The works of easel painters were parceled out to government offices and buildings whose occupants may or may not have appreciated them. But muralists were sure of prominent display. They had entire walls at their disposal—and there were walls everywhere. Although the Treasury Department held the franchise on post offices and most other federal buildings, WPA muralists had schools, libraries, city halls and county offices, hospitals, airports, and colleges to work with; the chief requirement was that the institutions pay for the materials the artists used. Hospitals and public schools were especially eager for the murals, the hospitals seeing them as therapeutic and the schools as educational.

And these spaces could be utterly magnificent. Edward Laning, who won the design competition to decorate the dining room at the Ellis Island immigration center, had the entire circumference of the room to work with—a space 110 feet long by 8 feet high. In this area, almost half as long as the famous Bayeux Tapestry in France, he painted a story he titled “The Role of the Immigrant in the Industrial Development of America.” Later, still as a WPA artist, he illustrated the history of writing and printing, a span that began with Moses’ stone tablets chiseled with the Ten Commandments and ended with Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine on four panels in the New York Public Library. He called it “The Story of the Recorded Word.”

At New York’s Harlem Hospital, Charles Alston headed the first group of African American artists to win a major WPA mural commission. Their sketches were originally rejected by hospital superintendent Lawrence T. Dermody as having “too much Negro subject matter,” but protests from the community and the artists got the decision reversed and the work went forward. There were five murals, two by Alston contrasting traditional healing with modern medical procedures, a panel on surgery and anesthesia by Alfred Crimi (the only white artist in the group), Vertis Hayes’s Pursuit of Happiness depicting African American progress from slavery to a foothold in the professions, and Georgette Seabrooke’s Recreation in Harlem.

In Newark, New Jersey, a Russian immigrant named Michael Lenson had long since spent the $10,000 grant he won in 1928 that had staked him to four years of art study in Europe. By 1935 he was relying on his father and his brother for handouts, but when their gifts grew more grudging, he went to the WPA office on Halsey Street in Newark and lied his way onto the relief rolls. Soon afterward, he was competing with other artists for the job of installing a mural at the Essex Mountain Sanitorium in Verona, New Jersey. This was a tuberculosis hospital that had originally been a home for orphaned and delinquent girls, and the mural site in its large dining hall was a wall sixteen feet high and seventy-five long. Lenson won the competition with a design titled “The History of New Jersey,” which traced the state’s roots from precolonial Indians through the bloody Battle of Trenton in the Revolutionary War to modern scenes of industry, agriculture, and transportation. Rather than working directly on the wall in gesso, he and four assistants stretched large canvases which they painted and mounted in the enormous space.

As Lenson worked on the mural into 1936, WPA administrators noticed that he possessed other talents as well: he spoke in public, he belonged to artists’ groups, he held offices in these groups. Before long Audrey McMahon recruited him to give talks about the art project and the WPA. Soon afterward he was promoted to assistant state supervisor of the mural and easel division. On Newark’s Halsey Street, where the WPA had space in two adjacent buildings, Lenson installed a large workshop. In one corner, he set up cabinetmakers to build artist-designed furniture. Another space was given over to lithography, where artists worked on stones and printed images from them on a press. Muralists worked on their designs in yet another area, and a room at the front of the building became a gallery for walk-in visitors to view paintings and prints by project artists. And when a show came down in Newark, it went on the road, appearing in galleries and public exhibition space around the state.

Lenson proved to be as adept as Margery Hoffman Smith in Oregon at finding roles for artists that ranged beyond the standard formats of murals, prints, easel art, and sculpture. Scouting for projects in Atlantic City, he learned of women on the relief rolls there who weren’t artists but were good with their hands. If the Art Project could produce artist-designed furniture for government offices, Lenson thought, artists could design other kinds of furnishings as well. He decided that the Atlantic City women, following artists’ patterns, could make rugs and wall decorations from scrap materials. The word went out to WPA sewing rooms across the state to save their cuttings, and before long these new Art Project employees were at work hooking large, colorful rugs and hangings.

Then Lenson got wind of an old glassworks in Vineland, New Jersey. Vineland and Millville to the south had once formed the nexus of a glassblowing area in south-central New Jersey. The sand there was fine and free of impurities, perfect for glassmaking, but the glass factories, overtaken by modern manufacturing methods, had now closed, leaving dozens of glassblowers jobless. Lenson sought them out and told them he had a plan to put them back to work.

“They thought it was too good to be true. They loved it,” he said later. The WPA funded a partial restoration of the moldering art glass works in Vineland, breathed a kiln to life, and brought in some sand. Some of the craftsmen had not blown glass in years and so had lost the calluses built up from handling the metal rods called punties that were used for shaping hot glass. But they regained them quickly, and also reestablished the unique traditions of their workplace. When one of them breathed into his blowpipe to form the cavity he wanted in a piece of molten glass, the others joined in a collective pause. The process required a steady breath and concentration, but sometimes the glass cracked with a loud pop, and then all the blowers joined in a shout of “Hallelujah!”

The Art Project’s glassblowers shaped vases, perfume bottles, bowls, pitchers, and candle holders, replicating early American pieces and producing new designs. The New Jersey project also worked with the Armstrong Cork Company in Millville, launching a similar program there that made vases, other freeblown vessels, and paperweights. Because it was prohibited from competing with private glassworks, the project all but gave its work away to hospitals and libraries, charging only the cost of the materials. “There were fabulous vases on tables all over the state,” said Lenson. Eleanor Roosevelt bought a set of them for the White House. But New York State’s large Corning Glass company believed that if public buildings in New Jersey had beautiful vases on their tables, those vases should come from its Steuben art glass subsidiary, so when Millville’s reputation spread, Corning complained. Eventually, it succeeded in shutting the project down and sending the glassblowers back on relief.

In most areas of the country, however, artists worked unimpeded by complaints of competition, and they kept expanding project boundaries. In Portland workshops and on Mount Hood, Hoffman Smith’s vision for furnishing and decorating the Timberline Lodge had brought together cabinet and furniture makers, weavers, rug hookers, blacksmiths, and wood carvers as well as traditional artists. Handicraft programs were under way in Milwaukee, New Orleans, and other places around the country. In San Francisco late in 1936, the Art Project discovered Armenians and Turks on relief who possessed ancient skills in tapestry making, and set up a unit to employ them. At the same time, muralists were continuing to enhance public buildings with art that would last for decades. One of them was Lucien Labaudt, a former dress designer, who executed in fresco a series of vibrant San Francisco city scenes for the walls of a restaurant and changing house called the Beach Chalet at the west end of Golden Gate Park, across from Ocean Beach on the Pacific. Labaudt had also sketched mosaics and wood carvings for the Beach Chalet, which were completed by two other WPA artists, mosaicist Primo Caredio and sculptor Michael Von Meyer.

Graphic artists were at work as well. Printmakers were producing fine art prints using wood block, silkscreen, and lithographic processes, but the far larger output came from Art Project poster makers using the same techniques. Their work was more directly functional than decorative, but it was equally striking. Their posters advertised WPA art exhibits and theater and musical performances, urged workers to protect their eyes and hands, encouraged caution against syphilis, gonorrhea, and pneumonia, and suggested that Americans visit the zoo, travel, exercise, attend educational programs and community events, write letters, and save trees. Graphic arts programs operated in seventeen states and the District of Columbia. Most who saw their bold and colorful designs probably did not equate what they saw with “art”—but art it was, and it informed an audience of millions.

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