The radical art of the nineteen-thirties

150126_r26047-690Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker:

l artists want to change the world, usually just by making it take special notice of them, but now and then they do so out of a devotion to larger hopes. “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1940,” a fascinating scholarly show at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, on Washington Square, illustrates the most sustained convergence of art and political activism in American history. Some one hundred works by forty artists, along with photographs and publications, tell a story that tends to figure in art history only as a background to the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist generation; Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, et al., shared poverty but not zeal with their marching contemporaries. (Gorky revered Stalin and joined demonstrations near his loft on Union Square, but he scorned proletarian art, pronouncing it “Poor art for poor people.”) The show makes visible a twisty saga that the critic Clement Greenberg, who started his career in the late nineteen-thirties at the initially Communist-sponsored Partisan Review, mentioned in passing in a 1961 book, “Art and Culture.” He wrote, “Some day it will have to be told how ‘anti-Stalinism,’ which started out more or less as ‘Trotskyism,’ turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.”

The show originated at Northwestern University, where it was curated by John Murphy and Jill Bugajski, and it focussed on the movement’s legacy in Chicago. (“Left Front” was the name of an activist magazine published in that city in the early thirties.) It has now been expanded with material from New York, where the era’s leading organizations of radical artists began: the John Reed Club, in 1929, and its Popular Front successor, the American Artists’ Congress, in 1936.

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