“The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade’ ”

Grey Art Gallery
100 Washington Square East, New York University
January 13, 2015–April 4, 2015

Henry Simon, Untitled (Industrial Frankenstein 1), 1932, graphite on board, 4 3/34 x 19 3/8".

This large and important exhibition, first seen at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University and including more than six dozen drawings, prints, and photographs, shows that artists of the 1930s were just as uncertain as we are of how to depict inequality and how to fight it. Instead of the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton or of Grant Wood, artists on view here, all members of the left-wing John Reed Clubs (a Communist Party organ that later founded the Partisan Review) favored bold, often indignant imagery that veered in some cases to agitprop, in others to bizarre mysticism. Naming your enemies is easy. But how do you portray them, and for that matter, yourself?

In a charcoal drawing by Henry Simon from 1933, done with bold chiaroscuro and off-kilter perspective, a worker atop a skyscraper looks out triumphantly on the lights of Chicago, and yet at the edge of the composition hover the familiar spirals of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. That tension between the utopian abstraction of Soviet Constructivism and representative, even Hollywood-style imagery pervades this show, and the battle ends with no winner. Face-offs between more expressionistic drawings of robots and factories on the one hand and frank, representational etchings of the downtrodden on the other begin to feel not like a dialectical investigation of the power of art, but the imagistic equivalent of a circular firing squad. If these artists, like their literary and political counterparts, sounded their alarms to no avail, then perhaps they can teach us today to rethink our own inability to represent the current crisis, and to seek an art that does less but lasts longer.

— Jason Farago