Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 1, 2021
Jody Patterson Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics, and Public Murals in 1930s New York New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. 264 pp.; 72 color ills.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780300241396)

Readers of Jody Patterson’s excellent Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics, and Public Murals in 1930s New York will reconsider set narratives of midcentury modernism in the United States, as well as discover a great deal about the importance of modernism under the aegis of the New Deal art programs. Patterson’s exacting analyses of the ideological, cultural, political, and historical factors behind the marginalization of midcentury modernist murals do important work to contextualize both realism and abstraction as applied to mural painting. During the Great Depression, Patterson reminds us, the United States experienced a public mural renaissance funded by various New Deal art projects and influenced by the example of the great Mexican muralists. If one were asked to describe a typical New Deal mural, scenes of muscular factory workers at their machines or of a farm family in front of bountiful fields—narrative and stylistically realistic works—would most likely come to mind. Regarding the genesis of midcentury American abstraction, however, Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943) is routinely, although erroneously, Patterson writes, “heralded as a starting point in American art” (1), in large measure due to its anointment by Clement Greenberg. But in the 1930s, with the support of federal funding, New York City had already become the center of American abstract mural paintings by artists such as Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, and lesser-known painters such as Burgoyne Diller and Balcomb Greene.

Patterson’s book, organized into five chapters, focuses primarily on these artists, but also on major mural projects for the Williamsburg Houses project (1936–38) in Brooklyn and the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Queens. Patterson engagingly rewrites the history of midcentury art by questioning assumptions about the relationship between leftist politics and aesthetic sensibilities. She quickly addresses both the dominance of realism and the problematic pigeonholing of works into neat categories of realism and abstraction, and she notes that several modernists embraced the term “realism” to describe their art. Patterson’s discussion of abstract murals seeks to “complicate the categorization between realism and modernism common within histories of art” (9). While it is customary to link leftist politics with social realism and not abstraction, Patterson utilizes Davis as an example to demonstrate that abstract modernists were also prominent in radical politics, especially after the Popular Front. Davis was active in the Communist-organized John Reed Clubs and was the first president of New York’s Artists’ Union. Patterson structures her well-written text around three key strategies: “recovery of historical and institutional narratives; reexamination of the critical and theoretical positions enunciated by artists and cultural commentators; and formal, stylistic, and iconographic analyses of the artworks” (20). She brings overdue attention to those modernists who diligently worked on the federal rolls and informs readers on why modernist artists and their abstract murals have been excised from standard texts on the arts of the United States and on modern art. In doing so, her book stands as an important corrective to such purposeful neglect.

Chapter 1, “We Capture the Walls!,” commences with familiar territory: the beginnings of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and its infamous exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers, curated by Lincoln Kirstein in May 1932, which predated the launch of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in December 1933. The oft-told story of this exhibition is that of the controversial, politically strident mural proposals by Hugo Gellert, William Gropper, and Ben Shahn, which attacked the powerful elites who sat on MoMA’s board. Although this artistic trio of social realists created notoriety and garnered press attention, there was other innovative work on view, namely that of abstractionists and photographers. Patterson utilizes the exhibition to establish precedents for modern public muralism as it was eventually realized. The modern metropolis was a popular theme for many murals, such as Davis’s 1932 New York Mural (then titled Abstract Vision of New York: a building, a derby hat, a tiger’s head, and other symbols). Noting that Davis combined still life with contemporary cityscape, with obvious debts to collage and montage, Patterson cites his work as “one of the most self-consciously modernist responses to the challenges presented by the mural form” (36). Davis’s mural—as analyzed by Patterson—prototyped the innovative roles and possibilities abstract murals could play (and it also features on the book’s cover).

In her second chapter, “The Politics and Polemics of Abstraction,” Patterson discusses PWAP, the first federally funded art initiative under the New Deal (1933–34). Patterson’s concerns are the institutional and political positions toward abstract murals and also the politics and aesthetics of the New Deal muralists. As she explores, these conflicting attitudes about modernism and abstraction are exemplified by the “lively exchange” prompted by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition Abstract Painting in America in the spring of 1935.

While Patterson does not entirely clarify why murals for a New Jersey airport are included in a book on New York City murals, chapter 3, on Gorky’s cycle of ten murals for the Newark airport (1935–37), is nevertheless a highlight of the book. Perhaps the cycle is included because it drew from his unrealized mural project at Floyd Bennett Field in the southern tip of Brooklyn. Air travel, airplanes, and airports were all considered modern creations; French artist Fernand Léger and others believed airports, modern and streamlined, were ideal sites for modern art, and Newark’s airport was considered “ultra-modern” (109, 106). But only a few years after Gorky’s oil-on-canvas panels were installed, it seems they were no longer valued, as they were destroyed or lost during World War II. (Two of the panels were rediscovered in the 1970s and are now on view at the Newark Museum.) Based on their size, scale, and formal sophistication, the author convinces readers that these works should occupy a major position within Gorky’s oeuvre instead of being seen as experiments along the way to his becoming a central figure in the New York art scene. Patterson devotes many pages to the importance of Léger and his espousal of New Realism to American modernists, especially Gorky and Davis. Léger made several trips to New York during the Depression and grounded his New Realism in artistic innovation, mass-produced objects, and American pop culture. He was, in the author’s words, an “outspoken proponent for establishing a dialogue between modernism and realism to create an art for the masses” (110).

The Williamsburg Houses murals, now displayed at the Brooklyn Museum, were created between 1936 and 1938 by the collective of Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden; they are the subject of chapter 4. This project in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg was one of the first examples of “federally funded modernist social housing in America” (136). In her thorough analyses of each artist’s work and then the mural program as a totality, Patterson illustrates the great stylistic range of modernist murals and reveals conceptions of art and architecture working in harmony for the enrichment of peoples’ lives.

The New York World’s Fair of 1939 in Queens constitutes chapter 5, “The World of Tomorrow.” As with the Williamsburg project, the decoration of the fair was undertaken by multiple artists. Opening in April, on the eve of war in Europe, the World’s Fair embodied the theme “Building the World of Tomorrow,” or, in Patterson’s words, “fantasies of a modern future” (177). Patterson tells us that Holger Cahill, the national director of the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), argued that most contemporary art, including abstraction (he referred to the modernists as “abstract realists”), was well suited to the progressive attitude of the exposition as a whole. Patterson states, while discussing individual artists and their work, that this vast undertaking originated in the city’s business and financial communities, which utilized art and design for their own agendas. Modernist forms, she convincingly argues, were ideally suited to the fair’s progressive mandate. Unfortunately, the fair’s buildings, the murals, and other components of this tremendous enterprise were destroyed or left to decay once the World of Tomorrow closed shop.

Modernism for the Masses is lavishly illustrated with recent photographs of restored murals and archival photographs of both realized and unrealized mural projects; the extensive color reproductions enrich the author’s lively prose. But where are the “masses” of the book’s title? One issue in Patterson’s otherwise outstanding book is that the voice of the public, the audience for the murals under consideration, is largely missing. She does quote local media and critics, but I wondered how these modernist murals were received by the general public. Who constituted the public for these public murals? What, if any, were the modernists’ interactions with the public in the preparatory phases of mural making? Was there feedback from the public that would further open up our awareness of the public’s reception to modernism? Perhaps this is impossible to gauge, but a discussion of what could and could not be ascertained about the opinions of the murals’ audiences merits at least a paragraph or two. Otherwise, I highly recommend Patterson’s work to all. She brings well-merited attention to several less-famous mural artists and makes major contributions to the critical literature, especially on Davis and Gorky. The author’s thorough study of abstraction under the WPA/FAP in New York City is an important addition to work on modernism in the United States and on public art more generally, and she sets a new, high standard for future investigations of art of the 1930s.

Diana L. Linden
Independent Scholar