Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: political art

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.

 

Review of “What May Come” at the AIC

Here’s a link to my review of “What May Come: The Taller de Gráfica Popular and the Mexican Political Print” at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Prints & Drawings room at the AIC does brilliant work; I’m still haunted by a gorgeous exhibition on The Artist and The Poet that was there last year. “What May Come” continued the high standard.

Here’s the first paragraph of my review:

Exhibition Catalogue

Exhibition Catalogue

From 1937 until the mid-1950s, the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) workshop produced the most inventive, provocative and topically relevant prints in Mexico. Published as broadsides, posters, books, handbills and portfolios, TGP prints showcased the possibilities of graphic art as a powerful and polemical instrument. Founding members Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins and Luis Arenal stated in their group’s Declaration of Principles that “art must reflect the social reality of the times” but that art “can only truly serve the people if it is of the very highest plastic quality.” The Declaration outlined the TGP’s ambitions to make work collectively of a quality that would engage with contemporary issues and events, “serve the people,” contribute to Mexican culture, oppose reactionary forces and establish solidarity with international progressive movements.