In the event that you haven’t had your fill of political commentary this year, Galerie St. Etienne is offering an early Christmas present entitled You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party. It’s a timely survey of work that addresses the complex intersection of art and left-wing politics in this country, from its most vital manifestations in the 1930s to more recent, less programmatic expressions. (An essay that accompanies the show is indispensable for providing context). A minimum of what’s on view is baldly propagandistic, and the lion’s share of that comes from Hugo Gellert, a socialist whose posters are as powerful as they are promotional, as in an absurdly muscular depiction of Lenin towering above the masses. Gellert is a good example of the complicated relationship between art and politics in New York between the wars. During the 1920s he was employed as an illustrator by both the New Yorker and the New York Times, but by the early 30s the Museum of Modern Art was getting nervous about his subject matter, and a proposal to deaccession his work from MoMA’s collection was countered—not solely for political reasons—by other artists who threatened to withdraw their work from the museum. An anecdote that perhaps best captures the apparent incongruities of the era is Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s reported explanation of her interest in Ben Shahn’s series depicting the martyrdom of Sacco and Vanzetti: “Comes the revolution, I can fill the windows with these, and the House of Rockefeller may survive.”
The hardships of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism created temporary bedfellows, many of whom preferred to be “fellow travelers” rather than full-fledged communists. A lot of what’s on display at St. Etienne is not overtly partisan, a reminder that humanism shapes the best social commentary. Paintings like those of Raphael Soyer, whose In the City Park is arguably the show’s centerpiece, were dimly viewed by a communist program that preferred images of workers rising up against capitalism, rather than loitering in an unemployed stupor. Soyer’s view, free of an overtly revolutionary agenda, better captures the mood of the era than do Gellert’s calls to arms. Alice Neel’s Longshoremen Returning from Work portrays a similarly dispirited atmosphere, though in a less naturalistic pictorial vocabulary. There’s more movement to the composition, but it’s dreary stuff. That both Soyer’s and Neel’s palettes brightened considerably after mid-century seems as much to reflect post-war optimism as they are representative of natural painterly evolution. Of the more aggressive social commentary, the acrid drawings of George Grosz and strident caricatures of William Gropper wear less well than Jack Levine’s slyer attacks on systemic graft. Levine was our best editorialist in paint, and his skill as a draftsman and colorist make his indictments of corrupt pols all the more memorable; he’s the closest thing to Daumier we’ve had. One can simultaneously enjoy the trenchant character studies of The Card Players and admire it as pure painting.
There were, of course, even more dire social issues; several artworks in the show deal with lynching. The horror of racially motivated gang murder lent itself to searing imagery, and allowed artists to appropriate the composition and symbolism of traditional religious narrative—see Marion Campbell Kronfeld’s Pietá. Depictions of Christian martyrdom could be referenced in works deemed socially progressive, an iconographic and philosophical complexity that suggests the difficulty of designating themes as purely “leftist” in content.
The Red Scare of the 1950s chilled the visual arts as it did Hollywood. Artists such as Gropper and Shahn were summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Cold War and disenchantment with Stalinism surely had an effect, but though sociopolitical art was overshadowed by abstract expressionism, it continued to find able practitioners in Shahn, Levine and Leonard Baskin. Baskin is best represented in the current show, with several monumental wood sculptures and famously immense woodcuts. His beautifully drawn and flayed Hydrogen Man, printed in response to United States weapons tests, is an implicit indictment of the arms race. The most recent works in the show are the fiercely dark drawings of Sue Coe, wherein graphite and charcoal are wielded as a sledgehammer against the injustices of poverty and hunger. Dropped in at the end of the exhibition is a small drawing of a destructive tornado sporting a familiar plump face and fluff of hair, captioned “It Can Happen Here.”
It’s never stopped happening. The show at Galerie St. Etienne is a less than subtle reminder that the same issues which drew moral outrage in the last century—labor unrest, economic disparity, political corruption, the cloud of nuclear war—are very much with us. There are new problems, which have in turn spawned newer ones still: efforts to confront global warming encounter resistance provoked, in part, by misinformation spread on the internet. The impetus to state the obvious—that black lives matter—is met with pushback, and the disenfranchisement of minorities through voter suppression operates in the full light of day.
Communism has long ceased to be a relevant touchstone for artists and intellectuals seeking an alternative to the ills of capitalism. At this moment the frustrations of the working class worldwide have engendered a populist support for demagoguery and oligarchy. The ideal of workers uniting under socialism, let alone a government intent on responding to the concerns of those in need, has been supplanted by a commitment to Wall Street and big oil. One can venture a fair guess what the artists assembled here would have to say.
You Say You Want a Revolution continues at Galerie St. Etienne through February 11, 2017.