Los Angeles

“WPA Alumni Exhibition”

Scripps and Pomona Colleges

When the Museum of Modern Art swung open its doors for the first time in 1936, the initial exhibition was a salute to the Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. It was titled “New Horizons in American Art” and was gathered under the direction of Dorothy Miller of the Museum staff. Nearly thirty years have passed and the MOMA has once again assembled an exhibition on the same theme under the same able direction and sent it on tour of the U.S. The extensive display, shown in Southern California in two separate galleries at Scripps and Pomona College in. Claremont, offered an excellent opportunity to re-evaluate the greatest program of art patronage ever attempted by a government—a patronage that was eventually greatly responsible for development of the U.S. as the world’s new art center.

The original WPA project (1935-43) offered support to as many as 5,300 artists including some of the most prominent names on the contemporary scene. The 1936 selection was far more inclusive, of course, and the twenty-seven or so artists chosen for the current exhibit are represented because of their present stature. Each is exemplified by two pieces, one produced either for the WPA or while employed by the federal government, and another of a much more recent date. This arrangement makes for an important and memorable show. Not only are we able to trace roots of contemporary movements thirty years into the past but we are reminded that the project’s success was primarily due to the premise initiated by its director, Holger Cahill, that whatever an American artist painted would be American art. The project, designed to bring financial assistance to hundreds of unemployed artists during the depression, was constantly under fire by both academicians and moderns as well as political parties but in spite of these trials and tribulations the program flourished under Cahill’s supervision, bringing financial and spiritual encouragement to many artists actively practicing today who might have left the profession through poverty and disappointment.

The art produced by the WPA was of far less value than the effects the program had on the development of indigenous American art movements. All artists included in this show figured prominently in this development, though not all are still living or active. Some, such as Rothko, Gottlieb, Tworkov, Roszak, and Nevelson demonstrate marked change in style over the years, while others, Avery, Stuart Davis, Levine, MacIver, Diller, and Shahn, to name a few, evidence very little. De Kooning reversed the above processes in that his 1938 pencil drawing was less representational than the more recent female figure painting. The social commentary by Shahn and Levine has tempered through the years and what was at one time caustic and penetrating seems placid today.

But in nearly every case, the most pronounced change is less a deviation from former styles, but rather that growth in grace which is instigated by sheer production through years of trial and error. Where once there was uncertainty, bravado, unhappy experiment and painful introspection, now there is assurance and refinement of skills. This is not only a thirty-year history of painting and sculpture, but also it is a look at America coming of age artistically.

Curt Opliger