You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party
Galerie St. Etienne, New York
through Feb. 11th
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, DEC 2016
Now that America has voted in an extremely conservative—many would say reactionary—government, the show “You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party” at the venerable Galerie St. Etienne feels as if it is more than a flashback to a time when being a left-wing artist was not a vocation to be avoided. In a moment like this, when the entire world seems to be moving calamitously rightward, beyond the center-right position taken recently by most mercantile democracies, this exhibition feels like a call to action. The works, sixty-five in number, are composed by such well-known artists as Raphael Soyer and Ben Shahn and Jack Levine and George Grosz, who may be regarded as cultural workers in addition to being fine-art painters. Much of the art being shown was done in the 1930s, during the Depression, at a time when the collapse of capitalism devastated the working class, including artists, many of whom were saved from a marginal existence only by employment by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. The artists in this show may have been committed to progressive ideals to a varying extent, but they shared an antipathy to the suffering and injustice they saw around them.
But today, in America there is real antagonism, mostly outside the art world (but also within it), toward anything that has to do with the left. Thus a show like “Revolution” promotes the awareness that there was a period when artists staunchly maintained a progressive stance, one in which politics was understood to be as important as creating an art career (think of Stuart Davis’s leadership of the American Artists Congress). Mostly though the politics of this generation of artists has been played down, as has happened with Davis, in favor of a formalist treatment of their abstract and figurative works, which tends not to ruffle feathers. But “Revolution,” whose show is entirely figurative, seeks both to identify the art of artists committed to political change and to illuminate what these people sought to achieve—and perhaps to offer an alternative to the doldrums many people in art are now experiencing. Contemporary art has indeed been political, but mostly in terms of identity, being oriented toward race and gender. Relatively little attention has been spent on the critique of capital. The artists who comprise this exhibition were in no way shy about their feelings toward an economic system that had failed so completely, and seemed destined to collapse.
It is of course true that abstractions were made by activist artists, but in “Revolution” they are not to be seen. What we do see is the presence of human suffering, rendered figuratively. The styles range from Soyer’s muted, melancholic treatment of the dispossessed to the graphic force of political posters to the ritualistic sculptures of Leonard Baskin. All the art in some way treats the human condition, negotiated from the bottom up. Sometimes the artworks refer to known events, such as Shahn’s affecting gouache-and-ink treatment of anarchist Nicola Sacco’s family after the verdict of his trial (1931-32); and sometimes the work mocks the captains of industry as a category of oppressor, such as William Gropper’s forceful ink drawing of a worker, clothed in overalls, restraining a fat cat’s arm, whose hand holds a knife with the phrase “WAGE CUTS” written on it (1931). Political caricature is often invoked to emphasize the moral turpitude of big business; the effects can be raucous and rough, but one imagines that it worked at the time. In Shahn’s gouache portrait, Bare-Chested Laborer (1939), we see a man with large hands, stripped to the waist and wearing dark-brown trousers. We see only the side of his face as he looks downward. But the general impression is that of great strength, physical and moral, idealized and likely ready for class struggle.
As powerful as the art is in “Revolution,” none of it is formally cutting-edge. Beyond a certain idealization of the worker and the grotesque caricaturing of industry giants, things are rendered as they appear. There is little room for experimentation in this group of social realists, who use the figurative to clinch an ideological argument. In a work later than those already mentioned, a woodcut print by Baskin named Man of Peace (1952), the image is of somber-faced man, dressed only in a shirt, standing and holding a dead rooster behind barbed wire. Here the man’s suffering is generalized and made poetic, but, even so, the presence of the barbed wire shows us that the unhappy effects of violence and mistreatment of people remains an issue to be dealt with, now and into the future. The gallery has also included Baskin’s biblical Abraham, Isaac, and the Angel, and the Ram; done circa 1985, the black walnut sculpture is two-sided, Abraham standing back-to-back with Isaac, and the sacrificial ram resting on the side. Here, the human propensity for violence is made ancient and ritualistic. This image is of course not taken from the world and its class differences, but the message is clear: the potential for hardship and moral wrong began a long time ago, when the human condition began. WM
Johnathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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