From "The Record" Wednesday, February 9, 1983

Taking A Fresh Look At New Deal Art
Many WPA-funded works are still intact in N.J.

By Carolyn Rushefsky


Related Article:  New Deal Art Murals at Teaneck Public Library

To keep artists off the bread lines during the Depression, the federal Government came up with a creative alternative to ditch digging.  It commissioned hundreds of unemployed artists to do murals and sculpture in public buildings.

While a lot of the resulting work has been lost or destroyed, some of it has been rescued from oblivion.  Consider, for instance, the valuable modernist murals done for Newark Airport by Arshile Gorky, later a pioneer of abstract expressionism.  These murals were discovered a decade ago under 14 layers of paint by an art sleuth.

Soon after the find, another art sleuth, Dr. Hildreth York, project director of Rutgers University's museum training program, used old brochures from the Works Project Administration (WPA) and other New Deal Agencies to track down the commissioned art in dozens of New Jersey buildings.  Dr. York trekked with her students on what she called "'muraling' day which consisted of arduous and often delightful travels to school, post offices and other public building.

Those following a similar "muraling" trail today will find a great deal of the New Deal art intact in the original locations - schools libraries, courthouses, and most frequently, post offices.Mural at  Fort Lee

For example, the post office in Fort Lee, at 229 Main St., has four murals by Henry Schnakenberg.  Done in oils on canvas, the works depict various historical periods of the Fort Lee area.  "The Half Moon Off New Jersey Shore" shows Henry Hudson's ship at anchor while his men trade with the Indians.

One untitled work is apparently of George Washington and his troops retreating from the British during the American Revolution.  Another untitled mural show a family picnicking on the Palisades -- beyond them looms the George Washington Bridge, and below a barge puffs north with the New York skyline as backdrop.

In "The Early Moving Pictures," a golden-haired damsel cringes before an Indian who is blasting a pair of guns into the air, while cameras are cranked near a man seated in a director's chair. 

"The moving picture theme was used because 'The Perils of Pauline' was filmed here and many other movies, too," explained Edward Lynch, the Fort Lee postmaster. "Fort Lee was the spot for making movies before Hollywood came along."

Schnakenberg was not a native of Fort Lee. He was born in New York in 1892, and went on to have his work", exhibited nationally; his name appears in the 1947 edition of "Who's Who in American Art."

The subjects of Schnakenberg's painting, like those of almost all New Deal art, were restricted to "the American scene," said Dr. York in her book, "New Deal Art: New Jersey!  (Newark Museum/Rutgers University). The artists' styles ran nearly unanimously toward the conservative so the commissioned art was generally free from the imaginative contortions abstraction.

True, Gorky's Newark Airport murals were semiabstract; but they were met with derision both by art critics and a conservative public. Said a 1936 press critique: "The artist floods a wall with forms and colors that have little appropriateness as mural designs. They don't mean anything to the public", said another: "Everyone is happy that the murals are not frescoes -- i.e., painted on the walls so that they are permanent."  Indeed, eight were destroyed; two now are in the care of the Newark Museum.

Creative restrictiveness aside, the juries that chose the art project's artists displayed extraordinary ability.  The government jurists made "blind" choices -- that is, they looked only at examples of work, not at the applicants' names or backgrounds.  Yet many of the artists they selected went on to become respected worldwide.  For example, in addition to Gorky, painter Jackson Pollock and sculptor Robert Laurent worked for the WPA.

Nearly all of Pollock's WPA work has been lost or destroyed.  A relief panel done in 1937 by Laurent, however, remains at its original site, the Garfield Post Office, 254 Palisade Ave.  Carved in beige stone, and gleaming from a recent cleaning, it depicts key elements of transportation - a propeller, an aviator, train wheels.

Postal clerk Joseph Viszoki was asked If he realized the value of the relief panel. "I know it has to be important," he replied, "because so many people "keep coming in here to look at it."Not as important, but nevertheless pleasing to the eye, are four murals in the Teaneck Library on Cedar Lane. The representational works were painted In 1937 by Robert Martin of Ridgefield.Teaneck Library

In honor of their library setting, the murals depict a history of the printed word: Monks letter parchment in a scriptorium; men work on an early printing press (probably in the 16th Century, said librarian Hilda Lipkin, "because the light blue hat on the young man is from that period"); bookbinding is underway in an 18th-Century print shop; and, finally, men work at what was then a contemporary newspaper press. The four panels are in a magnificent Colonial room that features a pair of fireplaces, three brass chandeliers, and tall, Federal-style windows. The room, which is being used for reference materials, is one of the most inviting places for viewing New Deal art.

Below are descriptions of other nearby New Deal artworks and addresses of their locations:

  • The Ridgefield Park Post Office, 155 Main St., has a mural "George Washington Bridge" by Thomas Donnelly.

  • The Cliffside Park Post Office, 160 Edgewater Road, has a relief panel by Bruno Neri entitled "Rural Delivery." The panel reportedly caused much complaint among members of the government reviewing committee because the outline of the woman's leg showed through her skirt in what was termed "an unseemly manner."

  • The Little Falls Post Office, 19 Warren St., has a mural entitled "Labor and Leisure," done in 1939 by James Brooks.

  • The Nutley Post Office, 372 Franklin Ave., has on display a mural by Paul Chapman entitled "The Return of Annie Oakley," referring to her return to her hometown of Nutley after her marriage.

  • The Newark Museum, 49 Washington Ave. (733-6640), periodically exhibits the Gorky murals and other Depression art items.

The art relief program began in 1934 and ended in 1943, when money and manpower had to be diverted to the war effort. In those nine years, 5,000 artists were employed, at an average salary of $103 a month, according to Dr. York's research.

Said a recent visitor to the Ridgefield Park Post Office, looking up at the George Washington Bridge mural: "The way things are going, we could use a program like that again."


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