Anyone needing a crash course in the ways the pen can confront the gun should head over to NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, where a decade’s worth of revolutionary art celebrates immigrants, denounces tyrants, ennobles workers of every race–and even illustrates the very idea of terror.
That the art was made eight decades ago only heightens its relevance. “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1940,” opening January 13, focuses on the scathing, idealistic, political art made in the U.S. during the 1930s, against the deepening crisis of the Depression and as war erupted on various fronts overseas.
The U.S. art world was as left-wing as it ever had been–or has been ever since. Communist philosophy dominated the activist-art scene. “Art as a social weapon” was the motto of New York’s chapter of the John Reed Club, a Communist Party-affiliated organization that urged members to abandon hope that art for art’s sake was even possible. Artists called themselves “culture workers,” or “worker-artists.” Their common enemies included fascism, capitalist aggression, white chauvinism, and middle-class ideas. Their shared communication method (along with the manifesto) was print—the most democratic and easily disseminated medium they knew.Not that there wasn’t conflict about what revolutionary art should look like. Though Left Front artists wanted the workers of the world to unite, the best strategy to reach laborers’ hearts and minds was a matter of debate. With some 100 works by 40 artists, the show is a primer in radical art tactics of the day, from the finger-shaking, heart-wrenching social realism of Boris Gorelick and Morris Topchevsky to the modernist stylings of Stuart Davis and Werner Drewes, intended to provoke viewers to look at the world differently.
Other artistic branches of the left front included social surrealism, social mysticism, and even socialist science fiction, such as Rockwell Kent’s bizarre lithographs illustrating scientific theories about how the world might end.
The worker and the jobless, the protest and the bread line, the capitalist puppeteer and the lynch mob, all were subjects for the Left Front. Race is an ongoing theme in the show, with Prentiss Taylor’s tragic Scottsboro portfolio of lithographs, and Mitchell Sipon’s “Let American Be America Again,” an allegory of slavery that brings de Chirico into the mix. One section features the ill-fated print portfolio that 14 Chicago Jewish artists made to help Birobidzhan, the Socialist Jewish homeland in the Far Eastern Soviet Union. Other works support the Republican cause in Spain.
A series of public programs at NYU and elsewhere explores the left front’s interconnections with Mexican muralism, Spain’s Civil War, Jewish labor unions, and more. On March 26, at City College, CUNY professor Anna Indych-Lopez will lead a panel with artist Dread Scott and musician Johanna Fateman (of Le Tigre) on what revolutionary art could be today.
One of the more classically modern works in “Left Front” is “Terror,” a 1935 etching and aquatint by Henry Sternberg that uses a primitivist expressionism to evoke a sensation of paranoia and dread. You can say it of just about everything in this fascinating, thought-provoking show, but you might as well start with this one: as relevant as ever.
“The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1940, Jan. 13 – April 4 at Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, bet. Waverly and Washington Places