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When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter

July 2024
32min read

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in March, 1933, he stepped into the pit of a fearful depression: about fifteen million Americans were out of work. Among them were some ten thousand artists. And the artists were not forgotten in the sweeping workrelief measures soon launched by the New Deal under the direction of Harry Hopkins—"They have to eat just like other people, ” Hopkins remarked dryly. Thousands of them were put to work under the aegis of various government agencies, starting with the Treasury Department, which had long been concerned with the “embellishment” of public buildings. But the biggest and best-known program was the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. This was an unprecedented venture in government patronage of the arts. Something like four hundred thousand easel paintings, murals, prints, posters, and renderings were produced by WPA artists during the eight years of the project ‘s existence, virtually free of government pressure to control subject matter, interpretation, or style. The administration ‘s support of art was first suggested by George Biddle, himself an artist and a close acquaintance of F.D.R. ‘s. One member of Biddle ‘s circle who later became active as a New Deal muralist was Edward Laning, a young artist on whom the Depression at first had little impact, since his family owned oil wells. Recently, looking back, he composed a lively account of his experiences as an artist under government patronage; it will be one contribution to The New Deal Art Project: An Anthology of Memoirs , edited by Dr. Francis V. O ’Connor, to be published next year by the Smithsonian Institution Press. As an introduction to a portfolio of New Deal murals beginning on page 45 of this issue, A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents an excerpt from Mr. Laning ‘s memoir. Dr. O ‘Connor, the leading authority on the entire subject, has assisted us in choosing our sampler of New Deal art; he also photographed some of the paintings for us. —The Editors

Sometime in 1934 I went broke like nearly everybody else. The family oil wells went dry, and word came from home, “That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.” I borrowed money from friends who still had some (and repaid them, for the most part, with paintings). My landlord kindly waived my rent for a number of months. In the meantime the plight of all artists was growing desperate. A demonstration was held in front of the Whitney Museum on Eighth Street, complete with placards and chants and shouted imprecations, and was dispersed by the police. My friend Karl Free, a curator of the Whitney and one of the most brilliant artists of the time, leaned out of an upper window of the beleaguered museum and called to many of the demonstrators below, “I know you , So-and-So, and you , Such-and-Such,” implying that he meant to blacklist them forever. Karl was of German extraction and had decided Nazi sympathies—during the first year of the Second World War he committed suicide.

In October, 1934, the Section of Painting and Sculpture was established under the Treasury Department, and when the commissions to decorate the Justice Department and Post Office buildings were awarded, most of the original Biddle gang were assigned their allotted spaces—except me. George called me to say that it was felt that I was too young. But he went on to assure me that other spaces in the Post Office Building were to be allocated on the basis of a competition and that it was his understanding that if I would take part in this competition, I could be sure of an award. I was crushed at first, but I allowed myself to trust him. I confess that my conscience was untroubled by his suggestion that the competition would be rigged in my favor. Perhaps my baroque aesthetic made these tergiversations seem comprehensible.

I made a great effort with these sketches for the Post Office (my preliminary drawings for two spaces in the Post Office rotunda are in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum), but when the judgment was announced, I received no award. George called again to explain that one of the judges, Eugene Speicher, had felt that my color sketches lacked “surface quality.” (This meant simply that I did not display the old Woodstock fuzz, that blur as of carpet sweepings which was the hallmark of Speicher and McFee, the leaders of the provincial Woodstock school.)

A member of the National Council on the Arts and Government said to me in the summer of 1968 that the prospects for public support of art seem brighter today than in the thirties because there is now a more widespread public interest and appetite, whereas the government sponsorship of the thirties rested solely on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s love of art. I doubt the validity of either term of this proposition. I don’t believe either of the Roosevelts cared about art at all. What is true is, first, that they were great humanitarians and, second, that they were loyal to their friends. George Biddie was an aristocrat who had gone to school with Roosevelt. He could walk into the White House and be sure of a gracious personal reception.

The Roosevelts’ humanitarianism was a more serious matter. Another man who could call at the White House at will was Harry Hopkins, with whom Mrs. Roosevelt had been associated in welfare work in New York City. I believe it was on Hopkins’ advice that the other art project of the New Deal, the Federal Art Project, was organized under the Works Progress Administration. The national emergency was critical; it was urgently necessary to put unemployed Americans to work for wages; a pump-priming operation was required. But highways and dams and bridges, schools and hospitals, require long and careful planning before men can be employed to build them. Hopkins knew that there was one segment of the population that could go to work tomorrow—the artists. They didn’t require a capital outlay. They already had paints and brushes of a sort, and they carried the plans for their next painting in their heads.

One day I received a call saying that Mrs. Audrey McMahon, the director of the New York WPA Federal Art Project, wanted to see me. Mrs. McMahon was a formidable person—as indeed she had to be to ride the whirlwind of these projects—and it was no joke for an artist to be called to her office. I was scared. The Federal Art Project was now my sole means of livelihood. It was more. It was my life as artist and mural painter.

