What makes a work of art revolutionary? Is revolutionary art radical in form or content? Is it effective only insofar as it sparks concrete action? Or is portraying the marginalized as if their lives had some claim to beauty, their suffering to relevance, sufficiently revolutionary?
The works on display in The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940, an exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, gesture at a range of eloquent and arresting answers to these provocative questions. The exhibition traces the development of activist art in the wake of the Great Depression, when economic turbulence bred heightened social consciousness. The artists represented in The Left Front show are united in their conviction that art is intrinsically social — indeed, the draft manifesto of the John Reed Clubs, named for poet and founding member of the American Communist Party John Reed, issued a call for artists to “abandon decisively the treacherous illusion that art … can remain remote from historical conflicts.” The clubs, which were founded in 1929, strove to effect change through writing, art, and organizing. Their membership thought of activist writing, painting, and drawing not as the ineffable stuff of Homeric inspiration but rather as the product of honest labor. Activist artists regarded themselves, writes John Paul Murphy in the informative Grey Gazette that accompanies the exhibition, as “culture workers.”
But how are culture workers to “produce” culture with maximal revolutionary impact? Different artists disagree as to how communist convictions are best or most effectively visualized, and the best part of The Left Front is the methodological tension that underwrites the varied approaches on display. On one end of the spectrum are satirical prints stylized enough to have a legible message, like Henry Glinetenkamp’s 1935 “Voter Puppets,” which depicts a huge puppet-master directing a political pageant as the faceless masses cast ballots behind him. The work suggests, and none too opaquely, that politics is as dominated by capital as the image is dominated by the looming puppeteer. It’s not crude so much as it’s single-minded: stark and bold, its design is clearly designed to incite action.
In contrast, many of the prints and paintings in The Left Front are images of dereliction, rendered in listless browns and greys. These works have expressive rather than reformatory ambitions. Reginald Marsh’s 1930 watercolor “Chicago” depicts a deserted street lined with dilapidated buildings, and Eugene Morley’s stunning 1936 lithograph “Hurricane” shows a lone woman outside the wreckage of a cross-section of her house. The windswept room is open to both our invasive gaze and the elements, and the woman’s desolation is palpable: her fragile figure is visually negligible, eclipsed by the massive material violence of her environment. In a similarly despairing work, Alexander Stavenitz sketches out the very picture of dejection: the subject of 1930 etching “Subway No. 2” slumps over on a subway seat, subsumed by his hat and coat.
These images of human discontent are complimented by images of inhuman bleakness — cityscapes reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. In works like Ernest Fiene’s 1932 etching of Madison Square Park and Blance Grambs’ 1938 etching “Workers’ Homes,” oppressive backdrops weigh heavily on their subjects, enmeshing them in the impersonal immensity of the urban environment. These etchings imply that the built landscape of industrialization contains less and less space for those who built it. There is something haunting about sites of human habitation that are conspicuously without humans, and Boris Gorelick’s 1938 lithograph “Industrial Strife” takes this state of affairs to its logical conclusion. In his disturbing work, the city’s triumph over humanity is complete: human faces are flattened and superimposed onto clocks and buildings.
For many of the artists featured in The Left Front, the antidote to the convergence of human and city was a different sort of post-humanism, a forceful and revolutionary re-appropriation of the mechanized capitalist apparatus. As a plaque in the exhibition notes, “communists like John Reed believed that capitalists had created a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ in industrial production that would come back to destroy them.” The human-machines that feature so powerlessly in Gorelick’s lithograph return with a revolutionary vengeance in two striking drawings by Henry Simon, both of which depict the proletariat as an enormous metal monster attacking a throng of tiny, terrified business moguls. The robotic figure is not at odds with his material environment but rather integrated into it.
If this sounds propagandistic, it’s because it is, paradoxically, an advertisement for anti-capitalism. The irony of using sensationalized images to serve the communist cause was not lost on yet another camp of activist artists, the so-called “social mystics,” who drew on the surrealist tradition to create works that were formally revolutionary. The “products” of social mysticism reject capitalism’s insistence on images that lend themselves to easy, thoughtless consumption, striving to create something less consistent with the logic of consumerism — something that challenges the capitalist methodology in addition to the capitalist method. One highlight is Julio de Diego’s 1943 painting, “Industry Becomes More Complex,” which recalls Bosch’s nightmarish triptychs. It depicts a factory equipped with a hellish furnace. In the foreground lurks a monster with a gaping mouth, crystallized in a pose of perpetual, insatiable hunger.
Faced with this horrifying image, The Left Front leaves us to determine how to proceed — how to satisfy our consumptive craving once and for all, and which visual props can aid us along the way.
The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940 is on display at the NYU Grey Gallery (100 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through April 4.