by Jody Patterson. Yale University Press, November 2020. 264 p. ill. ISBN 9780300241396 (h/c), $55.00.
Reviewed March 2021
Laurie Palumbo, Cataloging and Metadata Librarian/Art Subject Specialist, University Libraries, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, firstname.lastname@example.org
Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics and Public Murals in 1930s New York examines the confluence of forces that allowed modernist wall paintings to appear in public housing, hospitals, and office buildings around the metropolitan area, integrating abstract art “into the everyday life of working people.” Author Jody Patterson, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Chair of Art History at The Ohio State University, has published widely on American art and politics but uses her first solo monograph to foreground a public art movement she believes deserving of new analysis. In five dense chapters, Patterson contextualizes the political and cultural climate of the time, tracing the development of the Federal Art Project (FAP) and “socially engaged” modernism. Concluding with the run up to the Second World War and a return to art as an elite commodity, Patterson reflects on how this undertaking was unsuccessful despite its impact on the participating artists and the city itself.
The Works Progress Administration’s FAP was created in 1935 to provide work relief for artists of various media. Murals, whose purpose it is to improve and beautify public spaces, are an obvious fit. While muralism’s associations with the decorative, social criticism, and propaganda informed the artists hired by the FAP, they also sought to redefine what was possible through a modernist lens. Both buoyed and hampered by their federally funded commissions, artists like Stuart Davis argued for a broader interpretation of realism in the context of abstraction. These new murals started a debate around patronage, freedom of expression, and abstractions’ intent, presenting a social and artistic perspective absent from the recognized narrative of formalism in American modernist art.
Patterson uses touchpoints, such as Arshile Gorky’s mural cycle for the Newark Airport Administration Building, to weave together detailed accounts of the artworks, relating their stories through cultural history, critical theory, and interpretation. Moving between events, there is a push-and-pull to the writing that delivers the reader to the moments and places described. This is useful in replicating the tension that is apparent in the story being told - a time of societal upheaval and possibility. One cannot help but compare those turbulent times to current events and wonder what lessons could be extracted.
Modernism for the Masses is a colorful and well-designed book with plentiful illustrations showcasing not only the works discussed but glimpses of the spaces they existed in and the artists who created them. Deeply researched and well indexed, this rigorous read is recommended for libraries supporting upper-level art history studies and those interested in American public art, modernism, and the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.