Mrs. McMahon told me that Hideo Noda, a young Japanese who had been assigned to make sketches for a long wall in the Administration Building at Ellis Island, had disappeared without leaving any word. Hideo, a gentle boy of poetic temperament, had found the resident commissioner of immigration impossible to cope with and in despair had run away. “The commissioner is difficult,” Mrs. McMahon added, and I thought to myself .that if she thought so, he must be a dragon. She went on to tell me that Ellis Island was important to the whole project. She had secured the commissioner’s consent to look at sketches, on approval. The Administration Building at Ellis Island was federal property, and it offered possibilities of more than one mural series. A number of artists had already been assigned to Noda as “assistants,” and their jobs were in jeopardy. Would I take on this assignment? It wasn’t, of course, a request, it was a command, but I accepted with alacrity.

I was asked to meet with the artists who had been assigned to Noda’s project as assistants. It was an awkward moment. The Federal Art Project was a relief project. WPA regulations required that three fourths of the artists employed by it be drawn from the relief rolls. For an indigent artist not to be accepted for employment by the Art Project meant work as a ditchdigger or leaf raker, and Mrs. McMahon’s office made every possible effort to give employment to every qualified artist. In practice this presented administrative problems. The whole New Deal had a bad press, and no part of it was subjected to such constant abuse as the Art Project. Most of the newspapers and magazines in America were Republican and anti-Roosevelt, and they made what capital they could out of traditional American Philistinism. The Art Projects were scorned as “boondoggling.” Under this constant and relentless attack it was necessary to develop work projects that could be defended as “worthwhile.” For the project to have sent every artist home to paint his own pictures his own way without supervision or accountability would have invited disaster. Mural projects were a little less liable to charges of boondoggling than easel painting. They were relatively public and subject to scrutiny and criticism. In the early days of the Art Project this led to a certain amount of padding where the personnel of mural projects was concerned.

When I met with the artists who had been assigned to Noda as Ellis Island “assistants,” they were wary of me at first. Their looks told me that they wondered if I would be such a damned fool as to ask them to work for me (even this one ritualistic meeting was a tribulation for them—it required them to leave their easels and waste an afternoon uptown), but we all played it straight. I told them I looked forward to a pleasant and productive association, and we went our various ways. I believe it’s a fair measure of the situation I am describing to recall that two of these “assistants” were the distinguished painters Joseph Solman and Herman Rose.

I went out to Ellis Island to look at the walls in the Aliens’ Dining Room, avoiding any contact with the commissioner, and began to make sketches. The project let me pick a couple of assistants of my own, James Rutledge and Etta Pick, and they sent me a model, Albert Soroka. In the beginning Jimmy and Etta busied themselves in the research I had to do. The Ellis Island dining room was a hundred feet long, and I undertook to depict along one of the long walls the role of the immigrant in the development of America. It meant learning how railroads were built and sawmills were operated and coal was mined and steel was manufactured.

While I was working on my sketches, another assistant was assigned to my project, a charming girl I’ll call Helen. I wasn’t aware that I needed her—but that’s how much I knew. When I had completed designs for half the episodes I hoped to represent, I rolled them up and headed for the commissioner’s office on the island. Helen went along for the ride. It was a delightful trip across the harbor and Helen’s interest and curiosity helped to calm my jitters, but the venture nearly ended in disaster. The commissioner was a big, gruff man with a red face and white hair. He scowled at me when I approached his desk. It was bad enough that I was a boondoggling artist, but I took what comfort I could in the fact that at least I wasn’t Japanese. The commissioner allowed me to unroll my sketches. He looked at them and growled, “You don’t know much about railroading, and you don’t know a damned thing about coal mining!” He began to shout. He turned purple. I muttered, “Yes, Mr. Commissioner, yes,” and was prepared to be thrown bodily out of his office, when Helen maneuvered around the side of his desk, caught his eye, and said with a sweet smile and fluttering lashes, “But we’re only trying to please you , Mr. Commissioner.” To my amazement, he went to pieces completely. All his bluster vanished. He turned to me and said, “They didn’t use clean-cut railroad ties in 1869. They left the bark on them. And go home and study up on coal mining.” I said I would do that and be back soon. Helen smiled at him, and we departed. After that, I never went back to the island without her.

I completed my series of designs, a sequence of areas between and above the windows of the dining room, and went back to Ellis Island. I wanted the commissioner’s approval of the general plan. I meant to tell him at once that I hadn’t yet had time to make the revisions he had demanded, but he didn’t wait for explanations. “Now that’s more like it!” he roared. “Now you’ve got it!”

I painted the Ellis Island murals on canvas in my own quarters on East Seventeenth Street. My wife and I occupied a top-floor loft for which we paid forty dollars a month. The place had two skylights in the roof and banks of iron pipes that kept us snugly warm from Monday morning through Friday afternoon. For winter weekends there was a potbellied stove and a big coal bin for which I carried coal up four flights of stairs. A young cabinet maker, Giorgio Cavallon, who was employed by the project as a carpenter, built me a sturdy, movable partition on which I stretched my canvas. This marvelous contraption took up most of our living quarters. I could have done the work directly on the wall at Ellis Island, of course, but the inconvenience of eating and sleeping with my mural seemed better than being under the surveillance of the terrible-tempered commissioner.

Etta and Jimmy pulverized pigments with a muller on the top of a big marble-slabbed butcher’s table we’d picked up at a Village auction, and laid ground colors on the canvas. At noon we’d stop for an hour for lunch at a table near the window. We would discuss the mural, which crowded over us while we ate. Albert, my model, would ask us to criticize one of the paintings he had made at home and brought in for our consideration. One day he said to me, “If you would recommend me to the office as an artist, and ask for me as an assistant , I would be glad to go on posing for you until the mural is finished, and you wouldn’t have these interruptions when they make me go pose for someone else.” I took his paintings to the project office and said that here was someone who should be granted an artist’s status. This was agreed to, and I had a first-rate model—and student—until the Ellis Island mural was finished.

We finished the painting and asked the commissioner to come in to inspect the work—as much of it as we could stretch out for his inspection in the limited space on Seventeenth Street. He brought his daughter with him. Away from his territory and as a visitor to mine , he was graciousness itself. He might have been Charles V in Titian’s studio. Arrangements were made for the installation of the canvases at Ellis Island.

Raphael Doktor, the project’s “technical director,” and his crew met me in the Ellis Island dining room on a Thursday morning. I had asked him to use white lead as the adhesive for mounting the canvas on the plaster walls, but Doktor dismissed this as old-fashioned. He assured me that he had a new plastic adhesive of superior quality. His men prepared the walls and proceeded to apply the miracle glue. By the end of the day’s work about one fourth of the mural had been fixed to the wall and trimmed in the corners and around doors and windows. All looked well, and I went home in high spirits.

The technical crew worked only from Monday through Thursday, and I didn’t return to the island until the next Monday morning. I saw immediately that the marvelous adhesive was a serious failure. It had dried as hard as stone, but in the process it had swelled and blistered in places and had created ugly bumps and hollows in the canvas surface. We found that no rolling or pressure would smooth out these unsightly swellings. There was no cure but to cut through the painting at many points, dig out the blistered lumps of hardened glue, and patch the injured painting as best we could. That night I went home in despair. Next morning on my Way back to Ellis Island I picked up the Tribune . There it was—“That big mural at Ellis.Island won’t stay put,” wrote the Tribune , and went on to present a slapstick account of our troubles. On the Ellis Island ferry that morning I leaned over the rail looking at the waters of New York Harbor gliding” past and thought it might be better to slip over the side and have the agony over with. Something in the water caught my eye—a condom. Suddenly I was aware that the harbor was a mass of floating condoms—thousands, millions of them. I decided to wait and die some other way.

We repaired the damage after many days of hard work, and the remainder of my canvas sections were mounted successfully with white lead. I believe it was in the spring of 1937 that the completed mural was finally unveiled. The project invited a small group of interested people to attend. Ernest Peixotto was there representing the Mural Painters Society. Mrs. McMahon and the commissioner greeted each other cordially. Holger Cahill, the national director of the project, said to me, “Well, this puts you among the big contenders—though I’m not sure who they are!” I don’t recall that anybody was there from the Tribune .

In the autumn of 1937 the WPA office called me in to discuss an important project. Mrs. McMahon, Harry Knight, and Burgoyne Diller told me that they had for a long time tried unsuccessfully to secure the walls of New York’s public libraries as locations for mural decoration, but the library board had steadfastly declined to co-operate. They had decided on a frontal assault. If they could succeed in securing the main building on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, the branches should fall into their hands without trouble. With this aim, Diller had approached Mr. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, a member of the board of trustees of the library and chairman of the Art Commission of the City of New York, and had told him bluntly that it appeared that Mr. Stokes was hostile to young artists and indifferent to their fate. Mr. Stokes had been shocked by the charge and had denied it. Diller said that Mr. Stokes should prove his good faith by agreeing at least to look at sketches for those big empty spaces in the library’s third-floor hall, spaces designed by the architects Carrère and Hastings to contain mural paintings but left empty through the years. Stokes agreed.

This was the formidable task Mrs. McMahon and her project supervisors charged me with. I believe they selected me to spearhead their scheme because I had demonstrated at Ellis Island a capacity for endurance. When I met Mr. Stokes, I knew at once what I was in for. He was the greatest stickler for detail I have ever known. This extended to every aspect of the library project from beginning to end, from the punctuation of the contract between the Art Project and the library to the last detail of my paintings. I hung on by my teeth.

