American Printmakers and the Federal Art Project



Artist Essays: FAP Printmakers


Isac Friedlander

Like many of the artists assigned to the Graphic Arts Division of the Federal Art Project, Isac Friedlander was a champion of society's outcasts during the Great Depression. In too many cases the outcast were workers who had recently lost their jobs because of the magnitude of the nationwide economic crisis. They were not slothful, nor were they out of work by choice or because of poor job performance, but because of circumstances beyond their control. Many of Friedlander's subjects during the late 1930s were drawn from the despairing people who could not afford to look for work outside their immediate communities and who were financially unable to re-locate to find employment elsewhere. Often as desperate as the people he portrayed, Friedlander, like his colleagues, was determined to continue to work as an artist in spite of enormous obstacles. This tenacity forestalled the despair of laborers who, as work in their fields became increasingly harder to find, felt unwanted and worthless. Artists, on the other hand, became more sure of themselves and their worth as they obtained government support and gained recognition.

Born in Mitau, now Jelgave, Latvia, in 1890, Friedlander went to Italy in 1912 where he studied etching, relief printing, and drawing at the Academy of Rome. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, he returned to Latvia where he obtained a position teaching art to elementary and secondary level students. In 1929 he emigrated to Canada, then later to New York City where he lived and worked until his death in 1968.

Some information from:

Emily Grenauer, "WPA Influences." New York, New York City WPA Art Then (1934-1943) and Now (1960-1977), Exhibition Catalog (New York: New York City WPA Artists, Inc., 1977), p.vii


Leon Gilmour

The anonymous worker of the 1930s, as interpreted by Leon Gilmour, is the image of physical strength associated with much of the art produced by Project artists. Strong men engaged in strenuous, productive activity during the years of widespread unemployment are interpreted as symbols of optimism for the benefit of the general viewing public for whom government sponsored art was intended. As early as 1933, the short-lived Public Works of Art Project provided support for unemployed artists, regardless of ability, thereby establishing a direct association of artist with worker. Although artists continued to be classified as workers through the succeeding government programs, the Federal Art Project in particular employed only artists who qualified as professionals in their field.

Nine years old when he arrived in the United States in 1916, Gilmour was one of nearly nine million immigrants processed through Ellis Island during the early years of the 20th century. Although determined to become an artist, he could not afford to complete his education and was compelled to seek employment as a construction worker in New York City. From there he worked as a field hand in the mid-west, a gold miner in Colorado, and finally a truck driver in Los Angeles, California. This diverse range of experiences undoubtedly accounts for his ability to capture the essential qualities of his subjects.

The two men seen in Cement Finishers are finishing the cement around a large pipe. The crane in the background serves both as a visual comment on the inevitable and increasing reliance on machines, and as a compositional device that unifies men and machine by organizing the major elements into a stable triangular shape. Both figures are represented in Gilmour's crisp style in which light and dark patterns are created with the characteristically meticulous lines possible only in wood engravings. The figure of the black man leaning forward is a reminder of the Project's attempts to improve race relations. There was little discrimination by Project administrators, and black artists had the same opportunities and were given the same assignments as anyone else. In July, 1937, the New York City Project listed 115 black artists, including three supervisors. While the Project offered new opportunities for black artists and for arts education in black communities, blacks in turn made significant contributions with their unique responses to the social and political circumstances of the period. Leon Gilmour's Cement Finishers reflects the ideal of the laborer, designed to symbolize the success of New Deal programs that created jobs like those in this print.


Harry Gottlieb

Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to study in Europe for a year, Harry Gottlieb returned to New York City in 1934 to find his country in crisis. To Gottlieb, however, the 1930s became a time of integration for him, both as artist and citizen. He aligned with causes and organizations whose goals included the recognition support artists deserved within communities of like-minded professionals. The social environment during the Depression increased Gottlieb's awareness of the potential of what he saw as new subject matter including people out of work and destitute as well as the excitement of the more fortunate who had jobs, especially in steel construction.

A member of the silk screen unit of the New York City graphic arts workshop, Gottlieb gives Anthony Velonis credit for establishing this vital part of the Project. Velonis also taught the process to artists eager to learn the technique which, although not new, was so clearly a logical method of producing prints in the large editions the Project requested. As Gottlieb observed, "American people cannot afford oil paintings, or even watercolors, yet they want pictures in their homes. The sharecropper tacks up pictures from the Sunday paper; screen prints can provide an art that people can afford to buy." Equipment for screen printing was simple, light, inexpensive and, according to Gottlieb, allowed an artist to turn out editions of as many as 1000 prints. When he listed the prints he had produced as a Project artist, he also reported that the number of colors in each ranged from three to eleven.

An activist in organizations dedicated to raising public awareness of specific problems that confronted artists Gottlieb, along with Chet LaMore and Louis Lozowick, spoke on "Freedom of Expression in Art" at the first meeting of the Congress of American Artists on June 6, 1936. He weas also among those who signed the Call to a Congress of American Artists in 1941 to address artists' concerns, including the need to develop new audiences and promoting cultural exchange between peoples of the Americas. During the 1930s, Gottlieb said, artists had to be politically active if they expected to move ahead but, to do so, they had to agree on principles fundamental to their purposes.

Gottlieb's two prints, Change of Shift and Going to Work are examples of his stated goal of attempting to achieve honest communication of the essence of the worker experience. His figures are energetic, enthusiastic, and ambitious. Printed in 1941, these figures are no longer the despondent, languishing figures often seen in prints of the earlier years of the Depression, but instead they demonstrate a sense of an optimistic future promised by factories now working again.


