One of the most somber works in the entire show comes from Florida. Not made for the WPA but for another public entity, the Miami Post Office, the oil called The Building of the Tamiami Trail by George Snow Hill was painted in 1938. The workers here are black prisoners in a chain gang, hauling huge chunks of material to help tame the Everglades, while white bosses oversee the process and a lone Seminole Indian observes from a corner. There are no heroes here, only a numbing violence.
The clash between technology and modernism versus old-fashion labor and values is a constant theme in the exhibit. On the one hand, “technology” can make life easier and better, or it can destroy the soul and the landscape. It can enrich some, and impoverish others. That tension is as visceral today as it was 70 some years ago.
Two facing paintings may tell this story best, and they are two of the most remarkable individual portraits in the exhibit. The 1942 oil painting The Welder, by Francis de Erdely, is a gorgeous portrayal of a young man almost subsumed by the trappings of his factory-worker life – but not quite. He is wearing huge, heavy gloves that seem to weigh him down, and goggles on his forehead, but his shirtless, handsome torso defies his surroundings, shining out like a Greek god. Next to it hangs a Doris Lee painting, Girl Sewing. The subject is sweet and diligent-looking as she works the new sewing machine, but you’re left to wonder, will she lose the ageless female craft of making clothes by hand? Today that feels quaint, but this 1931 painting foreshadows what would become a 1950s prototype of women, happily working the household inventions that wash and dry and sew.
Several pieces were made for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. That fair, and the new-found popularity of fairs themselves after the turn of the 19th Century, were perfect examples of the conflicted times that are reflected in art. For the General Motors Pavilion of the New York fair, Waylande Desantis Gregory made a couple of terracotta soldiers, but they are warriors for the old way of life – sculptures of tobacco and cotton field hands, not factory workers in the auto industry.
These sculptures seem particularly poignant in light of the fact that the 1939 world fair, one of the largest ever, was firmly focused on the future. In fact, it was dubbed “The World of Tomorrow,” and it’s where those trippy iconic structures, the Trylon and the Perisphere, were premiered, with moving sidewalks and all. A couple of paintings in the exhibit illustrate the fair, and far from a brutal, demoralizing landscape, they depict an exciting new world. Other fairs also make an appearance, those ones with ferris wheels and gadgetry that took the edge off of mundane life, as shown in paintings filled with hope.
The exhibit culminates in one of the most recent works, from 1947, when both the Depression and war had come to an end. The painting by Ralph Fabri, titled Americana, depicts a far more opimistic outlook. Fabri has thrown everything into the mix – a Ferris wheel, the U.S. Capitol dome, Indians, a boxing ring, and in the front of it all, a blond woman with a “Miss America” sash. There is an exuberance within the frame, but some cynicism too – gone are the Grant Wood stoic farmers and striking workers, the earnest representations, the hard edges and angles and austere hues of pre-World War II art. In would come the American styles and movements that would overtake the world for the second half of a bold century.