Stokes was a most remarkable man, and my association with him was one of the most difficult but also one of the most rewarding of my life. He had been an architect in his younger days—the Brummer Gallery on Fiftyseventh Street, one of the loveliest small buildings in New York, was his work. (It still stands, and since the closing of the Brummer Gallery it has housed a number of other businesses.) His life work was an incredible series of volumes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island , in which he literally catalogued the physical history of New York City, building by building and block by block, from the Battery to the Bronx. When I knew him, he was a solitary old man living out his days in an apartment in the East Sixties to which he had moved from Greenwich, Connecticut, after the death of a wife whom he adored. From the beginning he made the library murals his own project, and I believe that while the work went on, it was almost as much his concern as it was mine.

I went to him with two suggestions for subject matter or theme: first, a series of four American literary masterpieces—perhaps The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn , and An American Tragedy ; second, the story of the recorded word—Moses and the graven tablets of the law, the medieval scribe and his manuscript, Gutenberg and the printing press, and Mergenthaler and the Linotype. Stokes immediately rejected the first as lacking in dignity, and enthusiastically approved the second. I proceeded to make sketches in crayon and wash, and he approved these without change. What he haggled over was the terms of the agreement between the library and the Art Project. I carried these papers back and forth time after time. The project supervisors were worn out before Stokes finally decided that the details of this agreement were ready for submission to the board of trustees. He told me to put my sketches under my arm and meet him in Wall Street on a certain day in front of the Bank of New York. “I want you to be there on the sidewalk at the curb in front of the bank’s entrance, facing east. Be there at exactly 2:45. At 2:50 I’ll approach from the east and will turn into the bank. When you see me go in, I want you to follow me. I’ll go directly through the bank and open the door to the Directors’ Room. Follow immediately behind me into that room.”

All went according to plan. Mr. Stokes appeared—tall, gaunt, and elegant in a gray suit and gray coat. Without glancing at me, he turned into the bank, and I followed. He closed the door to the Directors’ Room. This was where the executive committee of the library board met once a month. It was a big room, panelled in dark wood from floor to ceiling. Stokes pointed to an enormous Renaissance table at the end of the room and said, under his breath, “Put the sketches there.” I lined them up; he nodded and murmured, “Go along now and call me at home precisely at five o’clock.” He wanted me well out of the way before Mr. Morgan, Mr. Root, Mr. Polk, and the other members of the committee arrived. I wandered about the financial district until five o’clock, unable to concentrate on anything but the meeting in Wall Street. At five I called Mr. Stokes from a public phone and was told that the committee had approved and would submit the project to the library board at its next meeting. He told me to call at the Bank of New York the next morning to pick up my sketches and to take them to the office of Dr. Harry M. Lydenberg, the director of the library, at a certain hour on a certain day.

Dr. Lydenberg was a little dry old man who had been helpful to me in my research. When I reached his office, he proceeded toward a big door, which he unlocked. He led the way into what must be one of the most splendid rooms in America: richly panelled walls, a great carved marble fireplace, and paintings by Gilbert Stuart and others, including Du Plessis’ portrait of Benjamin Franklin and Rembrandt Peak’s “Porthole” portrait of Washington. Again I was directed to set up my sketches and to disappear. As I turned to go, Dr. Lydenberg whispered, “I hope you get what you want!”

Under Mr. Stokes’s sponsorship the sketches were approved by the full board, and the project was launched. A few days later the project office called me in and explained that in drawing up the agreement—that agreement over which Stokes had pored with such concentration on detail—a slight clerical error had been made. According to the usual procedure, the institution receiving a mural painting was to pay the cost of materials; the artists were paid a weekly wage by the project. In the case of the library, the cost of materials was estimated at four hundred dollars, two hundred for canvas and two hundred for paints, brushes, etc. Through some oversight only two hundred dollars had been indicated—enough for canvas or for paints and brushes, but not for both. I was told to return to Mr. Stokes and ask him to increase the allotment by two hundred dollars.

I called at his apartment and explained the difficulty. He looked more solemn and grave than I’d ever seen him. He sat in silence for a long time and then said quietly, “If I had the two hundred dollars, I would put it up myself. But I don’t have it. I would go to Mr. Baker for it, but unfortunately Mr. Baker is dead. I would ask Mr. Harkness, but Mr. Harkness is dead. I would ask Mr. Morgan, but Mr. Morgan was one of a minority on the board who weren’t very favorable. Mr. Morgan said, ‘Those wall spaces have been vacant all these years. What’s the hurry? If we wait, maybe someone will give us some murals.’ I don’t want to go back to the board about this. We have their approval now, and if we reopen the question there’s always the possibility they may reverse themselves. No, I don’t think there’s anything that can be done about it.” I took this word back to King Street, the Art Project found the two hundred dollars, and we went ahead.

