Commissioned Creations

UAMA showcases the Depression-era art that helped the museum begin

By 1943, with Americans marching off to World War II or gainfully employed in munitions factories, the alphabet agencies of the New Deal closed up shop. But not before one of them--the GAP of the FAP of the WPA--gave the University of Arizona an important gift.

The Graphics Arts Division (GAP)--a subset of the Federal Art Project (FAP), in turn an agency of the Works Projects Administration (WPA)--had hired some 5,000 artists to work full-time during the Depression making fine art prints. (The FAP is better known for commissioning out-of-work artists to paint murals in post offices all over the United States.)

The GAP printmakers worked in 16 print shops in nine states, laboring under a time clock for paychecks of about $100 a month ($1,100 in today's dollars). And now that the FAP was shutting down, it had to find homes for the thousands of lithographs, woodcuts, linocuts and etchings these industrious worker-artists had created.

The UA didn't even have an art museum in those days, just a gallery in the library, but the WPA gave the university more than 200 of the prints. This treasure, "which nobody else wanted," became the "humble beginnings" of the UA Museum of Art, as the museum's late director, Peter Bermingham, later wrote.

Now, new curator Lisa Fischman has pulled some 100 of these little gems out of storage for her first exhibition on her new job. Art Is Work: The Legacy of WPA/FAP Printmaking is an exhilarating look at a lost time, when our parents or grandparents were young. These prints preserve an industrial America whose factories still made steel, an urban America whose cities still bustled day and night, and a rural America still dominated by the family farm.

Steeped in an aesthetic still familiar to us from the era's noir movies and Looney Tunes cartoons, the artists mostly worked in expressive black and white, veering from modified realism to monumentalism. Trained in an age when drawing was still highly valued, they were mightily skilled at line and shadow.

In "Hillsides," a beautifully drawn lithograph, Ruth Chaney skillfully skews her perspective and exaggerates the slope of the rural hills. Her countryside rolls endlessly on, unmolested as yet by subdivisions or superhighways. Cityside, Margaret Lowengrund takes similar spatial liberties in her view of New York's elevated train, "The Elevated," another lithograph. She takes an impossible vantage point high above the station to offer a pigeon's-eye view of workers thronging the stairs. In "Blast Furnace," Elizabeth Olds is captivated by the dazzling industrial drama of a plant. Dazzling explosions within the dark space light up her heroic laborers, struggling to provide the nation with steel.

In the progressive 1930s, artists spoke easily of printmaking as a "democratic form" and of art as belonging "to the people as a whole," Fischman tells us in an essay. They wanted their subjects to be "real" and "significant," even when they were working the vein of cubism or surrealism, as a handful of these artists did. They considered the common life of ordinary people a fit subject for fine art.

Thus we see wonderfully rendered images of hardworking folks on the job: a fisherman bent over his boat ("Untitled [Fisherman]" by Patricia Cunningham), a counterman serving workers ("Quick Lunch," by Leonard Pytlak), a vegetable vendor driving a lonely country road ("Vegetable Man," a color lithograph by Theodore Wahl).

A Southern black woman proudly stands with her family on the small plot of land that they work in "Family Group," a brightly colored serigraph by New Orleans native Ralph Chessé. Gyula Zilzer pays tribute to one of her fellow worker-artists in the print shop, in the exquisitely drawn drypoint etching, "The Etching Printer."

Artists had to get the go-ahead from a government committee to do a print run of a particular work, but Fischman writes that they were "virtually unrestricted with regard to style and subject." (The mural painters, by contrast, making permanent works in public places, were highly regulated.) Stripped of concerns about censorship or the marketplace, the printmakers were free to work in any style they chose, and Fischman credits them with bringing new respectability to formerly disdained print processes such as silkscreen and lithography. And they could tackle whatever subjects they wanted.

This being the Depression, the artists pictured idled workers, factory lockouts, strikes, poverty. Harry Taskey mournfully evokes the long days of the unemployed in "Washington Square." This soft ground etching depicts a nattily dressed gent--a former exec, perhaps--and a couple of men in classic workers' caps intent on watching a chess game being played in the New York park. The square's familiar triumphal arch rises up ironically above this scene of plucky despair.

Joseph Leboit's color lithograph "Pennies" conjures up impoverished black children diving into a city fountain in search of change. More ominously, Theodore Wahl's "Three Loafers" are shut out by the city, represented by a forbidding tangle of buildings. They look desperate enough to turn to crime to get by.

Herman "Roddy" Volz uses an inventive monumental style to picture the workers kicked out of a factory in the lithograph "Lockout." The towers and chimneys are simplified into imposing cylinders. The wall of the factory yard slices forbiddingly across the horizon. And the throng of workers gazing at their former place of employment suggests an infinity of unemployed. Simplified into plain geometries, their slumping shoulders and backs eloquently testify to their despair. "Mine Village," by Bernard Steffen, visually dissects the power of the company over the worker. In his lithograph, the mine tower dominates the landscape, its tower and rooftops arrogantly dwarfing the tiny worker houses jammed into the hills below.

Only a couple of recognizably Western scenes show up. Beatrice Edgerly, a Washington, D.C., native who eventually moved to Tucson (she was an art critic at the Arizona Daily Star in the 1950s), made a somewhat sentimental "Baby Burro" set among the saguaros. A distant mountain could easily be Finger Rock. More interesting, Californian Clay Edgar Spohn dramatically rendered a Pueblo village in sculptural black and white. "Depression in a Desert" reduces the shapes of mountains, adobe house and figures to simplified geometries.

The work skews geographically toward the coasts, but the FAP artists were nevertheless a diverse lot. Fischman writes that there was "no discrimination based on race, age, sex, national origin or religion." If the artists' progressive discourse on art for all is nearly impossible to imagine in 2005 America, so is the lost egalitarianism of this admirable program. Women made up 40 percent of the artist work force. And, Fischman dryly adds, "For the first and only time in American history, women were paid the same rate as men."