Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Tag: The Left Front

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.” 

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