My first work location was in an abandoned church IVX on Tenth Avenue where the Federal Theatre Project had built a paint frame for the use of scene painters. This was a platform about twelve feet above the floor that ran across the width of the church. There was a protective railing at the front of the platform, and behind it four great wooden frames suspended on pulleys from the ceiling and balanced with counterweights. We stretched our four canvases, each about 9 by 18 feet in area, on these frames. I borrowed Reginald Marsh’s projector and enlarged my designs to the full scale from lantern slides made from my drawings. To paint the top of the picture, I had only to lower the entire canvas toward the floor. To paint the lower part, I raised the picture toward the ceiling. While we worked on our platform, the Theatre Project’s actors, dancers, and musicians rehearsed on the floor below us. It was an ideal situation, and the work went rapidly forward. Lloyd Goff joined me as assistant, and together with James Rutledge and Etta Pick we ground our own colors (with invaluable technical advice from Ralph Mayer) and proceeded with the underpainting of all four panels simultaneously. Dr. Lydenberg came in from time to time to watch our progress.

Mr. Stokes visited us frequently and took particular interest in the Mergenthaler panel. It pleased him that I pictured the Brooklyn Bridge outside the windows of the New York Tribune building, where Mergenthaler first installed his Linotype machine. “I was the first person to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge,” he told me. “I was about fifteen years old, and I stood all night at the Manhattan approach to the bridge. A great crowd gathered, but I was in the forefront, and when the ribbon was cut, I made a dash for it and reached Brooklyn ahead of anyone else!” One day he came in to tell me that he had been thinking about the kerosene lamp I showed hanging over Mergenthaler’s machine. “I remember,” he said, “that in 18801 went with my father to New Jersey to visit Mr. Edison, who was in my father’s employ. He had made a clock for my father which, instead of striking the hour, said, ‘Twelve o’clock and all’s well.’ He had incorporated his newly invented phonograph in the clock. I know that by this time he had already invented the incandescent electric lamp. A year later, in 1881, electric light was installed in Mr. Morgan’s house next door to us, and in 1882 our house was wired for electricity. I’m sure that by 1883, the date of your picture, there would have been electric light in the Tribune building.” I painted out the kerosene lamp and painted in an electric bulb. Then he decided he might have been premature and sent me back to kerosene.

This was his only active intervention in the painting itself, and I didn’t mind the trouble it gave me because his reminiscences were fascinating. One day he talked about Sargent’s portrait of his wife, which was then on loan to the Brooklyn Museum. “I commissioned Sargent to paint it as my wedding present to her,” he said. “To look at it you would think Sargent had dashed it off in a few days of brilliant brushwork. Actually, we posed for it thirty-six times! At first Sargent had her right hand resting on the head of a greyhound dog, but he didn’t like that, so he painted the dog out and painted me in instead. When he was finally satisfied, he touched his brush to his palette, backed away from the easel all the way across the studio, poised the brush like a lance, and charged, shouting, ‘Pwtache, pis-tache, /?«-tache!’ and touched the painting. And do you know, the highlight on the engagement ring stood out a quarter of an inch! Many years later the Metropolitan Museum wanted the painting for a big retrospective exhibition of Sargent’s work. Sargent had insisted on the final word on what was to be shown, and I wired to him in Boston, where he was painting the murals in the Boston Public Library, asking his permission. He wired back, ‘Certainly, but under no circumstances allow anything to happen to the highlight on the engagement ring!’”

Our work was interrupted when the project lost its lease on the church building. We rolled up the canvases and moved to an abandoned warehouse on West Forty-ninth Street, where we stretched the canvases on the wall and worked on a scaffold. Before we were quite finished, the warehouse was lost to us, and the murals were rolled up and stored at King Street while a new work location was sought.

In the meantime, Harry Knight had said to me one day, “Are you eligible for relief?” I told him I certainly was, that I had no source of income except my weekly paycheck from the project. Up to that time I had been employed by the project on a “nonrelief ” basis, which meant that I was not subject to investigation of my financial need. Harry explained to me that if I were “certified” as being in need, my job would be more secure; the “nonrelief” category was subject to dismissal before relief workers were presented with the dreaded “pink slip,” which was the official notification of being fired. I applied for relief status, was investigated and certified. I told the investigator the truth except for one small fact that I concealed—that my wife had a small part-time job as night supervisor at the Cooper Union Museum. She had had this position since the days when she was a student in the Cooper Union Art School, long before our marriage; she loved the museum; the job didn’t pay enough, remotely, to support her. I saw no point in mentioning it. But it wasn’t long until the relief investigator called and, after a few polite routine questions, said to me, “This morning on my way down here I passed a Woolworth’s on Lexington Avenue where I saw an artist painting in the window as part of some sales promotion. Couldn’t you do something like that?” I told her I might be able to. I admitted I had never tried. I attempted to say something about the importance of the work I wasengaged in. Then she calmly asked, “And what about your wife’s job at Cooper Union? You said that neither of you had any source of income other than the WPA.” I had no answer to this, and a few days later I received a pink slip.

I went down to King Street to try to reclaim my nonrelief status, but I knew this would take time. The whole project had been under fire recently. There had been a reduction in its funds, and many artists had been laid off. The response had been demonstrations culminating in a sit-in at the King Street office (a premonition of the sixties!), and the police had staged an attack, dragging the protesters from the building. The Washington office of the WPA had appointed an Army officer, Colonel Brehon Somervell, to direct the New York WPA, and the office in King Street feared the worst. My own situation seemed desperate. My murals had been rolled up and put on the shelf for weeks. I had no place to work; I had no job.

