Sunday, September 28, 2014

146. Ralph Fasanella

      Oil on canvas, 40 by 70 inches.  In the center, a pyramid of newspapers in the form of a giant A rises into the sky with headlines where one catches the words NIXON and EISENHOWER and YANKS DEFEAT REDS and FBI RAIDS and REDS and ROSENBERGS EXECUTED AS ATOM SPIES.  In the sky, on the left  two signs outlined in red blazon SAVE, and a red cross topped by a blue SAVE floats on the far right, suggesting another meaning, this one religious, of “SAVE.”  At the lower left mourners follow a coffin or coffins in an open vehicle, a huge crane lowers two coffins into the ground, and a flowered gravesite bears over it the words SAVE THE ROSENBERGS.  In the center foreground two eyes stare from wall.  At the lower right uniformed guards guard a grilled gateway in front of what seems to be one or several courthouses, the Washington Monument, and what may be the seated Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial, while in the background looms the dome of the U.S. Capitol.  All of which only begins to convey the cluttered urban complexity and rich panoramic detail of a work named “McCarthy Press.” 

    McCarthy Press, 1958.
    American Folk Art Museum 

     To try to understand this work is like coping with the symbolic details in a landscape by Pieter Bruegel the Elder; every detail has intention, if only one can decipher it.  (For Bruegel, see post #70, “Me and the Seven Deadly Sins,” with the Flemish artist’s illustrations of the sins.)  The artist of “McCarthy Press” is obviously very political and of the Left, but no realist, since his canvas is a jumble of locales and rich in symbols.  And no portraitist either, since his small human figures have only the barest suggestion of facial features.  So are you confused?  But maybe just a bit intrigued?  So was I, when I first encountered him.  Welcome to the art of Ralph Fasanella.

     To understand “McCarthy Press,” one needs to know something of the mood of the country in the early 1950s, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was the newly elected President, and Richard Nixon his Vice-President, in the first Republican administration in some twenty years.  Looming large was Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican from Wisconsin, who had convinced many Americans that their government was riddled with Communist spies and sympathizers, opinions echoed by much of the press at the time.  It was in this atmosphere that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of passing information about the atomic bomb to Soviet Russia – in those early days of the Cold War, the worst possible accusation against anyone.  Convicted in 1951 after a very controversial trial, they were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing in New York State on June 19, 1953.  Many, including Fasanella, believed in their innocence, though today it seems likely that Julius, but not his wife, was guilty.  “McCarthy Press” is Fasanella’s  comment on the Red Scare of the time and the execution of the Rosenbergs.  The giant A formed by the pyramid of newspapers suggests the atom bomb, and the eyes staring from the wall imply government surveillance of its citizens.

     A personal note:  At the time of the Rosenberg execution I was a student in Lyons, France.  At that remove I couldn’t follow the trial closely and so had no strong opinion about their guilt or innocence, but some of my French friends, of the Left but not Communists, were convinced of their innocence and, when news came of their execution, attended a memorial service by way of protest.  Which goes to show that even in provincial France the Rosenberg trial was followed with interest and provoked controversy.  As for McCarthy, whose alcoholism was not yet known to the public, I had to reassure a German friend that McCarthy was not to Eisenhower as Hitler had been to President Hindenburg of Germany; he was vastly relieved to learn that McCarthy was not about to take over the nation.

     I discovered Ralph Fasanella recently when, expecting quilts and purses and weathervanes, I went for the first time to the American Folk Art Museum opposite Lincoln Center and found the regular collection closed off, and Fasanella’s works on display instead – a rare exhibition, some of the works from private collections, that had come here from the Smithsonian in Washington.  By the time I finished looking at his art, I was hooked in a very special way by this artist whom I had never even heard of before – no more than several of my friends, quite knowledgeable about American art but totally unaware of Fasanella.  So who was he? 

     Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997) was the third of six children of Italian immigrants living in the Bronx and then in Greenwich Village, his father an iceman delivering ice to residences, and his mother a worker in a dress shop.  Young Fasanella helped his father deliver ice from his horse-drawn wagon, tough work that involved lugging heavy chunks of ice on his shoulder from the cart to the house.  His mother, an anti-fascist and trade union activist, instilled in him a strong sense of social justice and political awareness that would be with him all his life.  After his father, disillusioned with America, abandoned his family and returned to Italy in the 1920s, young Ralph was sent twice to Catholic reform schools for truancy and running away from home, an experience that reinforced his deep hatred of authority.  Leaving school with only a sixth-grade education, during the Depression he worked as a garment worker and truck driver in New York, then for a year served as a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, fighting for the Spanish republic against the fascist forces of Francisco Franco.   

     Returning to the U.S., he worked as a union organizer in the city, and in 1944, as an exercise to ease the pain of arthritis in his fingers, took up painting at age 30.  Thus was born a self-taught artist.  So taken with painting was he, that he quit his union work to paint full time, while operating a filling station on the side to support himself.  The outsized canvasses he produced were never intended for the homes of rich collectors, but for union meeting halls, and that was where they were exhibited for years to come.  This being the time of Abstract Expressionism, the art world dismissed him as a self-taught primitive – a Grandma Moses with a leftist twist -- and since it was also the era of McCarthyism, dealers and galleries blacklisted him because of his known leftist sympathies.

