In the years leading up to the 1930s, the United States witnessed the Great Depression, prohibition, women’s rights movements, labor movements, the birth of jazz music and Art Deco in the arts, the New Deal, and much political and social upheaval. Featuring more than 100 objects — ranging from paintings and sculptures to fashion, ephemera, photographs, prints, periodicals, and other forms of decorative arts — the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s tells a story of the decade through the lens of artists who lived and created throughout it. Yet what stands out most is curator Allison Rudnick’s clear effort to foreground the perspectives of women and people of color as they express their underrepresented experiences in the wake of industrialized labor and our expanding relationship with machines.
One notable work on this subject is Riva Helfond’s lithograph “Curtain Factory” (c. 1936–39) — among the few examples of art from this period that focuses on paid women laborers. Drawing on her own labor in a textile factory, Helfond conveys the strain imposed on women’s bodies through its bold shadows, hard lines, and a rigid geometry that parallels the shelves and fabric bolts with the workers’ arched backs.
“Curtain Factory” aligns with another of the few images by and about women from this period. In the lithograph “Burlesque” (1936), Elizabeth Olds presents dancers in a stiff, vertical row, like products on an assembly line. The artist’s thick line work and texture add atmosphere to the dancers’ militant and ordered formation, as they perform their bodies for male spectators gazing up from below the stage. Olds herself worked for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in Omaha, Nebraska, from 1933 to 1934, where she created lithographs featuring shelters, clinics, and factory workers; From 1935 until the office closed in 1940, she worked for the graphic arts division at the New York Work Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP) where she was respected printmaker and advocate for artistic egalitarianism and women’s rights. “Burlesque” is one among a corpus of artworks she produced in this period whose themes are unprecedented for the decade.
Visual representations of labor that center people of color were also rare in the 1930s. Art for the Millions draws attention to them, for an unusually inclusive narrative of US history in this decade. Though the Great Depression impacted every American, people of color had the highest unemployment rates, and Black laborers were often denied or fired from jobs, only to be replaced by White workers. The exhibition includes many figurative works from this period that foreground social injustice, racial inequality, mass poverty, restrictive covenants in housing, segregation in transportation, and racial discrimination.
A young girl who stares at the viewer, with hands enclosed and head tilted, in Dorothea Lange’s “Mexican Migrant Family with Tire Trouble, California” (February 1936) projects the look of the simultaneous hope and despair that ruled this decade as she stands with her refugee family in front of their vehicle. Similarly conflicted, Dox Thrash’s “Georgia Cotton Crop” (c. 1944–45) draws attention to the technique of carborundum printmaking, which relied on industrial material to roughen metal print plates. The rich tones of black that create a clouded effect in this piece reflect how the smoke and coal of laboring industries were created to better the lives of Americans, while paradoxically casting a shadow across them.
The exhibition also addresses material culture — particularly print culture through posters, magazines, and ephemera — as one means through which laborers and communities of color could propagate change. Like his other works of social realism, WPA artist Charles White’s graphite on paperboard “Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington” chronicles the importance of Black history within US culture and politics by focusing on human dignity and the struggle of his community. White coalesces his passion for art and justice through a medium that allowed him to reach a cross-national audience of Black laborers.
The great strength of Art for the Millions is its emphasis on human stories — and its acknowledgment that many from this period are not sentimental or romantic; this was a time when reality failed to match the era’s promises of great progress. Moving past common narratives of this decade, the show embraces the multiplicity of American identity in the 1930s.
Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 10. The exhibition was curated by Allison Rudnick, associate curator in The Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints.