Joseph Hirsch, “Banquet” (1945), lithograph on beige wove paper (Portland Art Museum, gift of Christopher Russell)

PORTLAND, Oregon — The Portland Art Museum’s exhibit on the innovative business enterprise Associated American Artists (AAA) displays one of its 1946 catalogues. On the cover, a slim, blonde woman sits reading on her couch — the very embodiment of middle-class leisure. Six signed, original prints by the group’s “Leading American Artists” fill the wall behind her — a visual statement of the AAA’s goal of bringing art to every home.

Prior to the Depression, owning fine art was beyond the reach of most Americans. In 1934 Reeves Lewenthal changed that through a unique marriage of art and commerce. According to The Reporter magazine, Lewenthal was “an enthusiastic, restless, practically sleepless businessman” as well as a former art dealer. Chyna Bounds, who curated the exhibit, quotes Lewenthal’s belief that “the gallery system was doomed.” Instead of catering to elites like most dealers, he focused on the huge middle-class market of art consumers that remained untapped. Even in those lean years, many people could afford five dollars for one of a limited edition of signed prints. And artists, “leading” or otherwise, were desperate for ways to sell their work during the Depression.

Lewenthal reached out to 750 artists with his novel idea, and 40 answered the call. Among them were Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood — the big three whose work would sell consistently — but AAA also took on unknown artists, launching some of their careers. AAA started with exhibits in department stores like Wanamaker’s in 50 cities. The following year, Sears Roebuck-type catalogues went out to homes all over the country.

Lewenthal’s goal was to educate as well as sell.  “The catalogues provided people with information about the artists and artworks,” says Bounds, “so people had an opportunity to curate their own collections outside of the confines of the gallery.” Hotels, schools, social clubs, and other public spaces hosted traveling exhibits. In 1936, AAA opened a gallery on Madison Avenue, which later moved to a larger space on Fifth Avenue. Additional galleries eventually opened in Chicago and Beverly Hills.

John Steuart Curry, “Our Good Earth” (1942), lithograph on cream wove paper (Portland Art Museum, bequest of Charles Henry Leavitt)

The exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, titled Prints for the People and partially drawn from the museum’s collection, presents a varied tableau of romanticism, social critique, and hope amid the economic desperation of the 1930s and ’40s. Regionalism, part of the American Scene movement, dominates. Rejecting European aesthetics, these artists aimed to forge a new, distinctly American identity with images of everyday life. Curry’s “Our Good Earth” (1942) depicts a muscular farmer standing in a wheat field, two children at his side. The print was produced as a war bonds pamphlet and poster for Abbott Laboratories (with whom AAA collaborated on a World War II war art program). Hart Benton’s “The Farmer’s Daughter” (1944) shows a thin girl outside a Midwest farmhouse pumping water, a celebration of rural America. But Benton wrote, “The children of these places look lonely, as lonely as the places themselves.” More ominous are the dark clouds on the horizon, a recurring image in World War II prints.

Harry Sternberg, “Enough! (Boundman)” (1947), aquatint on cream wove paper (Portland Art Museum, the Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection)

Urban scenes such as Central Park, the circus, and boxing spectacles balanced those of rural life. The exhibit’s social realists presented a grittier, less idealized image of city life. Harry Sternberg’s “Enough (Boundman)” (1947) portrays a monumental, muscular man, his wrists tied, as a critique of labor conditions. Political cartoonist William Gropper similarly addressed workers’ concerns through cartoonish folk heroes. The Irish Finn MacCool appears in a 1947 print as a lean worker holding a pickax and smoking a pipe. The exhibit connects social realism to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project (FAP, 1934–43), which employed many of the same artists as AAA.

Marion Greenwood, “Eastern Memory” (ca. 1950), lithograph on white wove paper (Portland Art Museum, the Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection)

Four women artists appear in the exhibit, among them Isabel Bishop. “Noon Hour” (1935) shows two women leaning against a wall during a work break, arms intertwined. Peggy Bacon adds some humor with “The Untilled Field” (1937), a portrait of a woman and child with unkempt hair walking past a barbershop. Marion Greenwood’s “Eastern Memory” (ca. 1950), created while Greenwood lived in Hong Kong in the 1940s, represents an anguished-looking woman burdened by a carrying pole. The number of the exhibit’s women artists approximately mirrors the AAA’s roster, which was 13% female (versus 26% at the WPA’s FAP). That number seems slight today, yet the 1930s also opened opportunities for women. “New Deal rhetoric was fiercely egalitarian,” writes art historian Karal Ann Marling. “Hence, it did not seem inconsistent that female artists, in actuality as well as in theory, should have shared the spotlight with their male counterparts in the art world of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.”

There are no Black artists on the AAA’s list. Yet some of the exhibit’s prints, especially Joseph Hirsch’s lithograph “Banquet” (1945), reveal awareness of racism and segregation. The print, also the cover of the exhibit brochure, shows two men eating lunch together, faces in profile. An African American man lifts a coffee cup to his lips, his white counterpart eats a slice of bread. The image underscores Hirsh’s belief that art could both represent and foster social change. In 1942 he stated, “I want to castigate the things I hate and paint monuments to what I feel is noble.” As art historian Joan Saab has observed, artists at the time widely believed that the power of their art could be harnessed for good.

Luis Arenal, “Cabeza de una Mujer Natal (Head of a Native Woman)” (1948), lithograph on cream wove paper (Portland Art Museum, museum purchase: Marion McGill Lawrence Fund)

The exhibit highlights a Latin American program AAA created in 1946 to promote cultural and economic exchange between the US, Mexico, and South America. Central to that effort was Mexico’s Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), a print collective founded in 1937. Luis Arenal’s arresting “Cabeza de una Mujer Natal” (“Head of a Native Woman,” 1948) uses bold lines and shadows to create a sense of strength in an Indigenous woman’s profile. Francisco Mora’s “El Minero de Plata” (“Mine Worker in Pachuca,” 1946) distorts the dimensions of a worker’s body as he navigates an underground tunnel. The destructive nature of mine work — part of the TGP’s larger agenda of social critique  — is palpable.

“Sultry Night” (1939), one of Grant Wood’s prints, depicts a farmer pouring water over his naked body from an outside cistern. The image proved too risqué for the US Postal Service, which prohibited mail order sales of the print. More menacing forms of censorship loomed. Lewenthal had always controlled content, rejecting work he didn’t think would sell. But AAA’s collaborations with businesses such as American Tobacco created deeper problems. Thomas Hart Benton, Aaron Bohrod, and Joseph Hirsch all grew disillusioned when their ads for the tobacco company were changed, replacing African American figures with Caucasian ones. The company’s guidelines stated, “For policy reasons, no Negroes are to be shown.”

In a 1956 letter to her husband, Marion Greenwood complained that she’d grown weary of AAA’s commercialism. Yet the group had provided a financial lifeline to these artists. AAA also contributed to Greenwood’s health care costs after a serious car accident in 1967 left her unable to work. The artists’ laments underscore a broader issue: the tension between art and commerce, the two forces that were also the very foundation of AAA.

AAA continued for another five decades beyond the Depression and war years which are the focus of the exhibit (its full history is recounted in Art for Every Home: Associated American Artists 1934–2000). Along the way, the enterprise offered critical aid to artists and expanded art patronage, especially in rural areas, fostering greater awareness and appreciation of American art.

Associated American Artists: Prints for the People continues at the Portland Art Museum (1219 SW Park Ave, Portland, Oregon) through September 1. 

Joanne B. Mulcahy is a writer in Portland, Oregon. Her books include Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz and Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers (with Peter Chilson). She is currently writing...