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Poster Gallery

POSTERS FOR THE PEOPLE

Don't Mix 'Em
Robert Lachenmann, Philadelphia
At the beginning of the Depression, relatively few people took an active interest in art in this country. As Audrey McMahon, New York regional director of the FAP, would later recall, art museums were catchalls, their exhibits "appalling." Municipal galleries showed stuffed birds, portraits of local legislators, antimacassars or gilded baby shoes. Even New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed plaster casts of melodramatic Roman sculptures like the Dying Gaul.

Most Americans had never seen an original work of fine art. "Art" was taught, if at all, by instructors who considered copying the Mona Lisa the ultimate in refined expression. Amid such stifling gentility, the WPA posters brought a gust of avant-garde air. Displayed in schools and on buses and bulletin boards, the sophisticated posters accustomed viewers to modernist style, paving the way for abstract expressionist art after the war. As Francis O'Connor said, "Something very vital indeed, something revolutionary happened to American culture during the 1930s." The WPA's democratic art brought that revolution to all Americans.

Don't Kill Our Wild Life
John Wagner, New York

Because of the FAP, the Depression exerted "a more invigorating effect on American art than any past event in the country's history," wrote George Biddle. Not only did it allow artists to practice their craft, collaborate and innovate, but it served as a collective apprenticeship for artists who brought America to the forefront of international art. "American art suddenly came of age," says project artist Jacob Kainen. WAP alumni included Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Louise Nevelson - artists who not only put U.S. art on the map but shifted the center of that map from Paris to New York.

In 1943, with the war industry running at full blast, unemployment dipped and the project was canceled. In a memoir of the period, FAP graphic artist Abe Ajay wrote, "Thus ended the noblest experiment of them all." But not before its success was realized; as Velonis later wrote, the WPA "rescued a generation of artists to become productive citizens instead of cynical revolutionaries." Government sponsorship had helped launch an aesthetic revolution.


"Posters For The People"
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Poster Gallery
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