DURING the 1930's, when most of the Abstract Expressionists began their painting careers, the prevailing aesthetic viewpoints were being shaped by economic, political, and social calamities: at home, by the Great Depression ushered in by the stock market crash of 1929; abroad, by Hitler's rise to power, the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow trials, the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, and, in 1939 by the outbreak of World War II. Above all, the breakdown of the economy affected artists as it did millions of other Americans who found themselves unemployed or dispossessed. The Depression and the steps taken to recover from it generated "epidemics of faith or despair," one historian recalled, "the ever-present sense of the closeness of violence, and even, in the first years of the decade at least, the occasional abrupt conviction that perhaps tomorrow, for good or bad, barricades might rise on all the Main Streets across the land." 1
Responding to the temper of the times, artists on the whole chose to work in socially oriented styles. The Regionalists, whose leaders were T homas Hart Benton, Grant Wood (Fig. 1-1), and John Steuart Curry, embraced a rightist, isolationist ideology. Recoiling from the crushing events of the present, they sought to recapture in their paintings America's agrarian past. The Social Realists, among them William Gropper and Ben Shahn (Fig. 1-2), were motivated by Marxist dogmas and depicted the condition of workers engaged in a class struggle. Both groups continued earlier directions in American painting, but these assumed a new urgency during the Depression.
In New York, where the future Abstract Expressionists gravitated, most artists were leftist. Their social consciousness was intensified by the actions they had to take on their own behalf. Always on the margins of society, they were in worse straits in the 1930's than in the past. A number of them joined together in 1933 as the Unemployed Artists' Group, later called the Artists' Union, to pressure the national government for subsidies. The Roosevelt Administration was responsive to the plight of unemployed artists and resolved to create work for as many as needed it. Prior to the New Deal, federal agencies would decide to commission specific public decorations and would select artists, generally of some reputation, to execute them. During the Depression, however, the government's emphasis shifted from a desire for works of art to a concern for the artists' need to work.
In December, 1933, Roosevelt set up the Public Works of Art Project. During the five months of its existence, it hired 3,749 artists, who produced 15,633 works of art for public institutions. 2 Encouraged by the success of this program but aware that it did not assist enough artists, the New Deal extended its relief activities and, in August, 1935, transferred them to the newly organized Federal Art Project (simply called the Project) under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). 3 Unlike its predecessor, which supported artists who could show proof of professional accomplishments, the Project did not demand evidence of artistic qualifications, thus making younger and lesser-known painters and sculptors eligible for financial aid. Within a year, the Project was employing some 5,500 needy artists, teachers, craftsmen, photographers, designers, and researchers. 4 They received an average of $95 monthly, in return for which they were required to work 96 hours or -- if in the easel division -- to submit periodically pictures painted in any style in their own studios. 5 The remaining time was their own.
The Project played a vital role in the development of American art by paying artists to paint, thereby enabling them to devote their energies to art with little distraction. Such younger painters as Arshile Gorky, JacksonPollock
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Publication information: Book title: The Triumph of American Painting:A History of Abstract Expressionism. Contributors: Irving Sandler - Author. Publisher: Harper & Row. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1976. Page number: 5.
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