Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: John Reed Club

Collated reviews of Left Front

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 10.38.56 AMI’ve been posting individual reviews of The Left Front as they’ve come to my attention, but now that the exhibition has closed at the Grey Gallery, I thought it would be useful to have them all (at least the ones that I know of) collated in one place. One of the great pleasures of curating the exhibition has been the thoughtful, intelligent responses it inspired.

The New Yorker: “Left Turns: The Radical Art of the Nineteen Thirties” by Peter Schjeldahl (1/26/15). “A fascinating scholarly show…a show that I wish some museum would take as the seed for a major, broadly inclusive exhibition.”

Financial Times: “A look back at the political art of the 1930s highlights a lost moment of moral clarity” by Ariella Budick (2/2/15), “…the show as a whole evokes an era when a large cohort of artists woke up each morning fired with a sense of social purpose.”

New York Observer: “Seeing Red: NYU’s Grey Gallery Revisits America’s Socialist Moment in Full” by David Ebony (2/2/15). “Today, as union members make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, and economic disparity gets more extreme by the day, it might be the time for artists and the intelligentsia to take another look at America’s “socialist moment” that is so thoughtfully and skillfully illuminated in this show.”

Tablet: “Occupy Wall Street! The Jewish CP-Friendly 1930s Version” by J. Hoberman (2/5/15).

Guernica: “Re-Examining the radical art of the “Red Decade” by Roslyn Bernstein (2/25/15). “The timing for mounting an exhibit on the history of art in political activism was perfect.”

Artforum.com: “Critic’s Pick” by Jason Farago: A “large and important exhibition.”

Hyperallergic.com: “Picturing a Communist Revolution in the U.S.” by Becca Rothfeld (2/16/15): “Different artists disagree as to how communist convictions are best or most effectively visualized, and the best part of The Left Front is the methodological tension that underwrites the varied approaches on display.”

Bedford + Bowery: “This Exhibit of Radical Art Speaks to the Power of the Pen” by Robin Cembalest (1/12/15): “fascinating, thought-provoking show.”

Artefuse.com: “The Left Front at the Grey Gallery,” by Daniel Gauss (2/12/15): “…the predominant approach in this show is to document the social wrongs of the time, and there’s something really amazingly exciting and fun, even 70 years down the line, about seeing artists just laying the naked truth of the corruption, exploitation and abuses of their society out there for anyone to see.”

The Indypendent: “The Red Decade: Art with a Gritty Heart” by Gerald Meyer (3/10/15). “This show powerfully contradicts the canard that the Communist Party imposed social realism as the sole aesthetic style on artists.”

Cartoonbrew.com: “The Left Front” by Stephen Persing (2/20/14): “Co-curators (and Northwestern doctoral candidates) John Murphy and Jill Bugajski have done a fine job of scholarship and, I hope, started the ball rolling for future studies of the period.”

New York Observer review of Left Front

3_geller_untitledfactory_c1930s-p19daoitk31golaags5rbsoAnother very thoughtful take on The Left Front courtesy of David Ebony, writing for the New York Observer. I’m really gratified that Mr. Ebony grasped an important (though not overt) motivation for curating the show in the first place: using the 1930s as a lens through which to consider the relationship between art and politics today:

In the context of today’s relentlessly market-driven art world, with its emphasis on individualistic expression, and success gauged in terms of auction results, the concept of “culture workers” seems a bit like a fantasy that took place in a remote time and place.

This is a crucial point to make about the activist art of the 1930s. I’ve been asked by visitors and journalists whether I think The Left Front is a “dark” or “pessimistic” exhibition. It certainly features art with bleak subject matter: breadlines, police brutality, exploited workers, and the twin evils of industrialized capitalism and fascism. Yet there is a less obvious optimism in the artworks: namely, the profound and deep-seated optimism about the power of art itself. The power of art to change hearts and minds, and the power of artists as “culture workers” linking arms with the organized working class. As Ebony writes:

In one sense, “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ ” is a study of idealism, an examination of a less cynical time, when artists believed that they could actually change the world, or at least contribute to progressive causes in meaningful ways. Theirs was a grass-roots effort, in which artists bravely ran against the grain of the status quo. Whether or not they were successful is practically irrelevant, as their noble aims remain poignant and prescient.

Today, as union members make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, and economic disparity gets more extreme by the day, it might be the time for artists and the intelligentsia to take another look at America’s “socialist moment” that is so thoughtfully and skillfully illuminated in this show.

Tablet reviews “The Left Front”

Siporin - Workers FamilyI’ve been a longtime reader and fan of J. Hoberman’s movie reviews for Village Voice, so it’s very gratifying to see his thoughtful take on “The Left Front” for Tablet magazine. He’s correct to note that “many, if not most, of the artists in “The Left Front” are Jewish immigrants or their children. In an essay “On the ‘Jewishness’ of American Jewish Radical Artists,” included in the handsomely designed free broadsheet available at the show, historian Ezra Mendelsohn suggests that the most “Jewish” thing about these artists was “their commitment to universalism”—whether a revolt against parochial tradition or a prophetic vision of a new world.” This is a good point (by Hoberman via Mendelsohn), but would only add that this “commitment to universalism” and “prophetic vision of a new world” dovetailed with the artists’ utopian investments in Communism. “The Left Front” became (for me) an interesting case study in curatorial emphasis; the same artists who appear in the exhibition (Topchevsky, Todros Geller, Louis Lozowick, etc.) could appear in a show about Jewish artists, immigrant artists, or artists employed by the Works Progress Administration. One of the main goals of “The Left Front” was to reclaim a political identity for artists either neglected by art history generally, or else slotted neatly into Cold War narratives of American Abstract Expressionism triumphing over stodgy social realism. So I especially enjoyed Hoberman’s cheeky headline, “Occupy Wall Street! The Jewish CP-Friendly 1930s Version.” 

New Yorker reviews The Left Front

2015_01_26-200Well, it doesn’t get much better than being reviewed by The New Yorker. Peter Schjeldahl offers a thoughtful take on The Left Front, on view at NYU’s Grey Gallery through April. Here’s the first paragraph:

All artists want to change the world, usually just by making it take special notice of them, but now and then they do so out of a devotion to larger hopes. “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1940,” a fascinating scholarly show at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, on Washington Square, illustrates the most sustained convergence of art and political activism in American history. Some one hundred works by forty artists, along with photographs and publications, tell a story that tends to figure in art history only as a background to the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist generation; Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, et al., shared poverty but not zeal with their marching contemporaries. (Gorky revered Stalin and joined demonstrations near his loft on Union Square, but he scorned proletarian art, pronouncing it “Poor art for poor people.”) The show makes visible a twisty saga that the critic Clement Greenberg, who started his career in the late nineteen-thirties at the initially Communist-sponsored Partisan Review, mentioned in passing in a 1961 book, “Art and Culture.” He wrote, “Some day it will have to be told how ‘anti-Stalinism,’ which started out more or less as ‘Trotskyism,’ turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.

Read the rest of the review here.

 

The Left Front at the Grey Gallery

Left Front posterI’m honored that an exhibition I co-curated for Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art will be opening at New York University’s Grey Gallery on Tuesday, the 13th of this month. The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade’ began when I was digging into the Block Museum’s collection as  Graduate Student Fellow during the 2012-2013 academic year.  The Block is strong in Depression-Era prints, and I wanted to find a fresh way to exhibit work by artists who were mostly remembered as WPA muralists and printmakers, if remembered at all. I discovered many of the artists I was interested in belonged to something called the John Reed Club (JRC), which had branches in New York, Chicago, and many other cities. The Clubs — named after the journalist who published his coverage of the Russian Revolution in Ten Days that Shook the World — comprised artists, writers and intellectuals committed to bringing a Marxist viewpoint to their cultural work. Artists who belonged to or exhibited with the JRC—including Rockwell Kent, William Gropper, Stuart Davis, and Morris Topchevsky—embraced the motto “art as a social weapon.” Their unabashedly polemical and in-your-face artworks still retain the power to shock and agitate.

Rockwell Kent -  Workers of the World Unite! (1937)

Rockwell Kent –
Workers of the World Unite! (1937)

Response to the exhibition was overwhelmingly positive, in large part due to the resonance and relevance of this socially-conscious artwork in today’s political climate. The exhibition was generously supported by a grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art, was featured in a Wall Street Journal article and on the TV program Chicago Tonight, earned an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History, and was listed by the Chicago Tribune among 2014’s “best visual art.” The cumulative power and relevancy of the images obviously struck a chord. Coming out of the worst recession since the Great Depression, with reports of income inequality at its most discrepant and with Occupy slogans still ringing in our ears, the Depression-era prints and paintings depicting breadlines, unemployment, strikes, police brutality, bloated robber barons and corrupt politicians took on a vivid immediacy. At the heart of the exhibition is the question, “What is Revolutionary Art?” A question very much on the minds of 1930s activist-artists as well as socially-conscious artists working today.

The exhibition will be on display in the Grey Gallery through April.

A picture of me joining the march at the opening of The Left Front in January 2014 (Louis Lozowick visible just over my left shoulder):

John Murphy - The Left Front