Irwin Hoffman

Sympathetic response to miners, their lives and working conditions, characterizes much of Irwin Hoffman's work. In a genuine attempt to understand problems that miners endure daily, Hoffman spent considerable time underground observing first hand their working conditions and ways of relaxing. He listened to their discussions about disagreements with mine supervisors and the need for better safety conditions. Hoffman invested the workers he portrayed with a laconic dignity consistent with his empathetic understanding of the typical demeanor of men whose days are spent in a hazardous underground environment.

Cigarette Underground, ca 1938, is a study of a miner taking a short break, probably one of many during a working day, from the arduous labor of cutting through solid underground rock. These short breaks typically lasted for about five minutes, the time need to smoke one cigarette. This and similar studies were made in the Moranda gold and copper mine in Quebec, a non-ferrous mine where cigarette smoking was not the perilous activity it would have been in a coal mine. Hoffman's portrayals of these humble, hard working men are neither sentimental nor sociological, but simply straightforward observations of the human spirit under relentless tension. The face of the miner in Cigarette Underground is furrowed, his hands are so dirty, roughened, and calloused by years of labor they no longer come clean.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1901, Hoffman studied art at Boston Museum's School of Fine Arts. He was awarded the Page Traveling Scholarship in 1924 which allowed him to continue his studies in Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Madrid. He spent most of 1929 in Russia, sketching and painting a suffering humanity, the theme that continued to inform his work when he returned home. Brother of two mining engineers, Hoffman had access to mining camps in the western United States and Canada where he found the simple, unaffected people seen in his prints. After his brief assignment to the Federal Art Project from March until July, 1936, he traveled and worked in Mexico where he was again drawn to the worker who is reliant on the soil and whose life is a continual struggle. Unlike the prevalent theme of social oppression and exploitation of the peasant as defined by Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco, Hoffman was interested in the symbiotic relationship between laborer and the environment.

Some information from:

Art Digest, 12, No. 4 (1937), p, 24
Published Plates of Irwin D. Hoffman (New York: Associated American Artists,
1936), Introduction by Margaret Sullivan

Research Paper Francey 1


Chet LaMore

Born July 30, 1908 in Dane City, Wisconsin, Chet LaMore earned B A and M A degrees from the University of Wisconsin. After graduating, he taught art history and art criticism at the University of Wisconsin, Ohio State University, and the Albright Art School in Buffalo, New York. In 1936 he did additional graduate work in Art Education at Columbia University, and worked for the WPA/FAP from May 6, 1937 until August 24, 1939. In 1937 LaMore was elected chair of the Artist's Union which had been organized to secure and insure work relief for artists. The Artist's Union published The Art Front, of which both Ben Shahn and Stuart Davis were editors, and to which a number of militant artists, including Louis Lozowick and William Gropper, contributed. LaMoe was an ardent advocate of artists' rights during the Depression years, fighting aggressively to protect artists from the ever present danger of being cut from WPA rolls. For example, when printmakers submitted to the supervisor of the graphic arts division to be considered by the "subjects and approvals committee," there were two persons present who represented project workers. These two representatives were selected from a list submitted by the Artist's Union and, although they had no vote they could, and often did, protest rejections they considered inequitable.

The sense of community generated by the Project which, LaMore said, enabled him to live and work in New York at a time when he most needed contact with other artists. He said that this was a unique period in the history of American art because, in spite of the contentions between abstractionists and realists (the old guard and the young innovators) all artists worked together in a non-competitive environment. As diverse and individual as they were, these artists nevertheless isolated themselves from, in his words, "dealers, decorators, and art critics." They were grateful, LaMore said, that the Project allowed them the autonomy necessary for the development of their individual directions.

Some information from:

Chet LaMore, Årchives of American Art, Roll D 343.
Francis V. O'Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts, The New Deal Then and Now (Greenwidh, CT, New York Graphic Society. Ltd., 1969), p. 96


Paul Landacre

Born into a family of scientists and teachers in Columbus, Ohio, Paul Landacre intended to continue that tradition when he enrolled in entomology courses at Ohio State University. Those plans were changed after a streptococcus infection in 1922 left him disabled and caused him to move to the milder climate of southern California where he took drawing courses at the Otis College of Art and Design. After experimenting with a variety of graphic techniques, he settled on wood engraving which, although tedious and slow, made it possible to achieve subtle linear effects not easily obtained with other graphic processes.

Landacre did his own printing, continually experimenting with different combinations of papers and inks. The printmaker is craftsperson as well as creative artist, and he noted the importance of process when he said: "...there is the physical pleasure of the feel of the graver in boxwood, and the fascinating and exasperating mechanics of printing, and...the marvelous feeling of having completed something." Critical evaluations of his work usually include mention of the high level of technical skill evident in his work.

Wood engraving, the oldest of all printmaking processes, was supported by the Federal Art Project, but it is not widely practiced today. Until the 20th century, it was the primary medium for book, newspaper, and poster illustration, but as photographic processes replaced its commercial function, wood engraving became a fine art medium. Working on the end grain of a wood block enables the artist to carve crisp, detailed images with strong black and white contrasts and, for Landacre, those qualities in the medium helped develop his individual style.

Some information from:

Carl Zigrosser, "Paul Landacre," The Artist in America: Twenty four Close-ups of Contemporary Printmakers (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1942)


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