by Jillian Russo | June 9, 2015
Since the passage of the GI Bill during World War II, thousands of veterans have studied at the Art Students League of New York. Returning World War II veterans rejuvenated the League, making it a site of experimentation and an incubator for postwar artists. The GI Bill made an art education accessible to those who might not otherwise have become engaged in the field, and the influx of students strengthened an ambitious community. On the Front Lines is a multi-part exhibition in the League’s Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery, lobby, main office, and café. The gallery portion of the show examines the historical impact of the veterans on the League, while the companion spaces present a juried exhibition of contemporary work by veterans who are former or current League students.
Rarely discussed in the context of American art, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (which became known as the GI Bill of Rights) underpinned much of the artistic experimentation of the postwar period. The legislation provided veterans with a socioeconomic safety net that included affordable loans for the purchase of homes, farms, and businesses; guaranteed unemployment benefits; and tuition credits to further their education. The tuition credits, which granted up to 500 dollars per year (equivalent to more than 6,000 dollars today) as well as a monthly stipend toward living expenses, offered thousands of veterans the financial security to pursue full-time artistic study.
In the late 1940s and 1950s numerous artists, including Sigmund Abeles, Stanley Boxer, Terence Coyle, Jack Faragasso, Michael Goldberg, Peter Golfinopoulos, Daniel Greene, Al Held, , John Hultberg, Paul Jenkins, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Alfred Leslie, Knox Martin, and Robert Rauschenberg, began their artistic careers at the League, many with the GI Bill’s support. Throughout the 1940s, two-thirds of the League’s student body were attending on the GI Bill.1 In response to increased enrollment the teaching faculty also expanded. New instructors included veterans Charles Alston, Hughie Lee-Smith, Frank Herbert Mason, Anthony Palumbo, and Sidney Simon. Subsequently, abstract painters Frank O’Cain and William Scharf joined the League.
For many of the students it was a time of experimentation. The paintings on view show Boxer, Goldberg, Leslie, Held, Hultberg, and Rauschenberg exploring abstraction and the materiality of paint. In the early 1950s Leslie created Hoboken Baby, as part of a series of collages that illustrates the artist’s involvement with Abstract Expressionism. In 1951 Leslie exhibited in the 9th Street Exhibition along with Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. While studying at the League with Morris Kantor from 1949 to 1951, Rauschenberg created the painting, Wash, which breaks form into overlapping and intersecting planes of color, as well as collages, such as Untitled, 1949, using scraps of fabric. Throughout the 1950s Rauschenberg developed his use of found materials to create his groundbreaking “combine” paintings using newspaper, photographic images, and three-dimensional objects. Other students in Kantor’s class included Boxer, Hultberg, Jenkins, Martin, and Cy Twombly, with whom Rauschenberg became intimately involved. Boxer and Hultberg responded to Abstract Expressionism with styles combining abstract form and color fields with representational elements such as the contours of the female body in Figure in an Interior, or the structure of the cityscape in The Tower.
Held, Goldberg, and Jenkins experimented with painterly approaches that celebrated the physical properties of the medium. For Held, the transition into abstraction occurred after studying at the League with realist painter Harry Sternberg in 1948. The following year, with the support of the GI Bill, Held moved to Paris, where he attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and began to create his first abstract paintings including Untitled, 1950–52. Jenkins, who studied for four years with Yasuo Kuniyoshi, began using liquid binder to allow his paint to flow across the surface of the canvas, creating dynamic compositions of dense color. Goldberg, who had begun his artistic study at the League when he was fourteen, returned after World War II to study with José de Creeft from 1947 to 1948. He further developed his painterly abstract style as a student of Hans Hofmann and through his friendship with the New York School painters.
While contemporary paintings by Scharf, O’Cain, and Martin illustrate how these artists continue to respond to aspects of the Abstract Expressionist tradition, a strong realist tradition also continued at the League throughout the postwar period. Master teachers Mason, Frank Reilly, Robert Beverly Hale, and Robert Brackman shaped a new generation of illustrators and portraitists including Coyle, Kinstler, Faragasso, and Greene. Instructors Lee-Smith, Palumbo, and Simon developed styles that incorporated the influences of surrealism, social realism, and abstraction. Lee-Smith, who had worked on the WPA Federal Art Project and painted a historical mural for the US Navy during his service, became known for his desolate and eerie industrial and urban scenes. Abandoned presents idle machinery, rendered as cubist forms, within an eroded landscape that evokes the primordial spaces of surrealist painting. When Lee-Smith joined the League faculty in 1958, his career began to flourish. He was invited to join the Petite Gallery and in 1967 was the second African-American artist to be elected to the National Academy of Design. In the late 1960s, he became artist-in-residence at Howard University and acting chair of the art department.
The GI Bill spurred the careers of many artists in new directions. In addition to opening teaching opportunities for Lee-Smith, it brought artists such as Rauschenberg and Twombly together, sparked Held’s further education abroad, enabled Jenkins’ exploration of new materials and techniques, and furthered exhibition opportunities for Hultberg, Golfinopoulos, and Martin. In 1952 Twombly and Rauschenberg took a formative eight-month trip through Europe and North Africa that spurred new artistic investigations. Following his study at the League, Hultberg’s work gained international attention when The Tower was exhibited at the 1955 Venice Biennale. In 1954 Franz Kline selected one of Martin’s paintings for inclusion in his exhibition at Stable Gallery, and as a result Martin received a solo exhibition at Charles Egan Gallery. Golfinopoulos, after studying with George Grosz from 1949 to 1951, pursued his BFA and MFA at Columbia University, where he worked closely with art historian Meyer Schapiro. Golfinopoulos was invited to join Charles Egan Gallery in 1963.
Writing in 1985, Boxer credited his pursuit of an artistic career to the GI Bill. He remarked, “That this person is an ‘artist’ has caused him the most profound surprise … How easily matters could have been otherwise!”2 More broadly, Boxer described the positive effects of the legislation on American art and culture. “[T]his ‘artist’ thinks of a United States once considered (by Americans in particular) to be permanently without ‘culture’ … He knows that most of the best art, literature, science, music in these several decades after the initial GI Bill is American!” This sense of possibility powered social as well as artistic movements. In Boxer’s opinion, “The atmosphere of hope, once generated, gave impetus to the civil rights movement.”3 The impact was felt at the League, where African-American painter Charles Alston, who joined the faculty in 1951, responded to the Civil Rights Movement with a new series of black-and-white paintings, including Red, White, and Black, and with collective action. In 1963, Alston co-founded the artist-activist group Spiral with Hale Woodruff and Romare Bearden. Spiral provided a community for African-American artists at a time of segregation and strengthened their voices within the New York art scene.
Evoking the violent responses to the Civil Rights Movement, Red, White, and Black alludes to some of the limitations of the GI Bill. As journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and historian Kathleen J. Frydl have documented, the frequently praised housing policies failed to address discriminatory mortgage lending practices, reinforcing the redlining of neighborhoods and the development of segregated urban ghettos.4 While the educational provisions of the legislation ostensibly provided greater equality of opportunity, it was predominantly white male artists who were able to launch renowned careers. Only about 5% of postwar veterans attending the League were women. This disparity is reflected in the participation of only two women in the accompanying juried show.
Acknowledging these historical shortfalls, the effect of GI Bill and the immense contribution of veterans to the League continue to shape our artistic community. The League is not entirely singular in this regard. Following World War II, veterans redefined art schools throughout the nation, including the communities at Black Mountain College and the San Francisco Art Institute. Despite this widespread influence, the impact of the GI Bill and veterans on the art world have received little consideration within American art history. We hope this exhibition will provide a starting point for further recognition of this crucial topic.
On the Front Lines: Military Veterans at the Art Students League of New York opens June 19 and continues through July 29, 2015 in the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery.