Art of the 1930s: Collection depicts physical labor of the times

By Howard Prosnitz, Staff Writer

Teaneck Suburbanite, May 20, 2009

At the height of the Great Depression, unemployment soared to more than 25 percent.

Then, as now, the loss of a job was a traumatic, life changing event. But the social network that sometimes buffers the blow today did not exist at the beginning of the Depression. Unemployment insurance was a New Deal measure that came later, as was FDIC insurance. When a bank failed, as many did, depositors could lose all their money.

To a suffering nation, the Work Project Administration (WPA) created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 brought relief to millions of citizens.

Until it ended in 1943, as the economy boomed following American's entry into World War II, the WPA provided almost 8 million jobs and encompassed all areas of society. While many of the jobs were industrial, the Federal Art Project was the visual arts branch of the WPA and provided employment for hundreds of artists.

WPA art"The WPA gave artists a chance to produce art while receiving salaries from the government," said Teaneck resident Steven Hecht, who has been collecting WPA art for the past decade.

Hecht's collection of more than 40 paintings and drawings comprise "Still Current: WPA Art of the 1930s" on exhibit at the Puffin Foundation until June 20.

An investment counselor and 22-year township resident, Hecht first became interested in WPA art after viewing paintings by Diego Rivera and Edward Hopper. A member of the Art Deco Society in New York. Hecht has studied the art in the historical context of the 1930s.

For many years WPA art was forgotten about and not considered valuable, Hecht said, noting that after World War II, artistic tastes changed from realism to modernism and abstraction.

In addition, WPA art reminded people of the Depression, a period they wanted to forget.

WPA artMany of the paintings in Hecht's collection depict labor and work related scenes. One of his favorites is "Coal Miners," showing two grim faced miners and the back of another against a blue-purplish background. Other paintings depict the construction of a ship and of the Third Avenue EL in Manhattan.

"The WPA was all about work," said Hecht. "In the 1930s life was no picnic. People didn't sit in front of computer screens - work meant physical labor."

For some 60 years after the WPA ended, the art it produced was largely forgotten. The works belonged to the government and for many years were stored in warehouses. Many pieces were ultimately discarded or given away.

It is only in the past 10 to 15 years that WPA art has become valuable, said Hecht, who buys additions to his collection from New York dealers.

"The WPA gave artists a platform to express what was going on in the country. It is like a recorded history of the times," he noted.

Many of the artists, as well as the writers who worked on the related WPA Writers' Project, were decidedly left wing.

One of the most famous was Rockwell Kent, who was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union and later became a target of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Renowned for his book illustrations, Kent is represented by two drawings in Hecht's collection.

But many of the artists received little public recognition.

"They got a salary from the WPA and that was their compensation," Hecht said.

The Federal Art Project was only a small part of the WPA, which funded the rebuilding of much of America.

In the early 1930s, the infrastructure of a large part of country had changed little since the 19th century, said Hecht. The WPA financed huge building programs.

"There was a tremendous amount of construction. Electricity was needed and dams were built. Many people still did not have indoor plumbing," Hecht said.

Local WPA projects include Votee Park, Teterboro Airport and Third Ward Park in Passaic.

Last year, the Puffin Foundation provided an $11,000 grant for restoration and cleaning of four WPA murals in the Teaneck Public Library by Ridgefield artist Robert Martin.

Puffin program director Marc Lambert noted the timeliness of the exhibit.

"We were intrigued by the idea of doing something that is related to the current situation. We hope that this exhibit will open people's eyes," he said.

Hecht added, "The art shows every aspect of what life was like, from the farms to the factories: the hard work and physicality of the 1930s and the harshness of it and the small bits of fun that people had. Without a job and without money to pay your bills, it was a very scary time."