PRINT November 1963

Emblems of Sorrow: The WPA Art Project in San Francisco

THE CITY OF SAN FRANCISCO, like many in the United States, is dotted with art works of one kind or another done under government sponsorship during the PWA and WPA days—the Coit Tower murals, Aquatic Park, Bufano’s statue of Sun Vat-Sen, the Beach Chalet, the Women’s Lounge at the Zoo and various murals and sculptures around at high schools, post offices and other public buildings.

The architect, Bernard Maybeck, speaking of his famous, decayed (but now to be restored), Palace of Fine Arts which was said to have been inspired by Brocklin’s painting “The Island of the Dead,” called it an “Emblem of Sorrow.” He spoke of his artistic intent. The WPA works, fruit of the terrible depression of the thirties, are reminders of a sorrowful period in American history, our most awful economic disaster (so far), a grim time and yet one from which emerged some remarkable ideas and some surprisingly good, especially considering the changes of taste and fashion, works of art. As one WPA artist put it, “Considering the amount the government spent, they sure got their money’s worth.”

The artists of San Francisco got into the act early. According to the Federal Writers Project Guide to San Francisco, “During the depression the earliest large government supported mural job, the decoration of Coit Tower, undertaken by the Civil Works Administration in 1933, was a co-operative endeavor involving a number of San Francisco’s best known artists, including Ralph Stackpole, Bernard Zakheim, Lucien Labaudt, Victor Arnautoff, Otis Oldfield, Rinaldo Cuneo, John Langley Howard, William Hesthal, Jane Berlandina, Ray Boynton and Maxine Albro. The murals, which show principally the influence of Diego Rivera, are as a whole distinguished by a high level of craftsmanship.”

Whoever wrote that in 1940 was being a diffident art critic but as with anyone who admires craftsmanship to avoid an esthetic judgment, his dislike shows through. He is right about Rivera, of course, and looking at the paintings today, it seems unfortunate that Orozco didn’t come to San Francisco too. His presence and a closer knowledge of his style might have injected some passion into the murals.

As they stand, however, they are fascinating historical documents that represent an attitude of mind as contradictory as it is interesting. Looking at the paintings of these bland-faced, plump bodied people, busily, and seemingly happily, planting, picking and drying the products of this agricultural state, filling the cans on the cannery lines, or heroically glorified as farmers, cowboys, engineers and industrial workers, one would never for a moment suspect that they were painted at the time of the bitter cannery strikes of the Central Valley when tear gas and clubs were accepted weapons for the police, or that two men had been killed during the water front strike in San Francisco that same year. It is difficult to believe that work was actually stopped on the paintings by the police as a result of a campaign of vilification by the San Francisco Examiner whose editors objected to a symbol incorporated into his mural by Victor Arnautoff.

That this message of social harmony was not the intent of some of the painters, at least, is obvious. In Zakheim’s mural of the library the young worker is reaching for a copy of “Das Kapital,” the names of Left Wing writers are prominent on the books and in some of the other paintings the “Western Worker” and the “Masses” are carefully and clearly spelled out on the news racks. Perhaps the clue to the dream is in a painting of newspapers around one of the windows where a headline of the San Francisco Chronicle dated April 1934 reads “Artists Finish Coit Tower Murals,” another “Artists Work in Harmony” and a third, just the name, big and clear, “Roosevelt.” It was a peculiar period of optimism in the middle of disaster and the artists, like a lot of other people, weren’t observing and reporting what was around them, although many of them probably thought they were “Realists,” but were painting about the big golden dream of the happy resurrected America that the hypnotic voice was selling in the Fireside Chats with such charm and elegance and energy.

This optimism is beautifully pictured in these murals, done in a way that words could never capture so directly or clearly, and this is where their value lies. They are obviously true to the dream of that period and it is important that not just the reality of a time be recorded, (as in the painted menu reading “Lunch 25c, Soup 5c, Chile 15c”), but that the hopes and aspirations be remembered as well.

The Aquatic Park building is quite another kettle of fish. Here, in the modernistic architecture, in Hilaire Hiler’s “Psychological Color Chart,” in “Dr. Ostwald’s Color Solid” and the “Cross Section of Ostwald’s Color Solid” painted by C. Nunemaker in 1940, one encounters the interests and preoccupations of the “far out” artists of the period, as revealing in their way as the work of the Social Realists at Coit Tower. Whoever wrote the art section of the WPA Guide to San Francisco liked this much better and described it was enthusiasm, saying,

“The triple-decked white concrete Casino (Wm. Mooser, Sr. and Wm. Mooser, Jr., Architects), resembles a streamlined battleship riding at anchor. Spectator’s galleries facing seaward flank its convex ends. Its main entrance on Polk Street, a broad modern doorway and heavy lintel of greenish-gray slate, is the work of Sargent Johnson; the design and incised sculpture of conventionalized marine subjects are modern in conception. Decorating the 100 foot long main lounge are large murals by Hilaire Hiler depicting undersea flora and fauna. Mr. Hiler’s use of brilliant shades of violet, blue, vermilion, orange, rose and gold against a sober blue-green background has produced a beautifully luminous effect."

The fish still look good even though the murals, painted on canvas and then applied to the walls, are badly in need of repair and attention. Water has leaked in around the windows and they are shredding away from the surface. The Mermen and maids resemble the designs from movie houses of the period but the fish, some with the skeletons painted on the outside of their bodies, silver over red, are still bright and exciting. The “battleship riding at anchor” building reminds one of Los Angeles in the old days with soft drink stands like huge oranges or airplanes or 35 ice cream cones and could have had a kind of vulgar, Pop Art appeal if it had not been understated and restrained. Instead, it has the “juke box modern” look of a lot of Mexican architecture.

One of the pleasantest places done under the WPA is the Beach Chalet, across from the Pacific, where one can drink beer and look at Lucien Labaudt’s murals. Here again one sees the heavy-bodied pastel colored people but they are sitting around at picnics or in the park or are taking photos of each other, with the exception of young Harry Bridges, who is wheeling a handtruck on the docks. According to the bartender, who “keeps up because so many people ask me questions,” most of them are portraits of people Labaudt had known and Marcelle, his wife, is there on the beach in a blue bathing suit. Quotations from the work of early San Francisco literary people are above the doors—George Sterling, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Ina Coolbrith—the railing by the stairs is ornately carved in a pale wood, a Mosaic Indian points the way to the Men’s and there are more mosaics half-hidden behind the bar’s bottles.

These are only a few of the buildings around the San Francisco area decorated by WPA artists; there are many more—Treasure Island, the Jewish Community Center, old San Francisco State College, the Alameda Court House, the old art gallery on the UC campus in Berkeley, buildings on Government Island in Alameda and so forth. Nor does this list include the great amount of work done on the easel project, the watercolor project, the lithography project, the silk screen project and others. The WPA artists left their mark on the area in a big way.

Glenn Wessels of the UC Art Department, who was a supervisor on the project, was probably right when he wrote, “As far as I know the artists gave the public much more value than they received from relief pay. I saw no boondoggling on the WPA Federal Art Project. It was a great thing that succeeded, at least around here.”

From the point of view of the artists, however, the situation was, inevitably, much more complicated. David Slivka, who worked on several sculpture projects around the Bay Area, said, “As McChesney, who was on the Treasure Island project, can tell you, they were sometimes wonderful but also painful years.” Why painful?

Many of the artists felt that the relief qualification was an unfortunate idea, even though some 25% of the artists were non-relief workers who were on what were called sustaining projects. There seemed to be no class distinction set up between the relief and non-relief people, which is to the credit of the artists.

“Remembering now, how typical it was of the time, for all the artists to have painted, drawn or carved their friends into their works. Of the four characters depicted in the relief, the only one who was a bonafide pastaI worker was the seventy year old guy on the right side, whom I drew at the post office. The others, reading from the left, were my older brother, Alex Slivka; the fellow in the background was my assistant for a while. The fourth character, stooping in the center foreground reading a mail bag tag, is Ralph Stackpole, who had been my teacher. If you were to look carefully at the lettering on the package the man at the scale is holding, you would see an early example of my wit and political zeal at the time. I don’t remember in the addressing whom I decided the package was coming from but it was addressed to:
Allman Kind
Truth Abode
On Freedom”

Their objection seems to be rather that some people who could have made large contributions were excluded because of the relief ruling and that others, Nho had little to give, became a burden. The exclusion of valuable talent was more important than the inclusion of a few dead beats. (Even these were unique: Tex Jones did pornographic plaster work of so lively and vulgar a nature that if he were still working and they were toned down just slightly (not the gorgeous pink color he painted them but the forms) he would be welcomed in several New York galleries at this time.)

