Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Tag: American Artists’ Congress

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