PRINT November 1968

New Deal Murals in New York


THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR in the development of American art during the 1930s—and for some time thereafter—was the patronage of the New Deal. A study of the four Federal art projects which operated between 1933 and 1943 reveals that they were effective in aiding both established and unknown artists during a time of economic crisis, imaginative in their support of all areas of artistic endeavor and, most significant of all, productive of some of the best art of the decade. As such, these projects constitute a major turning point in the cultural history of our nation—a turning point which can no longer be ignored by historians and critics.

American art tends to be discussed today too much in terms of European influences. Its indigenous developments are called “provincialism” and the best of these are too often seen and judged exclusively in terms of foreign achievements rather than as the expressions of sensitive personalities reacting and creating within all the varied dimensions of their experience—which, in our day, automatically include the traditions and innovations of the rest of the world. The New Deal art projects have been forgotten or ignored, and what they achieved in art and cultural awareness has for too long been disparaged by the uninformed. The reasons for this are understandable. Perceived in terms of a decade which began with Depression and ended with war, and considered eclipsed by the brilliant flowering of American abstract art in succeeding years, the projects appear irrelevant to today’s styles and interests. Yet understanding the realities of the present demands comprehension of their causes in the immediate past—demands awareness of the continuity and unity of artistic experience in this country. This is especially important when the same artists—and art critics—who began their careers in the thirties are now acknowledged the “seminal” leaders of American art.

It is therefore a fact which cannot be avoided that the major post-war art movements received their initial impetus not solely from the influx of European abstract and Surrealist artists around 1940 but also from the spirit of purposeful artistic rejuvenation engendered in this country by the results of the market crash of 1929 and the policies of the New Deal.

It is, therefore, the purpose of this article to present, in many cases for the first time, visual and documentary evidence illustrative of the art produced by the New Deal projects and to describe, where possible, the physical and esthetic conditions under which it was created. The mural. has been selected as the best medium for this purpose since it most fully embodies the artistic goals of the period. Considering the enormous geographic scope of the projects, New York City and State has been chosen as the most concentrated microcosm of the New Deal projects’ national achievements.


FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE and activist thirties, the mural was a public medium. The goal of an “art for the people“ was a meaningful esthetic impetus. Holger Cahill, the National Director of the WPA Federal Art Project, expressed this attitude in the introduction to the catalog of New Horizons In American Art, a major exhibition of WPA art held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1936:

Mural painting is not a studio art; by its very nature it is social. In its great periods it has always been associated with the expression of social meanings, the experience, history, ideas, and beliefs of a community. There is no question that the work here presented clearly indicates an orientation in this direction.

. . . In every section of the country there are waiting lists for Federal Art Project murals. It is not too much to say that this work, as it develops, gives promise of a truly monumental art which will express with honesty, clarity, and power the experience and ideas of American communities.2

Indeed, the beginning of New Deal support for the visual arts can be traced to the desire to establish in this country a program of mural painting similar to that initiated in the twenties in Mexico. The painter, George Biddle, a close friend of President Roosevelt, wrote the following to him in May, 1933:

There is a matter which I have long considered and which some day might interest your administration. Mexican artists have produced the greatest national school of mural painting since the Italian Renaissance. Diego Rivera tells me that it was only possible because Obregon allowed Mexican artists to work at plumber’s wages in order to express on the walls of government buildings the social ideals of the Mexican Revolution. The younger artists of America are conscious as they never have been of the social revolution that our country and civilization are going through and they would be very eager to express these ideals in a permanent art form if they were given the government’s cooperation. They would be contributing to, and expressing in living monuments the social ideals that you are struggling to achieve. I am convinced that our mural art, with a little impetus, can soon result for the first time in our history in a vital and national expression.3

The precedent of the Mexican mural revolution was made tangible in this country beginning in 1930. In that year José Clemente Orozco painted a series of murals at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He painted other murals at Pomona and Dartmouth Colleges. During this same period Diego Rivera did murals in San Francisco and Detroit and caused a storm in New York City when his mural at Rockefeller Center was destroyed because it contained a portrait of Lenin. The publicity surrounding the Mexicans’ mural activities helped American artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson to capture the attention of the public. As a result artists all over the country began to yearn to paint murals. The Federal projects supplied the needed opportunities—and walls.

Nearly three thousand American artists produced over four thousand murals on the four New Deal projects between 1933 and 1943.4 Of all the murals conceived and executed on these projects, the greatest concentration of activity was to be found in New York City and State. While it is difficult to determine the exact number of murals executed in New York, it is safe to say it was close to four hundred. Of these, many have been destroyed and some are of inferior quality. But a surprising number are good, some great, and all are worthy of investigation as products of their times.

The Depression had struck hardest at the American artist. His usual sources of income were destroyed and the market for what he could produce disappeared. As a result, he was forced to take whatever employment he could find or to go on the “dole.” The first option diminished his creative skills; the second, his self-esteem.

