“When people hear the words ‘WPA murals,’ they envision the large and heroic figures they may have seen in post offices or other public buildings across America,” Stephanie Wiles, the director of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, told Hyperallergic. Yet visitors to Revealed: WPA Murals from Roosevelt Island will see dynamic abstraction by modernists Ilya Bolotowsky, Albert Swinden, Joseph Rugolo, and Dane Chanase. Their 1940s murals were created for the Coler-Goldwater Hospital on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, which was demolished in 2015. Segments of the surviving murals are on their first public view at the Johnson Museum, before a planned reinstallation on Roosevelt Island at the Cornell Tech campus that is replacing the medical center.
“The New York Federal Art Project was unique in its creation of abstract artwork,” Wiles explained, noting that although the WPA Federal Art Project (FAP) is now famed for its figurative work celebrating American industry and progress, the leadership of the New York FAP by abstract painter Burgoyne Diller, from 1935 to 1942, encouraged a different vision.
“Diller hired abstract artists and made it possible for some of them to paint abstract murals using government funds at a time when abstraction was not popular or well understood,” Wiles said, adding that Diller often called the murals “decorations,” as they “most likely wouldn’t have been commissioned if they were described as abstract art.”
The Goldwater Hospital murals are rare examples from this era — many were removed, or relocated, like the Bolotosky and Swinden murals for the Williamsburg Housing Project now at the Brooklyn Museum — yet their preservation was no easy task. For starters, they’d been painted over in 1957, and finding the murals before the imminent destruction meant going through 32 dayrooms, all with the same circular shape, and chipping away paint to determine if the color fields below were abstract art or older layers, sometimes seven paint colors deep. When the murals were finally found, they were still bound to the wall with heavy lead adhesive.
Bolotowsky’s Goldwater Hospital mural was uncovered before the building was slated to come down, back in 2001 as part of the Municipal Art Society’s Adopt-a-Mural program, with conservation work by the Fine Art Conservation Group. The Swinden and Rugolo murals, though, were tracked down and conserved by EverGreene Architectural Arts when the hospital had a rapidly dwindling lifespan. The conservators relied on archival material and photographs including, as Phyllis Cohen, director of the Adopt-a-Mural program wrote in a 2014 post, a model of the Bolotowsky mural that Lee Krasner saved and gifted to the Guggenheim Museum.
Revealed at the Johnson Museum celebrates the Cubist forms of Bolotowsky, the heavy geometry of Swinden, and a playfully abstracted ocean scene by Rugolo through conserved fragments and archival materials. The Chanase piece is believed to have been destroyed or removed from the hospital at some point; its whereabouts are as of now unknown.
“Our visitors have been surprised by the scale of the murals — and we’ve only been able to show portions of each — and by the fact that they are not frescoes painted directly on the wall, but were painted on canvas and then fixed to the walls,” Wiles said.
The Bolotowsky mural is slated to return to Roosevelt Island in the first Cornell Tech academic building, set to open in 2017, with the other visions of 1940s abstraction to follow. With each stretching seven by 50 feet, they are incredible examples of an often overlooked abstract involvement in WPA art.