Sunday, March 8, 2009

REVIEW: WPA artists at the T.W.Wood Gallery, Montpelier

by Marc Awodey

The south gallery room of Montpelier's T.W.Wood Gallery has a few treasures from its Works Progress Administration artists collection on display, and if you’re not familiar with the Wood’s status at Vermont’s sole WPA art repository, now’s a great time to find out more about it. In the halcyon days of the WPA artists programs, during the Depression era 1930’s, the federal government actually purchased art outright to support visual artists. The modern National Endowment for the Arts doesn’t even give grants directly to visual artists anymore (thanks to Sen. Jesse Helms and other right wingers during the 1990s), so don’t expect any similar WPA-type programs for artists any time soon - even if we get our own sequel to the great Depression as a legacy from George Bush. The Roosevelt administration’s WPA artists programs are a positive cultural legacy of incomparable worth, that just keeps on giving generation after generation.

One of the most important pieces now on view at the Wood is the gouache Harlem Scene (Butcher Shop) by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). Lawrence was a major artist closely identified with the Harlem Renaissance era who, like Romare Bearden and Lawrence's wife Gwendolyn Knight, swam against the tide of non-ojective abstraction to invent a distinctive brand of expressive figuration. There was always a meaningful social edge to his works and Lawrence produced several great historical cycles including his Migration Series, and prints on the life of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture (which appeared recently at the Brattleboro museum).

Russian born Raphael Soyer’s (1899-1987) Man Eating is a lithograph capturing the desperation in the eyes of an unemployed worker. The Social Realist painter and printmaker taught at The Art Student’s League for many years, and was an important influence on mid-century figuration.
A substantial late painting by Italian-American Joseph Stella (1877-1946) also currently appears at the Wood. Stella is a first-generation abstractionist who appeared in the legendary 1913 New York City Armory Show, along with Marcel Duchamp, early Cubists and Italian Futurists. Stella’s Skyscrapers clearly reflects the exuberance of early Twentieth century abstraction.

The Wood’s current WPA show barely scratches the surface of its extensive WPA art holdings. It’s an honor for the gallery to be Vermont’s official WPA repository, but it’s also a burden as the work must be adequately insured and cared for - and there’s no federal mandate to assist repositories with those costs. So check out the show, and give the gallery a few bucks while you’re there. Keep alive the embers of the WPA artists projects, and who knows - maybe history will repeat itself in an artistically important way?