What’s the Deal about New Deal Art?

As the first of the New Deal acts that funded public art projects with federal money, the PWAP produced more than 15,000 works of art in just six months

Old Pennsylvania Farm in Winter, Arthur E. Cederquist, 1934. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

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“Every artist I have spoken to,” Harry Gottlieb, an artist from Woodstock, New York, wrote in a letter to Bruce in January 1934, “is so keyed up…putting every ounce of his energy and creative ability into his work as never before.”

“You’re telling the artists: you matter,” says Wagner. “You’re American workers too.”

Although mainly intended for economic impact, the program was also an investment in public morale, says Gurney. The works would hang in schools and libraries, federal buildings and parks—places where people could see them. Bruce made this point repeatedly in talking to the press, saying this was the most democratic art movement in history. By the time it ended, the PWAP’s price tag for 15,663 pieces of art was $1.312 million. Roughly $84 per work.

In April 1934, when most of the paintings were done, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. held a PWAP exhibit. The organizers held their breath, fearing a backlash from critics. This was make-work, after all, not the slow process of creative art.

The exhibit showed an eclectic range of styles, from William Arthur Cooper’s folk- art view of a Tennessee lumberyard to the modernist geometry of Paul Kelpe’s view of an American factory. Louis Guglielme, in New Hampshire, practiced what he called “social surrealism,” using a floating perspective to give the scene of a town green an uneasy sense of malaise. Arthur Cederquist’s Old Pennsylvania Farm in Winter is both a realistic vision of rural life and a glimpse of technology’s arrival: railroad tracks, overhead electric and telephone lines. Its colors tend to bleached, wintry grays and browns—a proto-Andrew Wyeth atmosphere. Ilya Bolotowsky, an abstract painter, adapted his modernist perspectives to an otherwise traditional barbershop scene. “This is not just pure realism,” Gurney points out; using the barber’s mirrors, Bolotowsky “tipped things up and forced them out at you.”

The response to the Corcoran show was overwhelming. The New York Times gave a glowing review, and congressmen and cabinet secretaries lined up to request paintings for their offices. At the front of the line was the White House, which displayed a selection of them. A year later, more public art projects followed, including the Federal Art Project and another Treasury program that Bruce headed up.

Many more New Deal works remain in collections around the country, often where they were painted. (The PWAP also commissioned murals, including scenes in San Francisco’s Coit Tower, which were not fully appreciated until much later: Kenneth Rexroth, the poet who later announced the Beats, is immortalized in one of the Coit Tower murals climbing a ladder to a high library shelf.)

Does the exhibition take a stand on whether the government should invest in art for emergency relief? Broun demurs. “My argument,” she says, “is: Wow, when the government really does invest in documenting and understanding and inspiring its people, the legacy is really fabulous. That’s how we know ourselves.” She quotes Roosevelt, who said, “One hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not its relief.” American Art has launched a website, “Picturing the 1930s,” which provides a view of popular culture at the time through articles, images and film: http://www.americanart.si.edu/picturing1930/.

David A. Taylor is the author of Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Wiley), published in February.


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