I went into the big factorylike room where dozens of project clerical workers had their desks and saw Mrs. McMahon there. This was unusual—she rarely emerged from her private lair. I discovered that she was interviewing the nonrelief contingent of the project. I saw them called to her desk and heard her ask each in turn how their projects were developing and how much time they estimated they would need to complete their work. Suddenly I lost my head and charged up to her desk, pushing the others aside. I began to shout and curse. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I yelled that it was a god-damned outrage that my project should be stalled like this while these others who were doing far less important work were coddled in this obscene manner— or words to that effect. The office force froze. Secretaries stood up and craned their necks. I raved on. “Arsenic and Old Face,” as her assistants called her, stared at me for a moment in silence, then gave me her famous double-whammy. Her left eyelid came unhinged and began to flutter spasmodically. This device had unseated stronger men than I, but I was carried along on a wave of madness. I continued to curse loudly, and Mrs. McMahon retired to her office. The crowd looked at me in silence.

I was about to turn and go, resigned to my fate, when someone came to me and said, “Mrs. McMahon wants to see you in her office immediately.” I thought I might as well get it over with then and there, and I followed to the inner sanctum. I hardly noticed the little man in the dark suit seated in the corner. She sat at her big desk and let me stand. “Mr. Laning,” she said, “what was it you were saying to me just now in the outer office?” Suddenly the whole wave swept over me again and I became vituperative. “You let me wait outside,” I said, “begging to be allowed to continue my work, while you interview these others. I’m only interested in one thing in this world and that’s to be allowed to get back to my job and carry it through"—and then I began to rant and rave again. She interrupted me, saying, “Mr. Laning, this language in my office would warrant my severing your connection with this project!” I answered that if I couldn’t do my job, I wouldn’t give a damn. “You may go now,” she said, and I left the office.

Walking home, feeling defeated but purged, I reached Bleecker Street when I suddenly wondered, “But who was that little man who sat so quietly in the corner of her office while I blew my top?” And then I remembered- this was Colonel Somervell’s representative in the project office, Colonel Somervell’s “spy.” Mrs. McMahon had used me well. The charge the Establishment had been making against the whole project was that the artists were lazy boondogglers. My rebellion had offended her, but she had quickly risen above personal affront and had made me grist to her mill. Colonel Somervell’s man would report to his superior that a WPA artist had dared all to be allowed to get on with his job.

Suddenly I was offered a new work location—an abandoned pier in the Hudson River. Mine was only one of many projects working in this vast space, and I finished my library panels quickly. One day we were visited by the redoubtable Colonel Somervell, who had Mrs. Roosevelt in tow. When he came to me and had introduced me to Mrs. Roosevelt, Colonel Somervell stepped out of the line of march to speak to me. “How is your project going?” he asked. I told him it was proceeding very well. “Do you need anything you aren’t provided with?” he asked. I said I had everything I could require. He fell in with Mrs. F.D.R. and proceeded on his inspection of other work projects on the pier.

It was early in 1940 when my four mural panels were finished and we took them to the library. This time I had my way, and the installation was made with white lead as an adhesive. The technicians would meet with me and my assistants about six in the evening, after the library was closed to the public, and we would work into the early hours of the morning.

When the lower walls of the library’s Great Hall were finished, the project staged an unveiling. Photos of the murals were released to the press. Emily Genauer in the Tribune pronounced them “sound as a nut,” and Edward Alden Jewel, after quibbling about the library’s neoclassical architecture, announced, “The Mausoleum is complete.” The official unveiling was scheduled to be a ceremony in the auditorium, adjoining the Great Hall ‘to the east. Mayor La Guardia promised to be there. Two or three hundred people gathered and waited. It was at least an hour beyond the announced time before the mayor appeared, but the crowd, though restive, kept to their seats. People who remember Fiorello La Guardia will recall that he went everywhere, and was always late. He came in escorted by Colonel Somervell.

Holger Cahill opened the ceremonies. Then I was called on to say something. I told the audience this was not the first time I had seen Mayor La Guardia confronted by a work of art—or, I added, a work of art confronted by Mayor La Guardia. At this point the mayor looked up at me quizzically, as if to say, “What the hell are you up to?” I went on to recall a recent opening of an Art Project Easel Painting Show, when Burgoyne Diller had brought the mayor and Arshile Gorky face to face before a Gorky painting and had asked Gorky to elucidate his Kandinsky-ish painting to the mayor—and La Guardia had turned on his heel and walked away, saying, “I’m as conservative in my art as I am progressive in my politics!” I hesitated a moment while the audience laughed. I looked at La Guardia, who seemed relieved. I added, “I thought it was good at the time, but now I’m not so sure! ” I sat down and the mayor came to the rostrum. He looked down at me with a fierce scowl. Then he beamed. He said, “If politicians could paint as well as Mr. Laning can talk, it would be a better world!” He went on to apologize for being late; he explained that he was a very busy man but that this was a more important occasion than he had realized. He led us into the hall and witnessed the unveiling of the murals, and he congratulated me.

Shortly before the murals were installed, Mr. Stokes said to me, “If we could get you up there, could you touch up the ceiling?” The ceiling in this monumental hall on the third floor of the library is a vault. It consists of elaborately carved mouldings framing open spaces. At the center is a space about fifteen feet wide and forty feet long that had been painted to represent an open sky- pink clouds against a blue ground. In 1940 this ceiling painting was flaking badly and looked very unsightly. Mr. Stokes explained to me that the library’s roof had become leaky but that this problem had finally been solved. “We succeeded in raising a million dollars for a new monel metal roof over the entire building,” he said, “and there will be no further damage.” I said to him, “If you can get me up there at all, why don’t we paint something more interesting than pretty pink clouds in a blue sky? Why don’t we do something more in keeping with the mural paintings we are installing below?” He told me to design something, and I made a sketch of Prometheus descending from heaven carrying the stolen fire of learning and culture to mankind below. At either end of the space I designed figures representing man’s reactions to Prometheus’ offering: some aspiring toward the light, others putting down those who aspired, some lost in indifferent sleep.

My sketch was approved by the library board, and in our abandoned Hudson River pier I prepared a full-sized cartoon. The project’s carpenters made me a huge frame, which we laced with crosswires. I placed my cartoon (which I had drawn on paper tacked to a side wall of the pier) on this frame, face down, and with ropes and pulleys we raised the cartoon overhead to a height comparable to the height of the library ceiling, about fifty feet from the floor. I studied my figures in this overhead situation and worked with them until I thought their foreshortening was convincing. I knew that when I painted the canvas against a vertical wall, this sense of overhead foreshortening would be very difficult to achieve, and once I had my cartoon right I held to it strictly. This necessity applied to the figures at the ends of the painting, figures that were represented as standing or sitting on rocky peaks seen from below. The figure of Prometheus at the center was another matter. Since he was suspended in air, I knew I could give him any attitude I chose. I felt that the figure in my cartoon was stiff, and I decided to improvise.

I had an excellent model working for me, a young man with a splendid physique and a somewhat less admirable character. I made a rough sketch of the figure I had in mind; the model looked at it and said, “Let’s see what we can do!” He found a couple of pieces of stout rope, climbed to the top of our scaffold, fifty feet above, and lashed himself by his wrists to the top beams. The strain was terrific, but for a short time I could see exactly the dynamic posture I needed. I painted furiously as long as he could hold out. The sweat poured from us both. He would collapse and rest at intervals, then return to his crucifixion. After a couple of days of this agony he would disappear, sometimes for a week. The project’s timekeepers would come to check on us, and I would tell them I had sent him off on an errand for me. After several days’ absence he would come back rather sheepishly and tell me he had been on a binge and had run into a pretty girl. According to these accounts, his extra-mural activities were as athletic as any work he did for me. But he made up for these prolonged absences by brilliant performances on the scaffold, and Prometheus got painted.

In the meantime the library prepared to erect a scaffolding in the Great Hall. One day the custodian of the building, Mr. Fedeler, took me to the attic, a vast area of beams and catwalks above the entire building, two blocks long. One of the catwalks passed alongside the top of my vault. We stood looking down on its curving sides, and I mentioned the expensive new roof and said I was glad there’d be no more leaks to contend with. “There was nothing wrong with the old roof,” he said. “The new roof was an unnecessary expense. My maintenance men, going about their work up here, stop off at this spot, and urinate on this vault. I’ve tried, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Finally the scaffold was in place and we ascended to a giddy height and walked over loosely laid boards fifty feet above the marble floor. We cleaned the ceiling area and mounted our mural with white lead. It had been impossible to obtain a single piece of canvas large enough for this space, and my mural was painted in three overlapping strips. This had made its execution difficult, since these overlaps had to be painted out beyond each other four times, but it facilitated installation. It was only necessary to roll out each strip with a white lead paste and then cut through these overlaps and clean up the smears of white lead and retouch these seams. It wasn’t a heroic task like Michelangelo’s on the Sistine ceiling, but it was difficult enough.

By this time the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, the country was at war, and the library began to worry about the scaffolding. This hall was the entrance to the Card Catalogue Room and the enormous Main Reading Room, and it might have been difficult to evacuate hundreds of people through our forest of iron pipes. We were urged to hurry, and we ran a race with time. From my point of view it was essential to get it right once and for all, because I knew it would be a long time before I would ever get up there again.

With the war, the Art Projects quickly came to an end. The administrative agencies continued to operate for a short time, but it was their task now to “liquidate” the projects. Federal support of the arts ended with the end of the emergency that had brought it into being.

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times. It was the best because it was the worst. Business came to a standstill, the banks closed, people everywhere were thrown out of work—and almost overnight New York became the Great Good Place and America the Land of Promise. Until then, every man’s hand had been against every man. Now, suddenly, all were kindly and helpful and filled with compassionate purpose.

