By Gerald Meyer
What man would follow art – one of the most uncertain and unremunerative professions – who hadn’t a deep faith in the social value of his vision.
— Rockwell Kent
The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940, on display from January 12 until April 4, 2015, at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, assembled more than one-hundred works by fifty artist-activists, who devoted their talents to condemning the damage capitalism-in-crisis had visited on the working classes. Especially after 1933, when the National Socialists assumed power in Germany, these socially conscious artists used their work to alert their viewers to the menace of fascism. For most of these artists, that colossal task meant mobilizing the working classes under the leadership of the Communist Party. “Red Art” was neither “art for art’s sake,” nor was it “art for the artists’ sake”; it was art for the anti-capitalist movement. However, unlike murals, which in Mexico and elsewhere were intended for the working poor, many of whom were illiterate, Red Art in the United States was largely aimed at middle-class people whom the artists endeavored to enlist in the workers’ cause, which they believed was identical with humanity’s cause. These graphics convey a direct, unambiguous message: Workers and other victims of oppression merit the viewers’ attention. Yet, these works are not propaganda: They are artistic creations whose creators effectively used their craft to evoke in the viewers’ minds intense thoughts and genuine emotions, reactions that print media, such as pamphlets and leaflets, were unlikely to evoke.
John Murphy and Jill Bugajski, The Left Front’s curators, deserve enormous credit for both the selection of the works and the creative organization that brought widespread positive attention to the show. With few exceptions, these works are lithographs, woodcuts, and other types of black-and-white prints that were produced relatively cheaply. Like murals, they reached the widest possible audiences. The Left Front also included several larger-sized oil paintings and watercolors as well as one outsized Spanish Civil War poster, Un Marino, Un Héroe (1937), by Arturo Ballester, that was intended to arouse praise and gratitude for the Spanish Republic’s navy, which, unlike its army, remained loyal to the Republic. Splendid in themselves, these full-color pieces served as centerpieces around which the curators artfully mounted the smaller-sized, black-and-white prints. In a similar way, the strategic inclusion of works by the internationally recognized Mexican social artists—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco—lent luster to the exhibition. Siqueiros’s Workman (1936), a lithograph depicting a marching worker trampling on a swastika, was a highpoint of the show. In combination, these aesthetic tactics as well as the decision to organize the works thematically—“Class Struggle,” “Workers of the World Unite!”, “Popular Front,” and “What Is Revolutionary Art?”—turned this modest show into a blockbuster.
In addition to the graphics, The Left Front included three vitrines that displayed print materials ranging from the literal (a copy of Richard Wright’s Native Son) to the instructive (issues of Left Front: Revolutionary Art of the Midwest and New Masses, a cultural-political monthly central to understanding this show). A photograph of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica display at a New York City gallery, which the American Artists Congress arranged in 1937 as a means of raising funds for the Spanish Refugee Relief Campaign, brought together a number of themes woven into the fabric of The Left Front: the compatibility of great art and political messaging, the integral relationship between the artistic production on display and the immediate political situation, and the existence of an infrastructure on the Left capable of bringing these efforts to the wider public.
The Left Front supplemented the art work with film, photos, and ephemera. Sixteen minutes of raw, silent film footage of the 1937 and 1938 New York City May Day parades, which were shot by the photographer John Albok, captured the seemingly endless thousands of marchers, dressed in their best clothes and hats, filing into Union Square. The marchers’ smiling, confident expressions revealed their hopes and sense of solidarity as they, symbolically announced their adherence to Communism and their conviction of the inevitability of a triumphant multiethnic, multiracial America. While the festive nature of May Day might naturally engender such expressions, this film footage sharply contrasts with the show’s graphics that unrelentingly depict downtrodden subjects. One of the few exceptions to this pattern was Harry Gottlieb’s “The Strike Is Won” (1940), a colored print showing seven African-American and white workers, whose facial expressions and body configurations, upon hearing that they had won their strike, reveal varied reactions, ranging from disbelief, to proud triumph and unadulterated joy.
The failure of The Left Front to present any more than a handful of apparently randomly selected photographs from the period seems inexplicable. Why would photography be treated so off-handedly when it was the genre most known and used by Red artists of this period? In response to Marxist-derived aesthetics, the most important photographers of the period passionately undertook the task of documentation. The close relationship between socially conscious photography and graphic art is best illustrated by Ben Shahn, who did both exceedingly well; indeed, Shahn often used his photographs as the models for graphics of various sorts. (Katzman 2000: 97-117) The New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration, whose charge was to address the national scandal of rural poverty, hired photographers—including Dorothea Lange, Walker Edwards, Arthur Rothstein, Gordon Parks, and Jack Delano—to document these conditions. Today, their work is universally acknowledged as a collective masterpiece. In 1936, the Photo League provided a stable center for an on-going project whose goal, in the words of board-member Elizabeth McCausland, was to promote a photography that “had social content… be a weapon [in the had sofa photographer who was] direct and realistic, dedicated to the profound and sober chronicling of the external world” (Klein 2012: 16). The Photo League organized photographic studies of specific communities – including Pitt Street, on the Lower East Side, Chelsea, and Harlem – that remain exemplary for their documentation of social phenomena. Significantly, photographers of more modernist aesthetic persuasions, such as Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand, served on the Photo League’s Advisory Board. The Photo League continued to document American society until 1952, when it was driven out of existence, and for many subsequent years out of memory, by the postwar Red scare.
The “Red Art” on display does not, for the most part, project optimism; the art works seethe with indignation and determination. They are imbued with the sense that everywhere (except the Soviet Union) the Great Depression and fascism have dealt the workers a crushing blow; but the workers cannot be defeated. They proclaim that despair is inadmissible; hope, then, is based on belief in the inexorable movement of history towards socialism. It is as if these disparate graphics have been inhabited by La Pasionaria shouting to the viewers, “They shall not pass.”
In Mitchell Siporin’s expressionistic woodcut, “Worker’s Family” (1937), a family of five (father, mother, infant, son, and what could be a grandfather) stand in the foreground; in the background, a factory’s chimney emits smoke. Thin, bedraggled and bewildered, the family members evince hard times. Nonetheless, the son looks with confidence to his father, who, along with the grandfather, directs his eyes at the viewer. The attentive viewer comes away convinced that this family – which stands in for millions of working-class families in Depression America – cannot be broken. A similar effect is produced by “Uprooted” (c. 1930), a lithograph by William Gropper, which shows a family (husband, wife, young child) fleeing a parched, broken landscape, yet gives the sense that what is doomed is not this small family, but rather the system that is so indifferent to their plight.
The Left Front draws heavily from the collection of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum at Northwestern University, near Chicago. Indeed, the exhibition’s title was inspired by the title of a monthly publication, Left Front: Revolutionary Art of the Midwest, co-edited by Richard Wright, sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club, a Communist-sponsored organization intended to promote socially-conscious writing and art. The exhibition’s Chicago-based origins show conclusively that New York City was hardly the sole incubator of Left art.
Unfortunately, the catalogue and wall texts for The Left Front insufficiently contextualize Chicago. In “Red Chicago,” Randi Storch recreates the Communist Party’s large presence and influence in what was then the second largest US city. Based on a score or more ethnic communities and an African-American contingent that constituted 25 percent of its membership, Chicago’s Communist Party created a vast infrastructure of schools, community centers, and newspapers that became bases for organizing the city’s industries and launching mass actions on behalf of evicted tenants. The appeal of the party was powerful. Meridel Le Sueur, the poet, recalled, “[The Left] summoned us forth… We wouldn’t have tried without them… the Communists gave us light even love.” Richard Wright described the John Reed Club as his “first contact with the modern world… Who had ever, in all human history, offered to young writers an audience so vast?” A Jewish woman remembered, “It was a real community like you don’t see today. It gave meaning to my life” (Storch 2007: 42-43, 58).
Morris Topchevsky, Carl Hoeckner, Bernice Berkman, and other artists featured in The Left Front developed their craft at Chicago’s famed Hull House, an early settlement house founded by the Progressive Era reformer Jane Addams, that offered a remarkably comprehensive program of art for and by tenement-dwelling immigrants. Hull House’s endeavors, which infused their clients’ cultures-of-origin with a socialist sensibility, later neatly melded with the Communist movement’s commitment to the defense of the foreign-born. Significantly, The Draft Manifesto of the John Reed Club of New York, published in June 1932 in New Masses, included, among its six pledges: “[To] Fight against the persecution of the foreign-born” (Catalogue 2015: 6). The Communist Party extended its legal defense of the foreign-born to supporting their cultural rights: the retention of their native languages and other aspects of their cultures.