Another criticism of the project by the artists was that much of the administrative personnel was poor. Second rate artists, more ambitious for position than they were concerned with artistic values, gained power and made many regrettable decisions. Reuben Kadish, now a New York sculpt or, who did a mural at the old San Francisco State College, spoke of this with some bitterness when he wrote: “In principle, I am opposed to government sponsorship of painting and sculpture. In almost every case—Germany, Russia, Italy and the USA—it has produced poor official art. Maybe because the power seekers anxious to run such projects are boobs or anxious to give in to mediocre attitudes to keep in power and jobs. Of course, the history of Florence and Athens puts this in another light. When you have a degree of culture in the person in government with power and give the public what is good, you get great art but if you give the public what they think the public wants—well, you know. I suppose I should feel consoled that in my career as a WPA artist I did 26 designs of which only one was approved and executed. And for what it is, I feel proud to have done it.”

On the other hand, one WPA painter said, “The working artists never want those administrative jobs anyway,” a remark borne out to a degree by the statement of a serious Bay Area painter who did become a project supervisor and who wrote rather sadly, “I did little work of my own—was busy supervising the technical side of architectural projects and getting mural jobs for the artists—full time managing thing s so artists could work.”

This problem of how to run so complicated an endeavor as an Art Project and to find administrators more knowledgeable and far-sighted is a difficult one. One possibility would have been to give the working artists on the project more power in the decisions about what was to be executed, rather than having them submit designs which were ruled “in” or “out” by non-artist administrators. There is a chance that because of the natural heretical role of the artist, they might have taken bigger chances, been more daring and might have come up with decisions that would better please us 25 years later than some of the more conservative ones that were made.

Regarding the artists’ criticism of the project, probably the most serious charge they have to make, and certainly the most painful one, concerns the destruction of so much of their work done under the WPA. Looking back on those days, this seems a bit incredible but it did happen. In New York Gorky’s mural was destroyed and early de Koonings, Klines, and many others disappeared. In the Bay Area, this is still a guilt-surrounded and hushed subject, as the destruction of culture usually is. Charlie Safford, a San Francisco painter who did book illustrations on the Writer’s Project, told the amazing story of an accidental encounter a few years ago with one of the Bay Area Project heads, who, in Safford’s unexpected presence, immediately introduced the subject himself, to apologize and explain how they had been given no other choice but to take the paintings out to the dump and to burn them in the middle of the night. Safford was amazed because although rumors to this effect had abounded, it had never been admitted before.*

The rumor of the burning, however, may be simply that—a rumor. As John Saccaro, who was on the watercolor project, in answering the question, “Where is the work?” wrote: “I can’t say about the oils, but about the watercolors, when the war came along the project died a quick, natural death, (naturally, sic!) and the water colors were stored for some years and then gathered and sold in New York to a scrap paper dealer, Arches, Fabriano, Whatman. This guy had the wit to save several tons of these papers and when Kline, de Kooning, and Pollock became famous he went through his piles and voila! the rejected watercolors had become thousand dollar bills. Neat?”

And Joseph Allen, who was one of the heads of the project in San Francisco, said that they had mainly silk screen and other prints left, only a few paintings, and that these were shipped to an address in Chicago. What happened after that he did not know.

In spite of all this, the majority of the artists had positive attitudes towards the project and Dong Kingman, apparently undiscouraged by the disappearance of his own work wrote, “The WPA art project was one of the greatest things that happened to give an opportunity for an artist to work and develop his art.” And David Slivka, despite the painful moments, concluded, “Most important of all it helped me and other young artists launch into a career of art at a time when the likelihood of working full time as an artist would have otherwise been rather remote. The positive values would still outweigh the negative values, in terms of the art produced.” And George Post wrote, “I do think it was a fine thing at that time, when any kind of a job, least of all art, was pretty hard to come by. It gave many a good artist his first start.” John Langley Howard, now in New York, who was on t he Monterey lithography project, wrote, “It was very good for the development of U.S. art, artists and art appreciation by the public.”

