Without question, the award for the most timely exhibit of the season has to go to Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street. When the current exhibit, You Say You Want a Revolution, was being organized, there was no way the gallery's curators and staff could have known that political turmoil would soon hit so close to home. Now, following Donald Trump's surprise victory earlier this month, the stretch of 56th Street immediately behind the gallery has been closed by the police for security reasons - Trump's NYC residence is only a block away - and the artwork condemning social injustice has taken on a new relevance.
The exhibit is subtitled "American Artists and the Communist Party" and there is an excellent unsigned essay in the exhibit guide that traces the complex relationship that existed between left wing artists and the Party leadership in the first half of the twentieth century. Not all the artists whose work is shown were Party members. Some, like Stuart Davis and Lynd Ward, were true believers while others, such as Bernarda Bryson Shahn, broke with the Party over its strictures and continued on as "fellow travelers." The essay also discusses the impact of the New Deal, in the form of the WPA, on American artists in the 1930's when the need for government sponsorship was first recognized.
When one looks at the works on display, however, political considerations become secondary. However radical the ideology of the graphic artists, at the core of their vision was a profound empathy for the plight of the downtrodden as individuals rather than as examples of an oppressed proletariat. The subjects of these works transcend in their suffering class labels to become instead fellow humans down on their luck and in need of a helping hand. The compassion displayed toward these unfortunates is all the more poignant for the dire economic straits which many of the artists themselves were forced to endure during these troubled times. Their tone is one of outrage against the capitalist greed and racial discrimination that have always been woven into America's fabric. How can a country as wealthy as this not give assistance to those among us who have nothing? How can a country which expresses such high ideals in the Bill of Rights persecute its minorities so harshly? Today, these questions are more pertinent than ever.
All the works shown at the exhibit are of the highest artistic merit. But even among these, there are some that stand out for their craftsmanship. The two untitled wood engravings by Lynd Ward, called for convenience sake "Breaking Up the Demonstration" and "The Lynching," were both illustrations for his novel Wild Pilgrimage and show a technical refinement not usually associated with woodcuts. The gritty oil paintings of Raphael Soyer, such as "Water Street" and "Men at the Mission," possess a stylistic link to the Ashcan School that makes them perfect vehicles for depicting the hardships of the Depression era. But probably the finest work on view is "The Smell of Defeat" by George Grosz. As an instructor at the Art Students League, Grosz was able to impart to his students an understanding of art as a form of social protest. The refusal to turn a blind eye to injustice infused the artist's own work both in Nazi Germany and later, after he had been forced to flee for his life, here in New York City.
The exhibit continues through February 11, 2017.