The Left Front displayed a hitherto disregarded exemplar of Left immigrant culture: A Gift to Birobidzhan, a portfolio of woodcuts by fourteen Chicago-based artists, originally exhibited in 1937 to raise funds for a Jewish settlement in Birobidzhan, a region bordering Manchuria in the Soviet Far East. The Soviet government, in 1936, had designated Birobidzhan a “Jewish Autonomous Region,” where, in both law and culture, Yiddish and Russian would have equal standing. This evocative collection documents Jewish working-class life—its recreational, familial, and mercantile components—in the then rapidly disappearing shtetlach, the small towns of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, that were the original homes of a later rapidly urbanizing Jewish population. Significantly, the title and text of the portfolio were written in both Yiddish and English. (Today in Birobidzhan, Yiddish is still considered to be an official language.)
Red Art’s commitment to documentation, in almost anthropological-sociological precision, was an underlying goal, manifested in great works of American literature such as Henry Roth’s, Call It Sleep (1934), James T. Farrell’s trilogy, Studs Lonigan (1932), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and Pietro di Donato’s, Christ in Concrete (1939) as well as Clifford Odets’ plays, such as Awake and Sing! (1935). These works dignified working-class people simply by paying attention to their social environments. They also made art accessible to workers by incorporating familiar themes and settings. Without exception, these classic works of America literature used the everyday language of the people, and in case of Roth, di Donato, and Odets reproduced the non-English syntax of the immigrants’ speech.
Prentiss Taylor, a white artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, created lithographs to illustrate Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse (1932), by Langston Hughes, Prentiss’s friend and sometime lover. With an unacknowledged but blatantly gay sensibility, Taylor’s “Christ in Alabama” (1932) silhouettes a beautiful, tortured Black youth awaiting crucifixion. Reminiscent of New Testament narratives of Christ’s passion, a Black woman cradling a baby, surely meant to be the mother of the youth so soon to be sacrificed, sits at the base of the cross. In another scene, set in a cotton field, Taylor depicts nine huddling Black youth, some with arms raised to the sky in supplication, set against an electric pole that reiterates the symbolism of the Cross. These youth represent the “Scottsboro Boys,” who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. Hughes and Taylor’s collaboration and the wood engraving “Lynching” (1932) by Lynd Ward, a progenitor of the wordless/pictorial novel, exemplified the remarkably successful campaign of the International Labor Defense, the Communist Party’s legal arm, to free the Scottsboro Boys.
The vast majority of the figures shown In The Left Front are men. Randi Storch noted, “American Communists borrowed from their country’s labor and socialist traditions of imagining the idealized worker as a strong male” (Storch 2007: 71). When these artists depict women, their works show them in traditional gender roles, especially as mothers. At a moment when women were actually entering into combat on behalf of the Loyalists’ defense of the Spanish Republic from a fascist rebellion, the one work that comes closest to portraying this struggle—Henry Simon’s lithograph “Women of Spain” (1937) – shows a group of five women, one with a rifle over her lap, while the others stand near rifles stacked against the wall. Throughout the rest of the works, women are shown in supportive roles; this was no less true for women artists—including Elizabeth Bishop, Riva Helfond, Elizabeth Olds, and Bernarda Bryson Shawn—who comprised nearly 20 percent of the artists represented in The Left Front.
The masculinity of these works demands some further thought. Socially conscious artists, without exception, were familiar with Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” (1810-1820), eighty-two prints expressing the horrors of the French invasion and occupation of Spain, and, more germane, the Spanish people’s resistance to the French and subsequently to the traditional rulers, the nobility and their supporters among the clergy. A number of Goya’s prints vividly showed women, some with infants in arm, fighting against the enemy. Despite this apt predecessor, Red Art, in the period of the Popular Front, projected women as repositories of the finer instincts of humanity—protection of the weak, the capability to set aside personal desires for others’ need, preservation of family—all of which were threatened by fascism and war. (The apotheosis of this sentiment can be found in the work of the German artist, Käthe Kollwitz [1867-1945].)