In order to help the unemployed artist out of this dilemma, the government set up, between 1933 and 1943, four separate art projects. It is important to distinguish between them and not to lump them all together under the term “WPA.” As with all government agencies, their administrative policies and the taste and ideals of their National Directors in many ways determined the nature and quality of the art they produced. Each project, in its own way, had a “style.” Each played an important role in the cultural life of the country. Each must be understood as a separate entity.

Two of these projects operated under the Treasury Department which, at that time, had responsibility for the embellishment of public buildings. The first of these was the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP, December 1933 to June 1934). The second was the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (Section, October 1934 to June 1943). Both were directed by Edward Bruce.

The PWAP was organized to help unemployed artists through the winter of 1933–34. Its funds were supplied by Harry Hopkins’ Civil Works Administration and its tenure was the shortest of all the New Deal projects.

In New York the PWAP employed some 800 artists and its final report indicates they produced 392 mural designs. Few of these were executed, however. Most were carried over to the art project sustained in New York City by the College Art Association with funds from the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration between June 1934 and August 1935, at which time a good number formed the earliest murals painted on the WPA Federal Art Project.5

The PWAP nevertheless was the first of the federally sponsored art-relief programs and it succeeded both in its short-term purpose and as a pilot project for the feasibility of such emergency art patronage. It demonstrated, however, the basic incompatibility between the government’s desire to obtain professional works of art for itself and the government’s equally strong commitment to assist the indigent artist, whatever his ability. This resulted in the creation of two separate Federal projects which were to dominate government support for the visual arts in the thirties.

The first of these, and the second of the Treasury Department’s projects, was the Section. Funded by 1% of the appropriations for new government buildings, its primary objective was the acquisition of the best art by the best artists for Federal institutions. By means of a series of fair and financially rewarding local and national competitions, it succeeded in the years between 1934 and 1943 in sponsoring some 1,116 murals. Sixty-eight of these were painted in New York City and State. Equally important, close to 240 New York artists won commissions to paint Section murals elsewhere in the country.

The problem of work-relief for the indigent artist, designed both to supply a decent wage and to preserve creative skills, was taken up by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP, August 1935 to April 1943). The WPA/FAP sponsored some 2,500 murals throughout the nation. Of these, over 200 were painted in New York. Indeed, the impact on New York City can be judged from the following statement in a report of the Municipal Art Commission:

During the four years covered by this report (1934-1937), there has been a notable increase in the number of murals submitted for public buildings. The Art Commission’s Catalogue of the Works of Art Belonging to The City of New York, issued in 1909, listed eighteen murals in public buildings, of which thirteen were in the Appellate Court. The supplementary catalogue, issued in 1920, listed only seven additional murals. In the period from 1920 through 1933 forty-eight mural submissions were approved. Most of these were in public schools . . . It should be stated also that the Commission felt it necessary during these fourteen years (1920–1933) to disapprove many projects submitted. It is to be noted that funds were rarely supplied from the City treasury for these decorations.

What is now known as the Federal Art Project started late in 1933 as the Public Works of Art Project, to aid unemployed artists. Federal funds have continued to be allocated for this purpose and recently have been applied for the most part to mural decorations. As a result 241 murals have been submitted to the Commission during the four years covered by this report. Many of the earlier submissions were disapproved, but a greater degree of care on the part of project officials, the artists’ added experience, and the encouragement and constructive criticism of the painter members of the Commission, have caused a very marked improvement in quality, so that of late the Commission has rarely found it necessary to disapprove designs, although it has often suggested radical changes.

These have been busy years, indeed, especially for the painter and architect members of the Commission.6

The fourth of the New Deal art projects was the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP, July 1935 to about June 1939). It operated under both the Section, which supervised its creative activities, and the WPA/FAP, which provided its funds and supplied many assistant artists and technicians. Its murals were painted primarily for government buildings which already existed or whose budgets did not permit the usual 1% appropriation for embellishment. The TRAP painted 78 murals throughout the country, 17 of which were painted in New York.

With this brief background,7 I shall turn now to a discussion of the history and present condition of a selection of New York murals created by the three projects most active in this field: the Section, the WPA/FAP, and the TRAP.


ONE OF THE MOST IMPRESSIVE mural cycles executed under the Section in New York City was that by Kindred McLeary (1901–c.1953)9 for the Madison Square Post Office. McLeary won the commission in 1937 and finished the cycle of eight panels (covering 770 sq. ft.) in 1939. He received $7,900 for the work, from which he paid all expenses. His experience was typical of artists dealing with the Section and it is instructive to trace its history.

The contract, dated June 11, 1937, between the artist and the Section stipulated that “the subject matter and the materials to be used . . . shall be determined by the Director” of the Section. The work was to proceed first with preliminary designs consisting of sketches and 2-inch-to-the-foot color designs, and then full-size cartoons. Each step was to be approved by the Section. The artist was also required to supply photographs of the cycle, one set when the mural was half finished on the wall, the other when complete. His fees were paid in stages: $2,000 for the preliminary designs, $1,500 for the cartoons, $2,000 when the mural was half completed, and $2,400 when it was fully installed. Payment was in all cases contingent on the approval of the work by the Section. Under this system great emphasis was placed on the preliminary designs—since from the Section’s point of view that was the most convenient stage at which changes could be made.