I know now that it was our golden age, the only humane era in our history, the one brief period when we permitted ourselves to be good. Before that time, all was business, and after it all has been war. But this golden age was an accident; it was nothing of our choosing. Business is the license to steal; war is the license to kill; and America is the land of license. Two years of killing, during the First World War, were followed by ten years of riotous stealing. After World War I (we hadn’t yet learned that war need never stop at all), Warren Gamaliel Harding cried, “Back to normalcy!” and Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.”

Then suddenly the country went broke. But the ensuing golden age was a fool ‘s paradise. The stealing stopped, but only because there was nothing left to steal. Within ten years business had discovered war, with a rapaciousness that led even a triumphant general to cower before the monster of our “military-industrial complex.” Again as in 1929 we are assured that nothing can now stop the progress of this boom. But what we really know is that this time the bust will be complete and final. This time there will be no relief for anyone—for the artist or for the millionaire. There isn’t going to be any refuge.


Franklin D. Roosevelt, commenting on the suggestion that the federal government should undertake a relief program for unemployed artists, expressed some misgiving: he didn’t want, he told a friend in 1933, “a lot of young enthusiasts painting Lenin’s head on the Justice Building.” This was an allusion to the brouhaha in New York over Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s insistence on portraying Lenin in a big mural he was painting at brand-new Rockefeller Center. (In the end the Rockefellers ordered the work destroyed.) The mural is the most public kind of painting; consequently it has usually been felt that a good mural ought to be a source of public inspiration, and the preferred themes have been religious, patriotic, cultural, or industrial. The trouble is, of course, that one man’s inspiration may be another man’s ulcer, and on the whole painters are not likely to be overconservative. Nevertheless, the New Deal administration did its best to give American artists easy rein, recognizing that freedom and originality are inseparable. There were exceptional cases, especially in connection with over a thousand murals executed under Treasury Department auspices for United States post offices across the country; but in general the absence of censorship was remarkable. The portfolio that follows is intended to give a small but fairly representative sampling of the more than four thousand murals painted under the New Deal, to suggest the curious problems confronted by the artists in certain cases, and to show what time has done in others. Don’t miss the four-color, four-page fold-out!


Fairly typical of the troubles encountered by some New Deal artists in expressing their views of the American way of life is the history of a post-office mural by the well-known artist Ben Shahn. The location was the new Bronx Central Post Office in New York City, where the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the Treasury Department had commissioned Shahn to do a series of thirteen large panels. He chose the theme “The Resources of America” for twelve of them; for the thirteenth he planned a scene showing Walt Whitman expounding his philosophy of progress by means of a blackboard on which was inscribed a quotation from one of his poems :

Brain of the new world! What a task is thine! To formulate the Modern out of the peerless grandeur of the Modern Out of thyself—comprising science to recast Poems, Churches, Art (Recast—maybe discard them—end them—maybe their work is done, who knows?)

When Shahn’s cartoons, or full-size sketches for the murals, were exhibited late in 1938, a Jesuit priest at Fordham University publicly denounced the use of the Whitman quotation, not on the grounds of poor poetry but because of the suggestion that the church might some day be dispensable. Under pressure from Washington, Shahn chose a less controversial passage from Whitman, and the execution of the murals proceeded. With his wife Bernarda Bryson as his assistant, Shahn painted them in egg tempera—a medium employing egg yolks as the solvent and adhesive for the pigments used. (“We ate angel-food cake for months,” Mrs. Shahn said later.) After thirty years of exposure to the climate of the postoffice lobby, the eggs and the colors are not doing well, as these recent photographs show.


Coit Tower, which perks from the top of Telegraph Hill where there used to be (guess!) a telegraph station, is a San Francisco landmark. It is not as functional as its predecessor, having been built in the early thirties with funds left by Lillie M. Coit to commemorate the exertions of the city’s volunteer firemen; but the view of the bay is as good as ever. In the base of the tower the visitor is confronted with some of the first examples of New Deal art: big murals on all four walls, painted in 1934 under the Public Works of Art Project (1933-34), forerunner of the WPA Federal Art Project. They are interestingly typical of early Depression art: stylistically reminiscent of Mexican muralists like Rivera and Orozco, they are half realistic rendering, half montage, with bold, almost crude delineation, hints of ironic caricature, and a selection of details that suggest a point of view somewhat àgauche . Note, for instance, the newspaper headlines being read by the visitors to Bernard Zakheim’s Library (opposite), and the authors of the books prominently placed. (This caused a flurry of complaints from the San Francisco Art Commission, which had not escaped a shaft in one of the headlines.) Note, too, Zakheim’s clever use of an actual Coit Tower window as a trompe-l’oeil door for his library. Victor Arnautoff ‘s City Life , our four-page foldout, also accommodates itself to the actualities of the tower. The painting is otherwise self-explanatory and repays, we think, close scrutiny.

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