Art



The author helped to restore Flight by James Brooks, Marine Air Terminal, New York City, NY

Restoring Unique American Art: My Work on Federal Art Project Murals

As a graduate student searching for a dissertation topic during the 1970s, I came upon something different from art history projects I had worked on earlier. Having always researched artists from the nineteenth century and earlier, I now saw the opportunity to interview artists who were still alive, but whose Depression-era work on murals had been forgotten. I titled my dissertation, “The Lost Years: Mural Painting in New York City Under the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, 1935-1943.” I had no idea that my decision to take that opportunity would lead me to find and be responsible for getting important works of art restored. 

 

Each mural was created with federal funding as part of the Federal Art Project (FAP), established under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, the height of the Great Depression. The FAP was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, an all-encompassing plan to put Americans back to work—including writers, actors, musicians, and visual artists. Early in 1936, the FAP hired numbers of artists from all backgrounds and many styles. Although it only lasted for a few years, the FAP was responsible for the creation of more than 5,000 jobs and 225,000 artworks. It was also where a number of American artists who would later become well-known—including Arshile Gorky, Willem deKooning, James Brooks, and Jackson Pollock—got their start.

Restoring the murals, which had been created with energy and dedication, was a major undertaking. Each of these restoration projects has a fascinating story.

I. Harlem Hospital Murals:

I initially came across photographs and proposals for these when doing research in the archives of the Art Commission of New York City, then in the attic of City Hall. Some of the records I found crumbled under my fingers as I leafed through hundreds of yellowing papers, proposals, and photos.

The Harlem Hospital murals were the center of controversy in 1936, when the white hospital superintendent, Lawrence Dermody, rejected the plans on the grounds that they had “too much Negro subject matter,” adding that twenty-five years hence, the neighborhood might not even be predominantly “Negro.” In order to justify his racist rejection, he even attempted to enlist local black leaders. However, his warped thinking backfired—publicity about it aroused sympathy for the artists—and he backed down. The hospital installed the murals as planned.

Fast forward to April 2010, when Harlem Hospital Center was preparing to install glass panels on the façade of its new patient pavilion. Today one can see these immense glass panels from the street; they reproduce images from three panels of Vertis Hayes’s Pursuit of Happiness

 


The new pavilion at Harlem Hospital will showcase murals.
Photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times. Sept. 16, 2012.

You’d never know this history from looking at the two post-restoration photos, below, of the murals installed in Harlem Hospital’s “Mural Pavilion.” They are now front and center as part of a new, $325 million patient pavilion on Lenox Avenue at 135th Street, unveiled on Sept. 27, 2012.

 

I am absolutely thrilled to see how brilliant they now are, given that they had been neglected and were so much duller when I first found them, as in the picture below, taken circa 1974.


Detail of one of the Harlem Hospital murals in the 1970s, when the author first saw them,
showing the ravages of time and neglect. Photo by Greta Berman

The road to the recovery of these historic murals was a lengthy one. In the early 1970s, I telephoned the hospital to find out whether the murals were still on the walls, and when I followed up with a visit I discovered that some of them were still there, though badly deteriorating, but that others seemed to have disappeared. 

I walked in to the once proud and stately entrance to the hospital’s women’s pavilion to find two panels, painted by Charles Alston (1907-77), facing each other. The two paintings, each measuring 6 by 17 feet, depicted magic and superstition on one hand and modern medicine on the other. Installed over radiators, they had been almost completely obscured by years of accumulated grime and dirt, but Alston, a major educator and artist during the Harlem Renaissance, subsequently told me that since he had painted them in oil on canvas, they could be restored.

Creating these murals, Alston investigated his love of science and his interest in African culture. One especially startling fact is that the “nurse” he painted holding a baby was actually his wife, who was at the time doing her internship in surgery at the hospital. He made her a nurse, he told me, because he didn’t think people would have believed that a black woman could be a surgeon.

The second set of murals I found lined the main corridor of the nurses’ residence. Called “The Pursuit of Happiness,” the murals were painted by a group of artists headed by Vertis Hayes (1911-2000). Panel after panel showed the history of Black people, starting with life in an African village and moving on to enslaved people picking cotton in America. Turning the corner architecturally and metaphorically, a family faced the future, leaving the agrarian life behind and taking their place in a new urban life. In this section, Hayes portrayed painters, sculptors, musicians, entertainers, preachers, students, doctors, and nurses. The rhythms of city life, alternating with formal shapes and lines, propelled the murals along with a vibrant tempo that enlivened the drab corridor.

When I came upon them, these murals were in somewhat better shape than the Alston’s, but many were disintegrating and coming off the wall. It was clear that, without action, they faced imminent obliteration. Some had been painted directly on the wall, while others were on canvas that was glued to the walls. A fresco by a white artist, Alfred Crimi (1900-94), still hung in the payroll office at that time, but several murals were missing entirely.

In about 1978, I joined a group of hospital officials and New York City Art Commission administrators and artists, including the renowned black painter and collagist Romare Bearden (Charles Alston’s cousin). We examined the murals and presented a proposal for their restoration to Mayor Edward Koch. The proposal was approved, and conservator Alan Farancz (d. 2017) set to work in 1979, rescuing the murals from further decay. But after several decades, the murals began to deteriorate again—especially the Alston works, which continued to suffer ill effects from hanging above the radiators.

In 2005 the hospital again initiated conservation work on five of the murals, including Crimi’s fresco and Recreation in Harlem by Georgette Seabrooke (1916-2011), which was conceived for the walls of the nurses’ recreation room and had been thought to be lost. Seabrooke’s work is still being restored; the rest are now beautifully reinstalled in the lobby of the new patient pavilion. Much work went into this conservation: some murals had to be peeled off walls and others cut from sections of walls.

II. The Williamsburg Housing Project Murals:

During the decade from 1930 to1940, abstract artists were a beleaguered lot. Few critics, and even fewer members of the public, appreciated their innovative ideas. However, in 1937, Burgoyne Diller, the director of the WPA mural project and an abstract artist himself, commissioned paintings from several relatively unknown artists for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn.  (For a video about Williamsburg, please see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUwjbOzbQKU.)

Amazed by the avant-garde nature of these murals, I made numerous phone calls and visited the Williamsburg Project.  A group of us found that a few murals remained under coats of paint or hidden behind filing cabinets. I believe that I was the first person to investigate, but some years later, art historian Nancy Troy continued and persevered. Several of the saved and restored murals can now be seen at the Brooklyn Museum of Art — as well as in the photographs below.
 


Ilya Bolotowsky. Untitled. Williamsburg Housing Project, 1936. Brooklyn Museum of Art

 


Albert Swinden. Williamsburg Housing Project, 1939. Brooklyn Museum of Art

Balcomb Greene. Williamsburg Housing Project. Ca. 1936. Brooklyn Museum of Art

 


Paul Kelpe. Williamsburg Housing Project. Ca. 1938. Brooklyn Museum of Art

A fifth mural by Stuart Davis was never installed, but is now on display at the Eskenazi Museum in Bloomington, Indiana:
 


Stuart Davis. “Swing Landscape.” 1938. Eskenazi Museum, Bloomington, Indiana

III. James Brooks’ Flight:

A third mural I came upon during my dissertation research was the enormous, semi-abstract work, Flight, which the painter James Brooks made for LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Terminal.

Completed in 1942, Flight was the last—and at 237 feet long and 12 feet high, the largest—mural produced under the auspices of the WPA. It relates the story of flight in both historic and fantastic ways. Strangely, this huge mural disappeared under numerous coats of paint sometime during the 1950s.

I interviewed Brooks while I was writing my dissertation. Although he had since become renowned as an abstract expressionist, he remained proud of his LaGuardia mural and was eager to see it restored. Alan Farancz, who deserves a great deal of credit for his restoration of numerous WPA era (and other) paintings, found that the original painting had been done in casein-glyptol resin emulsion, but covered over with oil paint. Therefore, he was able to remove the layers—at times using hairdryers—without damaging the original painting.

In 1976 I published an article about Brooks’ mural in Arts Magazine, titled “Does Flight Have a Future?” Four years later, in 1980, aviation historian Geoffrey Arend, a LaGuardia Airport employee at the time, helped to raise the funds needed to restore the mural to its original condition. That same year the Marine Air Terminal was designated a New York Interior Landmark, and it continues to be celebrated as a landmark today. 

The photo below, and the one heading this article, show this New York City masterpiece.

I am proud to have been a pioneer in discovering, advocating for, and helping to restore Flight, the other murals pictured above, and many others to their deserved place in United States history.

 

 

Night at the Musée d’Orsay: Poems of Paris & Other Great European Cities
by Judy Wells
Night at the Musée d’Orsay: Poems of Paris & Other Great European Cities is a vibrant memoir of travel poems centering on Judy Wells’ appreciation of well-known European painters, architects, writers, and musicians associated with great European cities. Her poems explore artists in France, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Spain, from Van Gogh, Chagall, Matisse, and Balzac in Paris, to Velázquez and Goya in Madrid, and Gaudí in Barcelona. Wells interweaves her own personal life into her poems, which illustrate her creative responses to her travels at different times—from young adult in France to older woman confronting aging in Barcelona. Her poetry encompasses various poetic styles—lyric, narrative, and surprisingly for a book on European travels, haiku. Night at the Musée d’Orsay   If the curators knew I, a moth, was in the Van Gogh room they’d be shocked! But what do they expect— I love light and I’m particularly attracted to a painting of stars—globs of light reflected in a river.   I’ve sat on top of these yellow blobs and survived though I can feel the heat of these stars right through the paint. Light bulbs are cold by comparison though I’m not singed by Van Gogh. I’m transformed and waves of ecstasy wander through my wings.   I rest on Van Gogh’s stars all night. In the morning I flit to a cottage and settle on a deep blue iris. The tourists think I’m part of the painting. I laugh. I’m just a moth with grand taste. Available from Amazon and www.regentpress.net

Bio

Greta Berman received a B.A. from Antioch College, an M.A. from the University of Stockholm, and a Ph.D. from Columbia. She has been Professor of Art History at Juilliard since 1978. In addition to writing a monthly column, “Focus on Art,” for the Juilliard Journal, she co-curated and co-edited Synesthesia: Art and the Mind.  She has published numerous articles, as well as lectured on synesthesia and other subjects.  

4 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful, impressive article that distills so much research on these important murals and efforts to save them. Thank you very much for sharing!

  2. Greta, such an interesting and important article. So glad that you sent it. I was thrilled to see the works esp those of James Brooks with whom I taught at
    Queens College. Ricki Long

  3. Greta –this is an excellent articlewith great photographss also. James Brooks is currently on view at the Parrish Art Museum, and sketches for his mural are included.

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