Synopses & Reviews
The boldly political mural projects of Diego Rivera and other leftist artists in San Francisco during the 1930s and early 1940s are the focus of Anthony W. Lee's fascinating book. Led by Rivera, these painters used murals as a vehicle to reject the economic and political status quo and to give visible form to labor and radical ideologies, including Communism.
Several murals, and details of others, are reproduced here for the first time. Of special interest are works by Rivera that chart a progress from mural paintings commissioned for private spaces to those produced as a public act in a public space: Allegory of California, painted in 1930-31 at the Stock Exchange Lunch Club; Making a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City, done a few months later at the California School of Fine Arts; and Pan American Unity, painted in 1940 for the Golden Gate International Exposition.
Labor itself became a focus of the new murals: Rivera painted a massive representation of a construction worker just as San Francisco's workers were themselves organizing; Victor Arnautoff, Bernard Zakheim, John Langley Howard , and Clifford Wight painted panels in Coit Tower that acknowledged the resolve of the dockworkers striking on the streets below. Radical in technique as well, these muralists used new compositional strategies of congestion, misdirection, and fragmentation, subverting the legible narratives and coherent allegories of traditional murals.
Lee relates the development of wall painting to San Francisco's international expositions of 1915 and 1939, the new museums and art schools, corporate patronage, and the concerns of immigrants and ethnic groups. And he examines how mural painters struggled against those forces that threatened their practice: the growing acceptance of modernist easel painting, the vagaries of New Deal patronage, and a wartime nationalism hostile to radical politics.
Beginning with responses to fascism in the 1930s and ending with protests against the Iraq wars, David McCarthy shows how American artistsand#151;including Philip Evergood, David Smith, H. C. Westermann, Ed Kienholz, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Chris Burden, Robert Arneson, Martha Rosler, and Coco Fuscoand#151;have borne witness, registered dissent, and asserted the enduring ability of imagination to uncover truths about individuals and nations. During what has been called the American Century, the United States engaged in frequent combat overseas while developing technologies of unprecedented lethality. Many artists, working collectively or individually, produced antiwar art to protest the use or threat of military violence in the service of an expansionist state. In so doing, they understood themselves to be fighting on behalf of two liberal promises: the belief that their country was the guarantor of liberty against empire, and the faith that modern art was a viable means of addressing the most compelling events and issues of the moment. For many artists, creative work was a way to participate in democratic exchange by challenging and clarifying government and media perspectives on armed conflict. Charting a seventy-five-year history of antiwar art and activism, American Artists against War, 1935and#150;2010 lucidly tracks the continuities, preoccupations, and strategies of several generations.
"David McCarthyand#8217;s book is an important contribution to the history of twentieth-century American political art, demonstrating the remarkable number of artists who created and curators and critics who promoted antiwar art. This text should be of broad interest to both scholars and general readers."and#151;Cand#233;cile Whiting, author ofand#160;Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s
"In this dauntingly ambitious yet highly accessible book, McCarthy has accomplished something completely unique. Though many have written about art inspired by war, this is the first comprehensive attempt to contextualize it within the political history of a seventy-five-year period. Further, as the title suggests, it places a greater focus than previous works on the role of artist as citizen in time of war, thus demonstrating that creative activism has a long and proud trajectory in this country."and#151;Nina Felshin, curator, writer, activist, and editor of But Is it Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism
"Anthony Lee is quickly emerging as a key figure for a whole new generation of scholars. This book on Diego Rivera is significant not only for the notable new insights it yields, but also for the disciplinary shifts that it signals. Deftly written yet replete with a density of engaged meaning that inspires critical admiration, this new look at Rivera will remain an important stimulus in the field for quite a while."and#151;David Craven, author of Diego Rivera: As Epic Modernist
"This was a moment when painting mattered! In a deeply divided society, public art was a vector for contestation about what it was to be an American, a committed citizen, a moral being. With care and subtlety, and in fascinating detail, Lee shows how art, especially mural painting, became for a time the primary medium for the brokerage of power in the city of San Francisco itself. We see the murals afresh, we decipher the intense, sprawling, diversifying energies which shaped their now stilled surfaces. We might wish, these days, for a public art of similar consequence."and#151;Terry Smith, author of Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America
About the Author
David McCarthy is Professor of Art History at Rhodes College and author of The Nude in American Painting, 1950and#150;1980; Pop Art; and H. C. Westermann at War: Art and Manhood in Cold War America.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Violence, Art, and the American Century
1. Artists against War and Fascism
3. End Your Silence
4. A Network of Artist-Activists
5. Not in Our Name