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The W.P.A. Era: Art Across America


The W.P.A. Era: Art Across America, opening at Nassau County Museum of Art on Sunday, August 15, 2004 and remaining on view through Sunday, October 31, 2004, is an original exhibition curated by Constance Schwartz and Franklin Hill Perrell which examines how artists responded to the Great Depression and also how the art scene was dominated by the Works Progress Administration and other governmental agencies that supported art and artists during those years. (right: Paul Cadmus, The Fleet's In!, 1934, oil on canvas, 30 x 60 inches, Courtesy, Naval Art Collection. Naval Historical Collection)

Major artists of the period represented in The W.P.A. Era are Pollock, Benton, Gorky, Davis, Rothko, Shahn, Marsh, Cadmus and Evergood. Selected examples of their work, some created under government sponsorship, others not, will display the rich aesthetic dialogue of that era. The W.P.A. Era seeks to tell the story of the years of the Great Depression through the perceptions of artists of the time and the work they produced. The exhibition explores the debate between conservative and progressive factions and also the rifts between the aesthetic and the political in art-themes that continue to impact the art community today.

Upon his election in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt assured a terrified nation that it would survive and beat back this unprecedented economic disaster that was threatening the very fabric of the nation's social order. Massive public works projects were embarked upon to get the nation working again. The new president extended the government's protection to the arts: painters and sculptors were employed to adorn public buildings with murals as writers, poets, photographers and musicians also were assigned government-sponsored work. Never before or since has a U.S. government taken such an extraordinary measure to protect the role of the arts in the nation's life. Even prior to the formal organization of government projects, a sense of group endeavor and a dedication to local specifics was already brewing as artists identified themselves as regionalists and sought commissions on public and private buildings. The high point of this artistic activity was reached in the late 1930s and gradually wound down as involvement in World War II became total. (right: James Turnbull, Barber Shop, 1936, oil on board, 30 x 42 inches, Courtesy, Arlene Berman Fine Arts)

Among the works of The W.P.A. Era that demonstrate the hopelessness that prevailed during the Great Depression are Alexander Brook's, Abandoned House, Georgia, 1940; Philip Evergood's, Pink Dismissal Slip, 1937; Alexander Hogue's Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1935; and Miklos Suba's Hooverville.

Many of the central artists of the period were those who turned their backs on the European innovators, Picasso and Matisse, and instead pursued literal fact and detailed descriptions. Called regionalists or social realists, their work was marked by the "Americans" of the nation's original art. Among the works in The W.P.A. Era that are illustrative of this are Chinese, Federal Agents Pouring Wine Down a Sewer During Prohibition, Destroying Wine and Paul Cadmus' famed masterpiece, The Fleets In, 1934. Countering were others whose work revealed Cubist or Surreal orientations, including  Gorky's Aviation; Stuart Davis' New York Waterfront, 1938 and The Terminal, 1937. Works by artists of the period who later on made the transition to modernism include Jackson Pollock's, Going West, c. 1934-35 and Mark Rothko's Subway Station, 1939.(right: Reginald Marsh, Coney Island Beach, tempera, 30 x 22 inches, Private Collection)

Among the public programs planned by Nassau County Museum of Art in conjunction with The W.P.A. Era: Art Across America are Art Stars of the 1930s, a lecture by Curator Franklin Hill Perrell on September 11; Tea and Talk with the Curator, a five-part lecture series with Perrell that begins on September 13; and Wasn't It A Time?, a program of stories and songs of the Depression era with Shirley Romaine on October 24. For further information on these and other programs, or to register for a program, log on to www.nassaumuseum.com or call (516)484-9338, ext. 12.


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