Infamous New York: Bosses, Burlesque & Mayhem

by Constance Schwartz



These artists created art from tough subjects. For instance, in the context of unemployment, rising fascism, and the other terrible burdens of the 1930s, themes portraying the privileged status of the underworld, a measure of corruption wrought by power, were a favored topic. There is a certain fine madness here with an uncanny glimmer of a sophisticated sensibility, as represented by Jack Levine in Gangster's Funeral (page_), in a canvas that is rich, massive, glowing and fired with the painter's broad feeling for humanity.[3]

Levine entered into the Depression, making a place for himself as a WPA painter, as did most of those in this exhibition. Like Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood and others artists of the WPA who made their reputations in the '30s, Levine found in the provincialism of "social realist" art something entirely apposite to his academic training. Significant in satire and disintegrating forms, the commitment which Levine made to Social Realism was akin to a commitment to modern life itself created in a heavy, satirical mode of realism which relied upon a type of caricature for its effect, one that is "dressed" in a sublime skin of mannerist paint, contrary to the social evils represented by the subject.

Frequent depictions of female sexual stereotypes, that range from the sardonic and perverse with unexpected imaginative power, are also powerful themes for these artists. One function of the explicit poses was to break through the neutral void in which all the other images were suspended which create dramatic elements. Some of Levine's paintings become a stage on which are presented dramatic episodes of the corruption of girls on the street such as in Girls on Fleugel Street (p._) and The Blue Angels (p._). The paintings are all surface. The transparent layering creates an odd kind of half-illusionistic, half-real depth and simultaneously hints at and denies psychological and physical connections between overlapping images. Yet there's something painfully sorrowful in the narrative.

Ben Shahn, in a sensitive statement has stated that "I find that my own array of values-at least the conscious ones-rotate around the central concept of man as the source of all value. Thus whatever institutions and activities have the avowed purpose of broadening man's life, enriching his experience and his self-awareness are particularly dear to me...To the artist...such advocacy is his life's work."[4]


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