A new exhibition at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center focuses on a golden age for murals in the United States, when the everyday worker rose to hero status in these works. Celebrating Heroes: American Mural Studies of the 1930s and 1940s from the Steven and Susan Hirsch Collection will be on view September 2-December 18, 2016.
The exhibition features forty-seven paintings and drawings. Artists represented include several from Woodstock, New York, including Anton Refregier, Judson Smith, Edward Chávez, Andrée Ruellan, John Ruggles, Arnold Blanch, Richard Crist, Juanita Guccione, Georgina Klitgaard, and Jenne Magafan. Other artists included are Peppino Mangravite, Philo B. Ruggles, Stuyvesant Van Veen, and Poughkeepsie native Thomas Barrett. Celebrating Heroes honors Susan and Steven Hirsch, class of 1971, patrons of the museum since the early 1990s, and donors of forty-five mural sketches to the Art Center. All of these are on view in this exhibition as well as two mural sketches in the permanent collection from other sources. (The full checklist can be found here.)
“The Depression and World War II eras were a time in the arts—painting, printmaking, drawing, film, photography, dance, music, literature, and theater—when ideas lifting up the average citizen to a starring role blossomed,” explains Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Center.
Indeed, thousands of realistic miners, settlers, Native Americans, steel workers, and farmers inhabit murals painted during the Great Depression in government buildings and schools across the nation. Evidence of a period when America revitalized its pledge to democracy, these wall paintings were accessible to everyone who could enter a post office or a public school or a government building in Washington, D.C.
Unlike murals of the past with their allegories and neoclassical ideals, these works carved out a new ideal for American mural painting inspired in part by the socially conscious panels of the Mexican muralists and the regional murals of Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson. For the most part they pictured ordinary scenes, either historical or contemporary, and pushed artists’ sketches of everyday episodes to monumental size. Consequently, the everyday became heroic during a harsh period when so many of America’s everyday peoples struggled.
Phagan points out the mural projects were part of an effort to help struggling artists, too. “These projects stemmed from a government-led push to put artists to work just like other citizens,” she says. In what Woodstock painter Judson Smith called a “renaissance,” artists for the first time in America were equated as workers worthy of keeping their skills alive. The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration hired mostly unemployed artists, while the Section of Painting and Sculpture (later the Section of Fine Arts) hired artists who were considered the most qualified for a particular job. “Artists felt as never before a kinship with the everyday worker, and they felt for the first time that they were a part of the social fabric of society,” Phagan explains.
While some of the New Deal murals have been uninstalled, many more are still in their original locations or have been moved to other government buildings where they can be viewed. “The story of their making lies in the sketches made by artists vying in regional or national competitions or given commissions directly,” Phagan notes. There are also those sketches that failed to win mural contests, and in this exhibition there are examples of those, including mural sketches made for the Poughkeepsie Post Office.
Studying these sketches affords an opportunity to see the themes that emerged in mural making from the Great Depression until after World War II. This is revealed most brilliantly in a grouping of mural sketches by Russian-born, Woodstock artist Anton Refregier for the Rincon Annex of the San Francisco Post Office. “Refregier’s mural studies on the history of the city of San Francisco open the exhibition and encapsulate several of the heroic subjects in the mural sketches by other artists,” Phagan says. “His themes on Native Americans, settlers, the history of the city, farming, industry, and opposition to forces undermining a free society are all topics in the other works on view, and those themes guide the exhibition.”
Celebrating Heroes is organized by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and supported by the Evelyn Metzger Exhibition Fund.
Opening Lecture and Reception
Friday, September 9, 2016
Taylor Hall, room 102
Gerald E. Markowitz, Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Dr. Markowitz holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and has written several books on American social history and public health. He is co-author of Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal and the exhibition catalogue New Deal for Art: The Government Art Projects of the 1930s with Examples from New York City and State. A reception will follow in the Art Center Atrium.
Curator's Gallery Talk
"Celebrating Heroes: American Mural Studies of the 1930s and 1940s"
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
Curator Patricia Phagan provides an overview of the Celebrating Heroes exhibition as a whole and explores several key works in detail.
Poughkeepsie Post Office Murals Tour for Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Members
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Patricia Phagan, curator of the Celebrating Heroes exhibition and a specialist in early twentieth century American art, will lead a tour of the Poughkeepsie Post Office murals for a small group of Art Center members. The five murals were completed in 1938 and 1940 as part of a nationwide federal project to decorate new post offices. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who lived in nearby Hyde Park, had become keenly interested in murals for the new post office in Poughkeepsie. He proposed the themes one sees in the paintings, along with the aid of local historian Helen Reynolds.
Continue your tour with a visit to the Barrett Art Center, the former home of WPA-era mural artist Thomas Barrett. Tour the Barrett exhibition curated by Martin W. Mahoney, curator of exhibitions and collections at the Norman Rockwell Museum, and view sketches and other archival works selected specifically for this special tour with director Joanna Frang.
The tours are free but space is limited and reservations are required. For reservations, details, or information on how to become a Loeb Art Center member, contact Francine Brown at 845-437-5237, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, October 2, 2016
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
Children are invited to participate in several hands-on art activities and child-friendly tours of the Celebrating Heroes exhibition. The program is best suited for ages 5-10.
Bruce Molsky: American Old-Time Fiddle and Song
Thursday, October 13, 2016
Taylor Hall Room 102
Bruce Molsky is one of America’s premier fiddling talents and a twice-Grammy-nominated artist on fiddle, banjo, guitar and song. He has dug into the deepest reaches of Appalachian music, while growing his own unique voice. Bruce holds a stage as few other musicians can; his skill at performing a deep and varied repertoire with a reverence for the past, combined with a relaxed, conversational wit, draws listeners in. He was recently named by Berklee College of Music as its Visiting Scholar in the American Roots Music Program. In this performance Bruce will take inspiration from the farmers, miners, railroad workers and American scenes on view in the Celebrating Heroes exhibition.
Curator's Gallery Talk
"Migration as a Theme in American Murals of the 1930s and 1940s"
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
As part of the Poughkeepsie Library District's "Big Read" program, curator Patricia Phagan explores the significance and popularity of scenes depicting migration in American mural art of the 1930s and 1940s.
About the Curator
Patricia Phagan is the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. She is in charge of more than 10,000 European, American, and Asian drawings, watercolors, and prints in the permanent collection. As a curator of prints and drawings for almost thirty years, she has organized numerous exhibitions, including REMBRANDT: Treasures from the Rembrandt House, Amsterdam; The American Scene and the South: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1930–1946; and Thomas Rowlandson: Pleasures and Pursuits in Georgian England. She has edited numerous catalogues on European and American prints and drawings and written widely, including the article, “Drawings at Vassar to ‘Illustrate the Loftiest Principles and Refine the Most Delighted Hearts,’” published in Master Drawings (Summer 2004). She earned her Ph.D. in Art History from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2000 with a dissertation on American political cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s.
About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 20,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.
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Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.