Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Left Front

"Severe economic downturn. a dysfunctional government. Wall Street bailouts. Public protests and police clashes. A president accused of "socialism." Struggles for immigrant and minority rights. The threat of military conflict abroad and social turmoil at home:
                                                       The United States in the 1930's
(Quoted from John Paul Murphy's exhibition essay)

Art catnip for the printmaker and a timely premise for an exhibit. The Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East, NYC) has this thought provoking exhibit up until April 4th.  Any similarities to our current political climate is entirely intentional I'm sure. This fresh look at the work of artist activists during the 30's gives an interesting backdrop for examining the canon of political art.

Mitchell Siporin, woodcut, Workers Family 1937

As Lisa Corrin, director of the Block Museum points out, many of the artists featured in this exhibit paid for their political beliefs by being blackballed or otherwise shunned by the art world.  Probably because of the non-commercial nature and political charged content many of the the works represented here were powerful images yet many of the artists name were unfamiliar to me.

Bernece Berkman, woodcut, Toward a Newer Life, 1937

Many of the works are by artists affiliated with either The John Reed Clubs or the American Artists' Congress. Referred to as the "Red Decade" the 1930's saw increased agitation for progressive social change among intellectuals, writers and visual artists. By the decades' end many artists had become disillusioned with their support of Communism under Stalin.

Aleksei Ilyich Kravchenko, wood engraving, On the Barricades, 1925

As co-curator Jill Bugajski points out in her essay; "...the budding USSR became an inadvertent role model for groups the world over seeking to elevate the working class and combat exploitative old-world monarchies or new-world industrial oligarchies."

The worst recession since the Great Depression led to the creation of the Occupy protest movements and a resurrection of our interest in how artists react to social climates of economic disparity, social injustice and corruptions of the political system.

The print as a mode political statement derives from their reproducibility and ease of dissemination into "public" hands. The art on display at the Grey Art Gallery is both sobering and yet full of optimism that it has the power to change society.

The Left Front: Radical Art in the "Red Decade," 1929-1940 in on view through April 4, 2015 at the Grey Art Gallery/New York University, 100 Washington Square East, NYC.

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