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The Red Decade: Art with a Gritty Heart

Gerald Meyer Mar 10

The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940
NYU Grey Art Gallery
Through April 4


The 1930s saw an outpouring of art that responded to the suffering people experienced during the Great Depression. Think of the photography of Dorothea Lange, the novels of John Steinbeck and the Dust Bowl ballads of Woody Guthrie. For anyone who was moved by the tales of economic devastation shared by the victims of the Great Recession who flocked to Zuccotti Park at the height of Occupy Wall Street, the imagery of the 1930s can take on an eerie resonance.

The NYU Grey Art Gallery brings the Depression-era aesthetic to life again with “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’” an exhibition that features more than 100 works by 40 artist-activists who devoted their talents to the twin causes of defeating the increasing menace of fascism and advancing the prospects of socialism. For most of these artists that meant mobilizing the working classes under the leadership of the Communist Party, which reached the zenith of its cultural and political influence in this country during the 1930s.

The works on display at “The Left Front” are not art for art’s sake. They were created to serve a revolutionary cause and their message is direct and unambiguous: Workers and other victims of oppression need and merit the viewers’ attention. Yet these works are not propaganda but artistic creations that evoke deep reflection and genuine emotions, reactions that more direct media, such as pamphlets and leaflets, were unlikely to elicit.

With few exceptions, these works are lithographs and other types of black and white prints that could be produced relatively cheaply and thus reach the widest possible audience. The presence of a few large paintings and drawings, as well as one outsized Spanish Civil War poster, add color and serve as centerpieces around which the curators mounted the smaller-sized prints. In a similar manner, the strategic inclusion of works by internationally recognized Mexican social artists — Diego Rivera, David Álvaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco — lends luster to the exhibition while acknowledging their powerful influence on the U.S. artists it features. These aesthetic choices, as well as the decision to organize the works thematically — “Class Struggle,” “Workers of the World Unite!,” “Popular Front” and “What Is Revolutionary Art?” — combine to give this relatively small show tremendous range and depth.

The “red art” on display does not, for the most part, project optimism; instead, the works seethe with indignation and determination. In Mitchell Siporin’s woodcut, Workers Family, a family of five (father, mother, infant, boy and grandfather) stands in the foreground, while in the background a factory’s chimney belches smoke. Evidencing the times, the figures are thin and appear somewhat bewildered. Nonetheless, the son looks to his father with confidence. Somehow, the viewer is reassured that they are one unit that cannot be broken. Siporin is also asking the viewer to consider this family’s plight within a context that leaves open the question of the factory, its use, its ownership and its relationship to this working-class family, representative of millions of other families like it.

Similarly, Uprooted, a lithograph by the prolific William Gropper, shows a family of three (husband, wife, young child) fleeing a parched, broken environment that calls to mind the destruction wrought by the dust storms of this period. The composition conveys the sense that this small family, while burdened by their remaining possessions like the family in Siporin’s composition, is not doomed. Perhaps, it is the system, so indifferent to their plight, that deserves and someday will incur that fate.

The works comprising the exhibition were products of and for a consciously left community. Graphics became illustrations in books, magazines and advertisements for public meetings and theatrical productions. The exhibition extends the viewers’ understanding of the subject by including samples of book illustrations, such as Rockwell Kent’s illustrations of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Gropper’s illustrations of Marx’s Capital. Most intriguing are the illustrations by Prentiss Taylor, a white man associated with the Harlem Renaissance, for Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse (1932) by Langston Hughes, Prentiss’s friend and lover.

The contributions of Kent deserve special attention, not only because of his increasingly favorable reputation, but because his life and work illustrate key issues germane to the subject of this show. Kent, a devoted lifelong Communist, never worked in a social-realist style: His masterful work — detached, precise and at times, symbolic — communicated with clarity what was so often left unnoticed. Even the most casual visitor to “The Left Front” can note the obvious: While social realism is the predominant style, every imaginable graphic style, including surrealism and abstract expressionism, is on display. This show powerfully contradicts the canard that the Communist Party imposed social realism as the sole aesthetic style on artists.

While the outbreak of World War II disrupted the artistic movement on display at this exhibition, the political and artistic commitments of the vast majority of the artists represented in the show continued. “The Left Front” in the sphere of the graphic arts was crushed during the anti-communist backlash that followed the end of the war. Today, its work reminds us that art doesn’t have to exist solely for its own sake but can spur us to see the world as it is and as it could be, and to struggle for something better.


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