The contributions of Rockwell Kent to The Left Front, deserve special attention, not only because of his enduring and ever-ascending reputation, but also because his life and work illustrate key issues germane to the subject of this show. Like the lesser-known Louis Lozowick, Kent, a lifelong pro-Communist, never worked in a naturalist style: His masterful drawings were detached, precise, and at times symbolic. Kent’s Workers of the World Unite (1937) served as the unofficial iconic work for the section of Left Front bearing that title. It presents a distinctively optimistic perspective for that terrible period. Rockwell Kent’s 8-inch by 6-inch woodcut projects a mighty image: a muscular worker, with enormous thighs and biceps, wielding an iron spade against two bayonets thrusting toward him past the frame of the work. The physical power of the worker, whose mien expresses conviction and determination, convinces the viewer that he, “The Worker,” will prevail. Widely reproduced, Kent’s proletarian colossus was used as the cover for a pamphlet, May Day, 1947, that the CPUSA distributed to encourage its readers to “Parade, on May Day for Peace, for Freedom, for Security!” (Fast 1947: back cover)
One of the finest works in the show is a series of four lithographs by Kent that illustrated a Life magazine article, 1n 1937, presenting scenarios of planetary extinction. The exquisite draftsmanship and design of these complementary works testify to Kent’s artistic status. However, they have absolutely nothing to do with the mission of The Left Front. While concern for environmental issues did exist at the time, the extent of man-made environmental degradation had not yet reached a point where anyone would have conceived of the need for systemic social intervention.
Clearly, social realism is the predominant style of The Left Front; however, every imaginable graphic style, including surrealism and abstract expressionism, is on display. This show conclusively contradicts the canard that the Communist Party imposed socialist realism as the sole artistic style on its artists (and writers). The Left Front presents works from different aesthetic schools, united by a set of interconnected goals: the documentation of the working-class people’s lives and the dangers of racism and fascism. Socialist realism, a subset of this socially-conscious art, shows working-class men and women taking, actions to realize these goals. Few examples of this were included in The Left Front.
One hesitates to criticize The Left Front, a project so deserving of praise, but there are two omissions that require attention. The organizers of this exhibition unfortunately failed to include any work by African-American artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, Aaron Douglas, and Elizabeth Catlett. The subject matter and attitude of African-American artists were quite distinct. For example, they were far less likely than their white comrades to depict workers in biracial configurations. In speaking of Charles White, Laure Hapke, who has written so insightfully about social art from this period, called attention to the “double vision” that W.E.B. Du Bois found to be characteristic of African-Americans. While this “double vision” can also be found in the work of Jewish-American Raphael Soyer and others, Hapke saw it as prevalent in the work of African-American artists, who so often in their art portrayed their figures as possessing a dual sense of “dignity and dehumanization.” (Hapke 2008:188). White’s drawings celebrated the strong Black man beneath the downtrodden factory hand, the displaced Southern craftsman beneath the Northern menial. This dual vision also pervaded the work of African-American authors such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, both of whom honed their craft while part of the Communist movement.
Also missing were Italian-American artists, such as Daniel Calentano, Giacomo Patri, and O. Louis Guglielmi. For their iconic paintings Festival (1934) and Relief Blues (1938), Calentano and Guglielmi, respectively, choose primal subjects from Southern-Italian experience: a festa and a family ensemble. There was no lack of Italian-American artists from whom to choose. New Deal Art, a compendium of government-supported social art in New York State during the 1930s, lists at least twenty Italian-American artists. The Left Front also lost a chance to include two or three free-standing sculptures, which would have added considerably to the show’s visual appeal, from the cluster of Italian-Americans prominently represented among the relatively small group of WPA sculptors, a phenomenon that corresponded to the concentration of Italian-Americans in the craft of stone carving.
While giving the Communist Party well-deserved credit for the outpouring of people’s art, The Left Front’s appropriately rough-edged catalogue oddly ends on a flat note. Jill Bugajski dates the end of the Popular Front as August 23, 1939, when the Soviet Union and Germany signed a “Non-aggression Pact.” Simply put, this is stale anti-Communism. The Popular Front, in reality, died on April 1, 1939 with the defeat of the Spanish Republic, whose horrible fate was sealed by the failure of a single Western democracy, aside from Mexico, to join with the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement in its defense. The Popular Front re-emerged on June 22, 1941, when in response to the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, the Western democracies were, at last, compelled to place the eradication of fascism ahead of their fear of socialism.