There are others who don’t agree and who made statements like, “Once is enough” and “I was not one of the most involved and with what I was, I prefer to forget. There is no record to my knowledge.” They are a small minority and usually when artists get together and talk about the WPA days, the enthusiasm runs high. Painful or not and with all their criticism, most of them liked it and still think well of what they accomplished.

Holger Cahill, National Director of the Federal Art Project, wrote in 1936: “When the long view of American art is taken it becomes clear that the American artist has rarely had a full and free relationship with a public or with his own time. The cleavage has become increasingly apparent under the stress of social and economic uncertainties which have faced the American artist sharply since the middle of the 19th century, and which have faced him with tragic immediacy in recent years . . . There is a theory t hat art always somehow takes care of itself, as if it were a rootless plant feeding upon itself in sequestered places. Many people are willing to believe, in a time like this, when art patronage has dwindled to infinitesimal proportions, that it is not necessary for organized society to do anything in particular, because no matter what happens, a few artists starving in garrets will see to it that art does not die. It is quite obvious that this theory will not hold.”

So they tried it another way and the work is there for t he record. Shirley Staschen Triest, who was on the project for seven years, wrote, “My comment on the WPA art projects is that they never should have been stopped.”

Mary Fuller



Some of the artists who worked at one time or another on various art projects (WPA, PWA, TRAP, etc.) were: William Abbenseth, Joe Adams, Maja Albee, Maxine Albro, Barbara Almstead, Victor Arnautoff, Dick Ayer, Mathew Barnes, Karl Bauman, Jane Berlandina, Ray Bertrand, Arnold Bray, Helen Bruton, Ray Boynton, Beniamino Butane, Primo Cardio, Alden Clark, Bob Clark, Dorothy Collins, Dorothy Cravath, Rinaldo Cuneo, Ben Cunningham, Imogene Cunningham, Mary Dakin, Joe Danysh, Hebe Daum, Mallette Dean, Jose Moya Del Pino, Victor De Wilde, Harry Dixon, James Budd Dixon, Marguarite Dorgeloh, Farrell Dyer, Percy Freer, George Gaethke, William Gaskin, William Gaw, August Gay, Luke Gibney, Elwood Graham, Ed Hagedorn, John Haley, Edith Hamlin, George Harris, Tom Hayes, Walter Heil, Ed Herron, William Hesthal, Hilaire Hiler, Hy Hirsch, Larry Holmberg, John Langley Howard, Sargent Johnson, Reuben Kadish, Gregory Kangoony, Dong Kingman, David Kittridge, Lucien Labaudt, Gordon Langdon, Peter Lowe, John Magnani, Robert McChesney, Tom Mead, Ann Medalie, Andre Moreau, Jack Moxom, Urban Neininger, Alexander Nepote, Otis Oldfield, Ric Olmsted, Ann Rice O’Hanlon, Richard O’Hanlon, Julius Palmer, Theodore Polos, George Post, Raymond Puccinelli, Jose Ramis, Julia Rogers, Beatrice Judd Ryan, John Saccaro, Charles Safford, Zygmund Sazevich, Suzanne Schuer, Louis Siegriest, Marion Simpson, David Slivka, Angelo Sottosanti, Clay Spohn, Albert Spratt, Barbara Stevenson, Thelma Johnson Street, Charles Surrenderf, Florence Swift, Ralph Stackpole, Claiborne Tatum, Edgar Taylor, Shirley Staschen Triest, Fred Vidar, Pauline Vinson, Herman Volz, Michael Von Meyer, Glenn Wessels, Fred Wiley, Carleton Williams, Julian Williams, Beckford Young, Bernard Zakheim, Phyllis Wrightson Zakheim.

*Nor was it to me. One of the last three people to close down the San Francisco ease l project was remarkably evasive, saying, “We held exhibitions and tried to give the paintings from the project to schools and public buildings. We were allowed to lease them for 99 years for five dollars and some of them are still around in the veterans hospitals, the post offices and other places.” “What about the ones that weren’t taken? Were they really burned?” I asked. “I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “They were Federal property and I didn’t have anything to do with any decisions about their final disposal.” “But you said you closed down the project,” I protested. “You must know something about what happened to them.” “Well, they were there one day and then the next, they weren’t.” Then he added, “Some of those Dong Kingman’s would be worth quite a bit of money these days.”