It was agreed that the subject matter would he typical Manhattan street scenes, and McLeary proceeded to prepare sketches depicting Park Avenue, Harlem, Greenwich Village, Broadway, Wall Street, The Lower East Side, Central Park, and Immigrant Life. These sketches were subjected to meticulous review by Edward B. Rowan, the Superintendent of the Section and the architect of the Madison Square Post Office. The consensus was that the conception as a whole was acceptable but it was sternly noted that, “While we agree that the series should contain some humor it is felt that this should not be true of all the panels . . . we prefer to have a more rounded presentation of the various elements composing New York City.”

This desire for a more serious approach was more explicitly articulated in a November, 1937, memo to Rowan by Forbes Watson, a leading art critic and advisor to the Section, strongly recommending McLeary’s work but noting:

The subject matter is eminently suitable to its location, giving in successive panels a vivid, imaginative, and highly entertaining view of the life of New York—its color, its variety, its crowdedness.

It might be advisable to discuss with the artist the dangers of exaggeration in those figures which intentionally caricature. While these figures belong definitely to the picture of New York, care should be taken to interpret them in a personal manner and with greater subtlety of characterization in order to escape any semblance of comic strip art.

The artist was sent this memo and told to proceed with his color sketches. These were ready in the spring of 1938 and the artist agreed to come to Washington to discuss them with the staff of the Section. Before doing so, however, he wrote the following to Rowan:

In executing these murals I am anxious to do the best work of which I am capable, and to this end I think it important that I give you a frank exposition of my point of view, to aid in understanding one another. Chiefly, then, I am not convinced that caricature has been carried too far in the sketches. As to my success in handling the caricature, that is another matter; but I do not feel that the designs are weakened by the mere presence of caricature. I do not wish to be so silly as to compare my work to that of Daumier and Forain, which it does not resemble; but in regard to the general question of caricature, I feel that the work of these two masters owes much of its pungency and strength to the presence of this element. Nor does the work of these men lack austerity and grandeur, despite (if you like) the presence of caricature. Many mural painters are impressed with so exaggerated a respect for the seriousness of their mission that their work becomes insipid. There is a sentimental quality in much American mural painting . . . which I regard as very unfortunate, and I should regret very much being required to force myself into identity with it. In observing the human race, I find that the caricatures to be seen walking about are much in the majority, and to suppress caricature in one’s work is, I feel, to depart from the truth . . . In the first discussions of these murals . . . it was agreed that there should be humor in them. They should not look like the funny papers but they should not be devoid of humor . .. I shall come to the conference eager for all the constructive criticism that I can get . . . I hope I shall not be instructed to draw photographically or sentimentally, and I don’t believe I shall.

On May 31, Rowan wrote to McLeary to sum up the meeting, which had gone well, and to provide three pages of notes concerning drawing, color, and general composition. Great emphasis was placed on matching backgrounds with the wall color of the lobby. Finally the exasperated artist wrote in August, pointing up one of the basic flaws in the Section’s procedures, “The only thing I beg you to remember is that these sketches are only that, and revisions and modifications will inevitably suggest themselves when the work is seen in progress on the wall, at full scale, in its ultimate surroundings and under the lighting conditions of its own particular room.”

The preliminary designs were finally approved in October and work proceeded on the full scale cartoons. In a December, 1938, memo to the Supervising Architect of the Treasury’s Procurement Division, Rowan gives his estimate of the progress on the cartoons. In reference to the panel of the Lower East Side, he says: “In the panel dealing with the Lower East Side . . . the heavy figure on the right which was originally drawn directly from a life model which Mr. Mc-Leary encountered in this section of New York has been reduced in mass and I have his promise that it will be further so in the further progress of the work.”

By January, 1939, the designs and cartoons had progressed sufficiently to begin planning the actual painting. The artist submitted a detailed description of the technique he intended to use—lime casein on plaster walls. More haggling over details in the cartoons took place. In January, McLeary informed Rowan that the figure of the fat man at the extreme right of the Lower East Side panel had been “decreased in width by six inches. A full domed man here is necessary to the scheme of the figure composition . . . and the man at the right must not be so active as to detract from the focal point of the boy reading the letter. The fat man’s feet have been spread to lighten the mass at the bottom. Men fatter than this one abound in this district.”10

The submission of technical procedures was approved in March and the actual execution of the cycle was completed later in the year. These murals are still on the walls of the Madison Square Post Office and are in good condition.

Two other painters who survived the Section’s taste and technicalities to produce outstanding murals were Ben Shahn and Peter Blume. Ben Shahn painted an impressive mural cycle in the Bronx Central Post Office at 149th Street and Grand Concourse. This building, a typical example of the architecture of the period, was opened in May, 1937. Shahn’s cycle of murals, painted in 1939 with the assistance of his wife Bernarda Bryson, is in the main lobby of the building. Twelve of the thirteen panels depict scenes from agricultural and industrial life based on photographs which Shahn took while working for the Farm Security Administration from 1935 to 1938. Typical of the forceful monumentality of these panels is the one showing a worker drilling. The figure fills the entire space and is painted boldly in tempera on plaster. Other outstanding panels depict scenes from the textile and heavy metals industries.11 The largest panel, on the north wall, shows Walt Whitman speaking to a group of workers and their families. The poet points to an excerpt from one of his poems written on a blackboard. While perhaps the weakest of the panels compositionally, its subject matter caused an all too typical situation.

Shahn’s quotation from Whitman was found to be controversial. His original cartoon contained an excerpt which read in part “. . . to recast poems, churches, art,/(Recast maybe to discard them, end them—/Maybe their work is done—who knows) . . .” When Shahn’s cartoons were put in place on the walls for review by Post Office officials, this quotation was objected to and later vehemently denounced by a Jesuit professor at Fordham University. After some consternation in Washington, Shahn agreed to find a less controversial text. Similarly, but less seriously, when Shahn showed the brand name “Deering” on the side of a harvesting machine, he was asked to change it to some neutral term.

Today, Shahn’s murals are in very bad condition. Painted in tempera on plaster, they are peeling and considerably blackened by the lobby’s heating system. The Postmaster is aware of the value of these works and has sought to have them restored. His efforts have been stymied, however, by the possibility that the building will be torn down or put to as yet undetermined uses.

The experiences of McLeary and Shahn were not unique when dealing with the Section. They demonstrate, however, why the Section did not lead a mural revolution comparable to the Mexican one as envisioned by Biddle in his 1933 letter to Roosevelt: the Section as finally set up was too cautious. Under such conditions it is remarkable that works of the quality of McLeary’s and Shahn’s got painted at all. Sadly, such work was the exception rather than the rule.

In New York State, however, an exceptional mural was painted by Peter Blume for the Post Office at Geneva. Blume had previously painted a mural for the Section in the Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania Post Office in 1937, the same year he finished the Eternal City.12 The Geneva mural was completed in 1942 and is, therefore, among the last murals painted before the Section was liquidated the following year. The work, painted on canvas, is about 8 feet high and 12 feet long and is mounted on the east wall of the Post Office lobby. Aptly, for a region of vineyards, it depicts a spectacular grape vine growing along a wire fence. The motif of the undulous vine anticipates similar images in Blume’s later major works, such as Tasso’s Oak.

Blume’s mural is in good condition today, though the canvas needs to be re-adhered to the wall around the edges and a thorough cleaning is in order.


FOR VARIETY OF STYLE and function, the murals created under the WPA/FAP in New York City are by far the most interesting. The mural division of the New York FAP was supervised by Burgoyne Diller, an abstract artist who showed an almost fatherly concern for the artists under him and great skill at turning bureaucratic regulations and restrictions to their best advantage. One of the great advantages of the organization of the WPA/FAP was that practicing artists supervised the activities of the various divisions of the project. Thus ’the problems inherent in having well-meaning but artistically inexperienced bureaucrats controlling the technical procedures of the artists were for the most part avoided.

In New York City, where most of the murals painted were done under the sponsorship of the Municipal government in schools, hospitals, and public housing projects, the Municipal Art Commission had primary responsibility for accepting or rejecting mural projects, in conjunction with the WPA/FAP’s own screening committee and the various sponsors concerned. In general it was liberal and cooperative, and its painter-member, Ernest Peixotto, was open to new ideas and young talent. Most important, the artist was free to develop his work on his own beyond the sketch stage and was paid by the week with materials supplied rather than by a fixed fee from which he had to pay for his expenses and assistants. The result was a dynamic and productive mural division which produced a number of major murals in various styles ranging from the naturalistic to the abstract. It had a profound effect on the sensibilities and ambitions of the artists it employed—and on some it did not.14

One of the most ambitious murals done under the WPA/FAP in New York was that by Edward Laning15 for the Alien’s Dining Room on Ellis Island. Begun in November, 1935, it was completed 18 months later in May, 1937. This mural depicts “The Role of the Immigrant in the Building of America.” It covers 1,000 square feet of canvas and was painted in the artist’s own studio. The project supplied the materials and model. When the mural was finished it was approved by the project and the Commissioner of Immigration and installed by the artist in the dining room.

The mural consists of eight major episodes, each showing a phase of the immigrant’s contribution to the nation from 1850 to the present. Among these episodes, painted in a dramatic, naturalistic style, the most striking are The Covered Wagon, the Arrival of Central European Immigrants and their Destination, Pioneers Fighting Indians, Clearing the Forest and Laying the Rails for the Union Pacific, Men Sweating at Digging Coal and Making Steel.

This mural, which was seen by thousands of immigrants entering the country, is no longer visible in the closed and dilapidated buildings on Ellis Island. As soon as Congress appropriates the money for the proposed National Museum of Immigration on the island, it is probable that this mural will be destroyed. A portion is already damaged and the rest is in bad need of restoration. Since this is one of the last large WPA murals surviving, one hopes that steps will be taken to save it.

Arshile Gorky’s mural for Newark Airport met the fate which now threatens Laning’s. Consisting of ten huge panels covering over 1500 square feet of canvas, his “Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations,” completed in July, 1937, was destroyed during the war years when the Newark Airport was under military control. Gorky’s work was the largest abstract mural created on the WPA/FAP. It was painted in studios provided by the project.

Gorky’s approach is best described in his own words in an article he wrote for an unpublished anthology prepared by the WPA/FAP and titled Art for the Millions:16

A plastic operation is imperative, and that is why in the first panel of my Newark Airport mural, “Activities on the Field,” I dissected an airplane into its constituent parts. An airplane is composed of a variety of shapes and forms, and I have used such elemental forms as a rudder, a wing, a wheel, and a searchlight to create not only numerical interest but also to invent within a given wallspace plastic symbols of aviation.

These symbols are the permanent elements of airplanes that will not change with the change of design. These symbols, these forms, I have used in paralyzing disproportions in order to impress upon the spectator the miraculous new vision of our time. To add to the aggressiveness of these shapes, I have used such local colors as are to be seen on the aviation field—red, blue, yellow, black, grey, brown—because these colors were used originally to sharpen the objects so that they could be seen clearly and quickly.

In the same essay, Gorky also had some things to say about the relationship of a mural to its setting:

I am definitely opposed to the interior decorator’s taste in mural painting which seems to be that everything must “match.“ Mural painting should not become part of the wall, because the moment this occurs the painting loses its identity. In these times, it is of sociological importance that everything should stand on its own merit, always keeping its individuality. I much prefer that the mural fall out of the wall than harmonize with it.

Mural painting should not become architecture. Naturally, it has its own architecture and limits of space, but should never be confused with walls, windows, doors, or any other anatomical blueprints.17

Another important aspect of Gorky’s mural—one shared by many created under the WPA/FAP—is that it is done in oil on canvas.18 While such a technique was certainly not new to American art, it is of significance to note that over 60% of the murals painted in New York under the WPA/ FAP were on canvas.18 This was in contrast to the practices of the Section, where the nostalgic desire to emulate the Mexicans induced a partiality toward fresco and its modern variants. Indeed, an issue of some importance in the mid-thirties was the distinction between mural and easel paintings. Obviously Gorky saw little, but Frederick T. Kiesler, in an article called “Murals Without Walls,“ published in the December, 1936, issue of Art Front, discusses in trenchant terms what Gorky is doing:

. . . many of the modern paintings called mural paintings are not mural paintings but easel paintings muralized by pasting a painted canvas on the wall . . . If somebody paints a mural painting on canvas in oil paint (as in the case of Gorky) he is either revolutionary, an amateur, or one who is prevented by a vice-majeur to do what he thinks is right to do, for instance the lack of material, the lack of proper wall preparation, the shortness of time, or the necessity for a “mobile” mural painting due to short-lived building structures as a whole. It seems that this last group of factors were the ones which decided Gorky in his choice of detached canvas and oil paint for this wall decoration at the Newark Airport. Gorky tried to invent a new oil paint technique for this departure from common mural treatment . . . He uses oil paint in an outflattened, equalizing cover, paralleling in this manner the super individual objective expression of the room-enclosing surface. Large planes covered with equal coloring combined with the omission of light and shadow, and linear and atmospheric perspective, helps to bring the two-dimensionality of a wall definitely to your conscience (sic). He has thus overcome the handicaps of which I spoke . . . most valiantly.19

These handicaps Kiesler refers to are essentially the loss of that smooth wall texture created by the characteristic of buono al fresco to be sucked up by the wet plaster leaving no “bulk of paint and stroke” as in oil painting. Thus he points to a technical approach by Gorky which helps to justify the fusing of easel and mural techniques and also anticipates later developments in Gorky’s own style (his easel paintings are heavily painted at this time) and, perhaps, in certain aspects of today’s painting.

One of the largest and one of the last murals created under the WPA/FAP in New York was that by James Brooks in the International Marine Terminal Building at LaGuardia Airport (then called North Beach Airport) completed in 1942. Painted in a casein-glyptol resin emulsion technique and covering 2,820 square feet (12’ x 235’), the mural was entitled Flight and depicted the history of aviation in a skillful blending of figurative and abstract styles. This mural, like Gorky’s, was destroyed—painted out by order of the Port of New York Authority for no apparent reason, about 1955.20

In contrast to the huge murals created by Laning, Gorky, and Brooks are those by Marion Greenwood painted in fresco for the Red Hook Housing Project between March and June, 1940.21

Her fresco at the Red Hook Housing Project, which opened in December, 1939, consists of three panels on the theme “Blueprint for Living” in the lobby of the Community Center Building. The work covers an area of 325 square feet. On entering, the left panel depicts the environment of the planned community with its facilities for recreation, study, and cultural activities. The right panel shows the construction of the housing project while a horizontal panel over the doors leading into the auditorium depicts the theme of planning the future for growing youth. The style of these murals is characterized by the bold modeling of the Mexican fresco style and by a highly developed sense of the relation of the panels with the architectural situation. Today only the panel over the door survives; the two wall panels have been painted out.

Along with murals intended for permanent installation in public buildings, the WPA/FAP also produced a number of more modestly sized portable murals for schools and hospitals and for general exhibition purposes. Moses Soyer undertook such a series in about 1935-36. Employed on the mural division of the FAP as a non-relief supervising artist, he designed a series of mural panels on the theme of “Children at Play.” These were originally intended for the children’s ward at Greenpoint Hospital and were painted on about ten canvas panels covering 510 square feet. To assist him in this endeavor he was assigned Jack Friedland, Selma Bluestein, Mildred Weierich, Leonard Pytlak, Rose Kleidman and John Penney as assistants. Soyer and his assistants were given a studio in the old Roosevelt Hospital at 59th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. There his assistants painted the portable panels from his designs while he painted them. The resulting easel painting, done on his own time and not for the project, provides a rare glimpse of the atmosphere of a project studio. Penney can be seen surveying his work with arms akimbo, Pytlak is obscured at the back right and Friedland, who did much of the technical work of this project, can be seen in the right foreground sketching Soyer’s model Mary-Anne. Some of these portable panels still exist in city hospitals and are in good condition.22

A cycle of abstract murals was created in 1939 by the WPA/FAP for the studios of radio station WNYC in New York. They were painted by Stuart Davis, Byron Browne, John von Wicht and Louis Schanker. Today the Stuart Davis panel is on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the other three, including Browne’s handsome geometric abstraction, are still at the station, though in need of restoration.

Another mural panel, indicative of the range of styles acceptable to the WPA/FAP, is that by Walter Quirt for the Psychiatry Lecture Room at Bellevue Hospital. A surreal landscape populated with eerie figures, it quite handsomely, though perhaps too aptly, fitted its setting. Like most of the thirty murals painted at Bellevue by the WPA/ FAP, it has been destroyed.

Perhaps the most grandiose setting and opportunity for mural activity during the thirties in New York City was the 1939–40 World’s Fair held at Flushing Meadow in Queens. 102 murals by 32 painters were commissioned by the World’s Fair Commission to cover over 120,000 square feet of wall space. Of these, the WPA Federal Art Project created only 12 because of the proviso that works of art it created had to be permanently allocated to public buildings. These murals were divided between the Public Health Building and the WPA Community Building.

In the entrance hall of the Public Health Building, Abraham Lishinsky and Irving Block created in oil on canvas three huge panels depicting the history of medicine. Byron Browne, Ilya Bolotowsky, Louis Schanker and Balcomb Greene painted 10 by 16 foot abstract canvases for over-door panels in the exhibit halls of the building. Alexander Allard and Leo Lances created 10 by 30 foot photo-murals on the themes of “Sun, Air, and Water” and “Exercises from Farm Work to Gymnasium,” respectively.

The WPA Community Building was decorated with five murals by Eric Mose, Anton Refrigier, Seymour Fogel, Ryah Ludins and Philip Guston. Guston’s monumental, 25 by 24 foot exterior mural on the theme “Maintaining America’s Skills”—an excellent example of what can be called “WPA” style—won first prize in a competition for the best mural at the Fair.

All these murals were apparently destroyed with the termination of the Fair in 1940.


REGINALD MARSH’S DECORATION OF THE dome of Cass Gilbert’s rotunda in the New York Customs House is by far the greatest achievement of the TRAP and quite possibly one of the most comprehensive and successful mural schemes carried out under the New Deal projects.

The dome of the New York Customs House had been considered by the Section as a fit site for mural embellishment but, since it was already built, there were no funds available. In April, 1936, Edward Rowan saw an opportunity to proceed with the project through the agency of the TRAP, which received its funds from the WPA/ FAP. Olin Dows, the director of TRAP, was consulted and early in August he engaged Marsh, who had formerly painted two splendid murals in the Post Office Building in Washington for the Section, to undertake the work. Dows suggested as apt subject matter “famous poets of the world, famous explorers, or scenes of exporting and importing . . .” While the names of famous explorers were carved into the dome, Marsh had his own ideas. He wrote to Dows: “. . . I feel very very proud that the honor to paint these walls has fallen to me. It’s a man-sized job, with many problems—all those curves, etc., etc. Here is a chance to paint contemporary shipping with a rich and real power neither like the storytelling or propagandist painting which everybody does.

“I have in the past painted dozens of watercolors around N.Y. harbor, and would like to get at it with some of this knowledge.”

Marsh found that the ceiling spaces amounted to some 2,000 square feet and decided to paint them in fresco secco. He then embarked on the Section’s required sketches and full-scale cartoons. The sketches were approved in January, 1937 and the cartoons in the late spring. By June work was under way preparing the walls under the supervision of Olle Nordmark, a Swedish fresco expert. This took until September since a new coat of plaster had to be laid on to take the paint. The actual painting was done between September 18 and December 21.

While Marsh’s relations with the directors of TRAP were of the best and no serious problems arose over his designs and cartoons, a rather comic caveat from the United States Maritime Commission was received in August just before the murals were to be painted. Joseph P. Kennedy, then Chairman of the Commission, wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury complaining that “The use of foreign flag vessels in the dome of the United States Customs House appears to us obviously inconsistent with the Government’s efforts to develop and encourage patronage and support for United States flag vessels . . .” The future ambassador to the Court of St. James was particularly irked by Marsh’s rendition of the Queen Mary. He suggested that instead the artist include a new American passenger liner which had not yet been built. To their great credit, Bruce and Morgenthau ignored Kennedy’s request, and the murals proceeded as planned.

Marsh’s program consists of sixteen panels. Eight depict scenes of New York Harbor which alternate with eight grisaille portraits of great navigators determined by the names already carved in Gilbert’s dome. The largest panels measure 16’ by 5’6” in height. The grisaille panels are 2’6” by 5’ in height.

Marsh was employed by TRAP as a master artist at about $30.00 a week, although at the end he was forced to work for nothing to finish the mural. He engaged from the WPA rolls Oliver M. Baker, Xavier J. Barile, Charles Bateman, Mary Fife (Mrs. Edward Laning), Lloyd Lozes Goff, John H. Poehler, Erica Volsung and Ludwig Mactarian as mural assistants and four laborers. These persons helped him to paint the curved panels of the huge dome from a fifty-foot movable scaffold, built by the WPA/FAP carpentry shop.

Today Marsh’s murals are in good condition, though there is some uncertainty as to their fate now that the Customs House offices will be moving to New York’s World Trade Center.


IT IS HOPED THIS ARTICLE has succeeded within its modest visual and narrative scope to present the range of mural art sponsored by the New Deal projects in New York and to demonstrate, in the face of the tendency to disparage such art already mentioned, that much of interest and quality was achieved under government patronage during the thirties.

In closing, three things must be stressed. First, these murals constitute a small fraction of the total production of the New Deal projects throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of easel paintings and fine prints were created, tens of thousands of sculptures, over 20,000 Index of American Design plates, and innumerable posters, photographs, and objects of craft. Much of this vast output is of esthetic interest; all of it, good and bad, constitutes a visual record of one of the most turbulent periods in our history—and as such is a document which cannot be ignored.

Second, this visual document of the thirties is constantly being eroded by time and human neglect—as I hope to have demonstrated in discussing the condition or loss of the murals presented here. It is time for students of American art all over this nation to begin studying the activities of the New Deal projects in their regions and, where necessary, to take steps to save what is threatened and to find, where possible, what is lost.

Finally, it is time for historians and critics of American art to come to terms with the art of the New Deal projects, to learn to distinguish between the government agencies involved, to discuss the art those agencies sponsored in the context of its antecedents and progeny, and to recognize how the brilliant events of the forties and thereafter are more deeply rooted in the American than in the European past.

Mr. O’Connor has just completed a year-long study of the cultural and economic effectiveness of the New Deal art projects in New York City and State under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The results of his study and a handbook of research sources and methods he has prepared to help scholars utilize the documentation in this field more easily will soon be available.



1. I have relied for the most part on the following works: Belisario R. Contreras, “Treasury Art Programs, The New Deal and the American Artist,” Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation (American University, 1967); Olin Dows, “The New Deal’s Treasury Art Program: A Memoir,” Arts in Society, Vol. 2, no. 4 (n.d.), 51–88; William F. MacDonald, “Federal Relief Administration and the Arts: A Study of the Works Progress Administration,” Unpublished manuscript (New York, 1949); and Erica Beckh Rubenstein, “Tax Payer’s Murals,” Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation (Harvard, 1944).

2. Pp. 32, 33.

3. George Biddle, An American Artist’s Story (Boston, 1939), p. 268.

4. Rubenstein, op.cit., p. 7.

5. The College Art Association earlier sponsored a mural project from December, 1932 to June 1934 under the auspices of the privately funded Gibson Committee. This was directed by Audrey McMahon and Frances Pollak with Harry Knight working as liaison between the Association and the Committee. Cf., Audrey McMahon, “May the Artist Live,” Parnassus, Vol. 5, no. 5 (October, 1933), p. 2. The CAA’s program of art-relief between 1932 and 1935 served as one of the models for the national WPA Federal Art Project.

6. Condensed Report of the Art Commission of the City of New York. For the Years 1930–1937 (New York, 1938), pp. 91–3.

7. For a more detailed history and chronology of the New Deal projects see my Federal Art Patronage: 1933 to 1943 (University of Maryland Art Gallery, 1966), pp. 1–40.

8. The information in this section is drawn from the files of the Treasury Section preserved in Record Group 121 (Public Buildings Service) at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

9. Of all the artists discussed in this article, Kindred McLeary is probably the most obscure. He was born December 3, 1901 in Weimar, Texas and studied architecture at the University of Texas. For many years he taught at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburg. He died about 1953. His other Section murals were painted in Pittsburg in 1937, South Norwalk, Connecticut in 1941 and at the War Department in Washington in 1942. The latter works, depicting warfare, have been diplomatically covered for years in what is now the old State Department Building. The color sketches for these War Department murals are in the collection of the University of Maryland.

10. McLeary’s color sketch for the Lower East Side panel, which is in the collection of the University of Maryland, is illustrated in my Federal Art Patronage, op. cit., Figure 14, p. 24.

11. Cf., James Thrall Soby, Ben Shahn: Paintings (New York, 1963) for illustrations of other panels in this mural cycle. Shahn’s models for the two long walls of the lobby are in the collection of the University of Maryland.

12. The color study for Blume’s Cannonsburg mural, in the collection of the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., is illustrated in my Federal Art Patronage, op. cit., Figure 9, p. 19.

13. The information in this section is drawn from the files and reports of the WPA/FAP preserved in Record Group 69 (Records of the Works Progress Administration) at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

14. It should be noted that among the “Abstract Expressionists” who were on the projects, artists such as Brooks, Gorky and Guston, who painted huge murals, created works of relatively modest scale after 1943 whereas an artist like Pollock, who did easel works on the project turned to vast surfaces later. I think there is striking evidence that the mural-oriented atmosphere of the thirties impelled him later to paint big. Indeed, his first huge canvas was the Mural painted in 1943 for Peggy Guggenheim—the same year he left the WPA/FAP. Cf. my “The Genesis of Jackson Pollock: 1912 to 1943,” Artforum (May, 19671, p. 18, and Pollock’s statement about painting big in my Jackson Pollock (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1957), p. 81.

15. Laning worked for both the WPA/FAP and the Section. For the WPA/FAP he executed the murals in the third floor lobby of the New York Public Library in 1940. For the Section he executed two commissions: at Rockingham, N.C. in 1937 and Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1942.

16. Gorky’s unpublished essay, along with about eighty others written for Art For the Millions by WPA/FAP artists and administrators has been uncovered by the research project I directed with the generous assistance of Mrs. Holger Cahill.

These essays constitute one of the most important sources of first-hand insight into the activities and attitudes of the nationwide WPA/FAP. I hope to edit and publish them in due course.

17. This essay for Art for the Millions differs substantially from that published in Harold Rosenberg, Arshile Gorky (New York, 1962), pp. 130–32. I believe it is an earlier and more personal account by Gorky of his Newark project. It does not contain, for instance, the paragraph relating abstract form with the view of the earth seen from an airplane which Rosenberg discusses on pp. 90–91. Cf. also Ethel Schwabacher, Arshile Gorky (New York, 1957), pp. 70–80. passim. The missing wall of the model of Gorky’s Newark Airport cycle illustrated here is reproduced in Schwabacher on p. 74.

18. An analysis of the first 93 mural projects undertaken by the New York City WPA/FAP shows that 58 were to be painted on canvas; 26 on panels or directly on walls in oil or tempera; 6 in traditional fresco and 3 in miscellaneous media such as stained glass.

19. Vol. 2, no 11, p. 10.

20. Cf. Sam Hunter, James Brooks (New York, 1963), pp. 8-10. Brooks’ other WPA/FAP mural in New York was for the Woodside, L.I. library. It was destroyed in about 1963.

21. Miss Grenwood studied the fresco technique with Orozco and Rivera in Mexico in 1932 and thereafter through 1936 executed a series of frescoes for the Mexican government at the University of San Nicholas Hidalgo and the Rodriguez Civic Center in Mexico City. After completing her work in Mexico, she returned to the U.S. In 1938 she completed a mural under the TRAP for the Westfield Acres Housing Development in Camden, New Jersey. This work was done in oil on canvas and covered 600 square feet. Early in 1940 she completed a mural for the Section at Crossville, Tenn.

22. Moses Soyer to Author, letter, April, 1968.

23. The information in this section is drawn from the files of the Treasury Relief Art Project preserved in Record Group 121 iPublic Buildings Service) at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Cf. also, Dows, op. cit., p. 23 and Michael Stramiello, Jr. The Customs House, New York (New York, mimeographed pamphlet, 1968) which contains useful information concerning Marsh’s murals and the other works of art in this historic building. It was brought to my attention by Mr. Frank J. O’Connor.