The Left Front’s didactic value would have been strengthened had the curators, in the show’s catalog and wall text, more clearly identified antecedents and successors of Red Decade art. The artistic styles and subjects of the “Red Decade” were not peculiar to this period. Some of the most important artists in the show—John Sloan, Reginald Marsh, Louis Lozowick, Rockwell Kent—began their artistic careers, painting/drawing in essentially the same subjects and styles, long before 1929.
The Left Front succeeded in bringing Red Art to our attention. But it leaves us to wonder about the artists’ subsequent fortunes. How representative was Rockwell Kent’s fate? Kent, who was born into a wealthy, late-Victorian society, took public stands and undertook responsibilities that closely linked him to the CPUSA. From 1946 to 1954, he served as President of the Communist-led International Workers Order, and later as Chair of the American-Soviet Friendship Society. In 1959, long after the Red Decade, he continued to enunciate a major goal of Red Art: “Art should express and celebrate the realities of life, not speak to an esoteric minority” (Pearse 1998: 10). As a consequence of expressing and acting on his political views, Kent became the target of unrelenting persecution. In response to his running for Congress in 1948 under the American Labor Party banner from his home district in Upstate New York, his neighbors launched a boycott of his dairy farm. In 1953, Kent was hauled before the Senate committee chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy; in 1955, the State Department revoked his passport. In 1960, after an exhibition of his work in the Soviet Union that was seen by a half-million people in five major cities, Kent gave his own extensive collection of his works to the people of that country. In 1967, the Soviet Union awarded Kent the Lenin Peace Prize. Kent requested that the substantial monetary component of the award be donated to the children of Viet Nam. What happened to the other artists?
Although the exhibit was widely reviewed locally, after its close in New York City, it did not travel. Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker’s art critic, concluded a laudatory two-page review with the “wish that some museum would take it as its seed for a major, broadly inclusive exhibition” (Schjeldahl 2015: 78). When that occurs, as it surely must, I would further recommend that this more comprehensive exhibition include two more masterpieces of “Red Art”: Alice Neel’s “Pat Whalen” (1935), a portrait of a Communist militant in the Longshoremen’s Union shown staring at the viewer while holding with clenched hands a copy of The Daily Worker; and Ben Shahn’s “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” (1931-32), which depicts the Italian anarchists lying in their coffins, while behind them stand the sentencing judge and two commissioners of a panel that endorsed his decision to send “the good shoe maker and the poor fishmonger” to the electric chair.
In our times, the fragmentation and inchoate character of the Left make it nearly unimaginable that a cultural movement to achieve goals similar to those of the Red Decade could arise. Yet, a radical movement needs art, not so much to convert others, but to sustain the believers to stay the course on what is, inevitably, a rocky, tortuous road. Perhaps The Left Front does more than hint at identifying the prerequisites for such an eventuality. But where is the center around which these could cohere?
Bugajski, Jill. Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940. Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 2015.
Capra, Doug. “Foreword.” In Rockwell Kent, Wilderness: A Quiet Adventure in Alaska. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.
Fast, Howard. May Day, 1947. Illustrated by Rockwell Kent. New York: United May Day Committee, 1947.
Ferris, Scott. “The Bestowal.” In Rockwell Kent’s Forgotten Landscapes. Camden, ME: Down East Books. 1998.
Hapke, Laura. Labor’s Canvas: American Working Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Katzman, Laura. “The Politics of Media: Painting and Photography in the Art of Ben Shahn.” In Deborah Martin Kao, Laura Katzman, Jenna Webster, Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.
Klein, Mason. “Of Politics and Poetry: The Dilemma of the Photo League.” In Mason Klein and Catherine Evans, The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Schjeldahl, Peter. “Left Turns: The Radical Art of the Nineteen-thirties.” The New Yorker, Jan. 26, 2015.
Storch, Randi. Red Chicago: American Communism at Its Grassroots, 1928-1935. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007.