    Fasanella in 1970.
    American Folk Art Museum

     Then, in 1972, he appeared on the cover of New York magazine, which hailed him as the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses, and suddenly he became famous nationwide.  He was interviewed, he was written about, he was exhibited, he sold.  For a while.  He could stop pumping gas in his filling station, but he insisted he was still the regular working-class guy he’d always been.  “I think the kids are much brighter today,” he said in a 1973 interview, “but they also have less experience.  They don’t know what a union is all about, they’ve never worked with their hands.  Without knowing what labor’s about a man’s not worth a damn cent.  But a laborer has to know how to read books.  It takes a blending of the two things to become a full person.”  And Ralph Fasanella was certainly a full person, a reader and artist with dirty fingernails, a pock-marked face, and a sense of humor who could bond instantly with workers.

     His 5-foot by 10-foot painting “Lawrence 1912: The Great Strike” (1978) was purchased by donations from fifteen unions and given to Congress, where it hung for years in the Rayburn Office Building hearing room of the House Subcommittee on Labor and Education.  But when the 1994 elections brought a new Republican majority to the House of Representatives, the word “Labor” was eliminated from the committee’s name, and a Republican staffer had Fasanella’s painting, the only labor painting in the Capitol, removed from the hearing room and returned to its owners.  In 1995, on the other hand, his “Subway Riders” (1950) was installed in the Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street subway station in Manhattan.
     Toward the end of his long life his social and political messages fell out of favor, and with them his art.  But with his death in 1997, his work began to be reappraised yet again, as witnessed by the current exhibit at the Folk Art Museum, which will run until November 30.  I urge all who can to go see it and then judge for themselves.  Personally, I think his work well worth the effort; it is a revelation to me, a whole new aspect of the American art scene that I had hardly been aware of – or appreciative of – until now.  Here are a few of the works exhibited, with my layman’s reaction and commentary.  But to really grasp the details that are so significant, you need to see his paintings full size as displayed at the museum.  If you can enlarge them as presented here, by all means do so.

Modern Times (1966)
Smithsonian American Art Museum

     In “Modern Times” (1966) he contrasts humanistic values with the cold  technological world of our present and our future.  In the center foreground we see the 1965 visit of Pope Paul VI, who attended a Mass in Yankee Stadium; perhaps the Pope is presented as representing ethical and spiritual values, but he also symbolizes authority, to which, in all its forms, Fasanella was vehemently opposed.  In the lower left, soldiers come home from the war, greeted by the words WELCOME HOME BOYS; nearby is a stack of flag-draped coffins.  But in the center foreground, to the right of the stadium, war protesters burn their draft cards or are dragged into a police van.  In the center left background a black helicopter gunship is seen against a red sky, while near it a rocket amusement ride looms, with a giant baseball bursting from its cone.  On the far right, museumgoers garbed in black and grey visit a museum full of abstract art, and the technological means of war are displayed.  Well-groomed ladies lunch inside the museum, while a statue outside shows a worker holding up the world.  And these comments barely scratch the surface of this multilayered, complex work, many of whose details I cannot decipher.

Iceman Crucified #4 (1958)
Smithsonian American Art Museum

     Less enigmatic is a series of paintings named “Iceman Crucified” honoring his father, who worked as an iceman delivering ice to homes in Greenwich Village.  In “Iceman Crucified #4” (1958) the figure of his father  dominates, standing against a cross topped by giant ice tongs (instead of a crown of thorns) and holding a large bucket of ice on his shoulder.  At the top of the cross appear the words “Lest We Forget,” indicating Fasanella’s determination to remember and honor his origins.  On the cross to the right are a cup of coffee and a cigarette, suggesting a brief respite from work.  Also present, I’m told, is an alarm clock set at 6:50, a reminder of when the iceman had to be at work, though I confess I have yet to make it out.  In the lower right is an ice cart minus its iceman driver, while in the lower left a refrigerator is being delivered, marking the end of the iceman profession.  

American Heritage (1974)
American Folk Art Museum

     In “American Heritage” (1974) the White House, topped by an outsized white dove of peace, an American flag, and the word WASHINGTON and “We the People of the United States,” opens up to reveal its interior.  Inside are a number of coffins, some of them flag-draped, suggesting, as Fasanella explained in an interview, the memorable deaths of recent years: the Kennedys, Malcolm X, civil rights workers in the South, the students at Kent State, and all who were killed while fighting for an ideal.  Standing next to their ironically flag-draped coffins in the center foreground are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose fate obviously haunted the artist. 

     Fasanella wasn’t interested in what critics said of his art, which was addressed not to them but to working people and their allies.  But of course the critics had their say.  Having at first dismissed him as a primitive, from 1972 on they began taking him seriously, praising his bold images and vibrant colors.  His ability to present individual scenes and yet unify them in a single coherent image was recognized.  His masses of somewhat stiff and static human figures, their features barely indicated, could be criticized; he rarely did portraits, rarely tried to individualize his figures.  Some critics have insisted that he expressed nostalgia for a past more imaginary than real, but others have hotly defended his championing of the struggles of the working class, his feel for their griefs and joys and hopes – a view that I personally think justified.

     For a closing note, I can’t do better than quote a memorable saying of Fasanella’s:

Remember who you are.
Remember where you came from.
Don’t forget the past.
Change the world. 

     Coming soon:  A woman who knew everybody from Eleanor Roosevelt to Mayor Bill O'Dwyer, not to mention Nehru and Alfred Stieglitz, but who kept her distance from Georgia O'Keeffe, and for good reason.  Plus other topics cooking on a  low flame.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder