American Printmakers and the Federal Art Project

 



 

Artist Essays: FAP Printmakers

 

Herschel Levit

Although Herschel Levit is now an art historian, much of his early career was devoted to producing visual art. Born in Pennsylvania in 1912, he was a young, practicing printmaker during the decade of the Depression, but he abandoned that work in favor of teaching the history of art and architecture primarily at Pratt Institute in New York City. His two publications French Gothic Art and Architecture (publisher unknown) and Views of Rome --Then and Now (Dover, 1977), confirm that his interest in architecture spanned historical periods. However, as a young American artist working during the Depression, he logically turned his attention to the accessible architectural forms around him. Logical subjects for his work were the massive construction projects of the period. Although there is a general assumption that the Depression was a period of nearly complete economic inactivity, significant projects were funded by Congress for the WPA and the Bureau of Reclamation among other government agencies. Government sponsored projects played an essential role in shoring up the American economy in its attempt to maintain a semblance of normalcy.

Levit forcefully and accurately illustrated workers on government sponsored construction projects. Dam Builders (1937) depicts the construction of an anonymous dam somewhere in the United States. The powerful diagonal lines of the cranes and cables repeat and emphasize the muscular figures of the men working with them. The more conservative lines, which represent the infrastructure of the cement dam, provide background for the prominent activity. Neither too strong nor too weak, the horizontal elements are an effective foil for the powerful figures of the men. This forcefulness is accentuated by the superhuman, almost heroic, proportions of the figures. Even the unnatural foreshortening of the workers' arms only adds to the feeling of great strength; their muscular arms, necks, and backs confirm the extent of the physical exertion such a monumental project demands. Placement of the figures close to the frontal plane is a compositional device that reinforces the idea of dominant human (worker) controlling natural forces.

Like the Federal Art Project, government sponsored construction programs were designed to remove the unemployed from relief rolls, and were intended to improve living and working conditions. Intentional or not, these projects also provided men and women assigned to them a feeling of achievement without the loss of human dignity so often suffered by welfare recipients who were not required to work. It was this sense of worthwhile endeavor that also encouraged artists by acknowledging that their work was as important as that performed by construction and industrial laborers. In Dam Builders, Levit the worker depicts the importance of labor in contemporary society, and by exploring the theme, Levit the artist contributes an important ingredient to the development of the history of American art.

 

Louis Lozowick

Sleek towers and stepped ziggurat-like forms identify the New York City skyline in Louis Lozowick's powerful lithograph Through Brooklyn Bridge Cables printed in 1938 when the artist was assigned to the Graphic Arts Division of the Federal Art Project. Born in Russia's Kiev district in 1892, Lozowick immigrated to the United States in 1906. He had already been trained in traditional printmaking techniques, and had absorbed the philosophy of his mentors who believed that "the artist is one with a noble mission." Although he continued to study art in this country, Lozowick felt a strong need to return to Europe in 1920 for further direct exposure to the concepts of order and discipline that formed the philosophical foundations of Constructivism, Purism, DeStijl, and the Bauhaus curriculum. Systematic order was considered essential for relevant responses to mechanization and industrialism that were rapidly dominating societies throughout the world. Like many of his contemporaries, Lozowick believed the machine was a positive force and that visual depictions of machinery should emphasize their potential as tools for effecting democratic progress.

Shortly after the print revival had swept through Europe, Lozowick was introduced to the lithographic process while he was in Berlin in 1923. The excitement of the exploratory directions to which he was exposed encouraged him to continue working in printmaking after he returned to the United States. Carl Zigrosser of the Weyhe Gallery supported Lozowick's interest by giving him a solo exhibition of recent lithographs in 1929. In 1931 he was awarded the Cleveland Print Club's $1,000 first prize, and in the same year he received the Mary S. Collins Prize for the best lithograph in the Third Exhibition of the Philadelphia Print Club. In her Catalog Raisonne, Janet Flint observed that Lozowick's instinctive affinity for the medium was immediately evident, and he continued to develop a personal repertoire of techniques during the rest of his working life.

Having assimilated Constructivist and Cubist theories, Lozowick was prepared to meet the challenges presented by the rapidly growing city with his interpretations of New York skyscrapers as modern symbols of optimism. Like other artists during the Depression, he identified closely with workers and thought of the printmaking process and its products in terms of craft and workmanship. Assigned to the New York Graphic Arts Division in 1935, Lozowick left in 1936 to accept a commission from the more prestigious Treasury Relief Art Project for two large oil paintings for the Post Office at 33rd Street in Manhattan. His preliminary studies for the paintings were lithographs which are among his strongest images of New York skyscraper and bridge forms made comprehensible by his characteristic rational compositional structure.

Returning to the Project in 1938, Lozowick concentrated on experimental printmaking, including wood engraving, drypoint, and screen printing until the termination of his appointment in 1940. During the next three decades he devoted himself primarily to lithography, had several solo exhibitions at major New York galleries, and a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972.

Some information from:

Janet Flint, The Prints of Louis Lozowick, Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1982, p. 13

 

Samuel L. Margolies

New York City under continuing construction offered a wealth of subject matter for Project printmakers assigned to the city's Graphic Arts Division. Not only were artists interested in the role played by laborers in society during the 1930s, they were also intrigued by the size and scale of buildings under construction. The urban landscape was changing rapidly and dramatically as Samuel L. Margolies "...watched the metropolis finger its way skyward." His etchings captured the power and scale of the great city, and the courage of the men who worked on scaffolding and cranes high above the streets. The two figures in Builders of Babylon, although not heroic in scale, dominate the city that they, and their fellow workers have created. They are standing confidently on a steel girder with the New York skyline beneath their feet. If the artist's intention is to create a sense of "urban optimism" defined by art historian Joshua Taylor as an "emotive belief in the promise of tomorrow," the structure of the city is an essential compositional element. Although relating workers during the Depression to the optimistic view of a growing city is generally not acknowledged, construction continues, jobs were available, and not everyone in the work force was on relief.

The physical scale and qualities of tall buildings were particularly strong themes for artists who worked in and around large urban centers during the 1930s. They responded to the sheer size of skyscrapers, speaking of them as structures as ageless as the pyramids. That Margolies identified New York with Babylon indicates a belief that the phenomenal ancient Near-Eastern city-state has a modern counterpart in the equally phenomenal clustering of monumental skyscrapers within the city.

Born in 1898, Margolies lived and worked in New York City during the 1930s. He studied at the National Academy of Design, Cooper Union Art School, and the Beaux Arts Institute, and acquired an exceptionally strong exhibition record before he abandoned his art career in 1939 to become an electronic circuit designer. A member of the American Artists Congress, he exhibited at the New York World's Fair in 1939, and his work is in the collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and in various federal buildings in Washington D.C.

Some information from:

Joshua Taylor, America as Art, (1976), p. 192

 

Jackson Pollock

Assigned to New York City's easel division of the Federal Art Project from 1935 until 1943, Jackson Pollock painted small landscapes suitable for allocation to public buildings. Many of these were rural landscapes, ides for which may have developed from conversations with Thomas Hart Benton, his teacher and friend, who had a summer home on Martha's Vineyard where Pollock was a frequent house guest. During this period Pollock also produced several lithographs, 12 of which are known to survive. Since he never worked with the Project's graphic arts division, the prints were not a part of his Project responsibilities, although he collaborated with Theodore Wahl who printed for artists assigned there. Wahl retained printer's proofs of Pollock's lithographs which were pulled in small editions, usually only two or three prints, and always in black. Because he was an active member of the Art Student's League from December 1932 until December 1935, Pollock was allowed to use the graphic arts studio on Saturdays where he worked out images for lithographs such as Stacking Hay. His close association with Benton at the time he began working on this print suggests that the theme may have been inspired by Benton's large commercial editions of popular rural subjects that were widely circulated throughout the 1930s by the Association of American Artists.

The linear patterns and organic forms that characterize Benton's work are evident in Stacking Hay, and may predict Pollock's mature style variously labeled as "all-over," "gestural," or "action painting." Emphasis on quality of line at the expense of academically correct drawing also typifies Benton's work, as does the rural theme, an especially unusual choice for Pollock. Stacking Hay was initially titled The Harvest, and was included in a portfolio published in Colorado Springs by Archie Musick.

Although in 1936 he had not yet indicated strong tendencies toward involuntary abstraction, Pollock worked in the experimental mural workshop established by David Alfaro Siqueiros where he observed the then unorthodox use of spray guns, synthetic paints, and the "controlled accident." Traditional techniques, never central to his purpose, must have been even more difficult for him after his experience with Siqueiros' strong emphasis on spontaneous application of paint on large surfaces.

Pollock often expressed sincere appreciation for the financial security (wages for the 8 years he spent working on the Project totalled $7,800) which allowed him to experiment extensively and to finally develop his personal style that later defined Abstract Expressionism. Pollock's dependence on the Project, which required submission of a painting every 8 weeks for allocation, nurtured his developing sense of individual purpose and connected him directly with the community of artists during the 1930s who were identified with the laborers they portrayed and whose work was intended for, and understood by, the general public. Ironically, Pollock is credited with defining Abstract Expressionism, the elitist, late modern development which, more than 50 years later, is still incomprehensible to a majority of the viewing public.

Research Paper Francey 1

 

Benton Spruance

A student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Benton Spruance was awarded a Cresson Scholarship in 1928 to study in Paris where he was introduced to lithography at the studio of Edmond and Jacques Desjobert. American artists were attracted to the Atelier Desjobert primarily because of the master printers working there, a workshop opportunity that was not then available in the United States. Noticing that his fellow Americans were having difficulty communicating with their French printers, Spruance offered to act as an interpreter in return for unlimited use of the workshop. After his return to Philadelphia, Spruance worked with Theodore Cuno, a German lithographer much in demand by other printmakers, and who had printed for Joseph Pennell.

Echoing the philosophy of the Federal Art Project, Spruance agreed that "...the lithograph is a democratic form of the medium. In a democracy, works of art should be available to people in all income brackets. Lithographs can be dispersed among more people at a much lower cost than original oil paintings." Consistent with this view, the work Spruance did between 1935 and the early 1940s reflect a search within his immediate environment for themes that would effectively communicate with a wide and diverse audience. In his introductory notes for The People Work portfolio in 1937, Henri Marceau, curator of prints in what is now the Philadelphia Museum of Art, observed that the four lithographs constitute "...one artist's saga of the daily toil of his unknown fellow workers." This toil as a subject, Marceau said, is so much a part of our shared experience that the narrow view sees a sermon, an interpretation, that falls short of the full expressive potential of these prints.

In fact, Spruance's people do not work. They are traveling either to or from their work places, relaxing a mid-day, and, finally playing at night. However, it is unlikely that Spruance intended a cynical message; rather the prints are evidence of his continuing interest in observing crowds of people. Morning examines the mass confusion of a hurrying throng, presumably on their way to work, rushing down subway stairs and crowding into already packed cars. Noon sees people on the street, lunching, gossiping, relaxing and carefully watching the time. Evening brings the workers out of factories and offices to buy newspapers and again swarm into the subway stations. Night brings them together again for entertainment as they gather in bars to eat and play. The underlying theme is work, but instead of an explicit statement, Spruance comments on how work organizes the day. The complexity of the city is generalized into carefully ordered spatial patterns and a generalized humanity.

Some information from:

Clinton Adams, American Lithographers 1900-1960, (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1983), p, 116
The Prints of Benton Spruance, A Catalog Raisonne, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), from intro. by Ruth E. Fine.

Research Paper Francey 1

 

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