1939 World’s Fair Mural Study – Chicago IL


Ilya Bolotowsky’s oil painting study for the Hall of Sciences mural at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York is today housed in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is all that remains of Bolotowsky’s mural commissioned by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Projects, as all murals made for the World’s Fair were destroyed at the Fair’s closure (Mahoney, p. 261). Bolotowsky is a generally overlooked pioneer of American abstract art and this work is a testament to the brilliance of his art, which he was given ample opportunity to practice through the New Deal. Thus, this study is a vital work not only as evidence of the lost mural, but also as a significant addition to the understanding of the federally funded artwork made under the New Deal’s projects.

Bolotowsky and his family emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia to New York City in 1923. There, he attended the National Academy of Design, befriended and painted alongside artists such as Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. In 1936, Bolotowsky helped to found the group American Abstract Artists, an artist collective that strove for the exhibition, public awareness and acceptance of American abstract art, which was not widely exhibited in major museums (Mahoney, p. 261).

After a brief stint at the Yaddo artist’s retreat in Saratoga Springs, Bolotowksy was hired under the Public Works of Arts Project and briefly painted under it in 1934. After PWAP dissolved in 1934, he was hired by the Works Progress Administration to teach art classes to children in settlement houses across the city. In 1936, Bolotowsky and several other Abstract artists were commissioned by the WPA to paint a series of murals for the Williamsburg Housing Project, built under the Public Works Administration, and were among the first abstract murals ever painted (Bolotowsky & Geldzahler, p. 20-22).
His next project under the WPA was the mural for the New York World’s Fair, in an area called the Hall of Sciences showcasing the latest in medical discovery and technology. The WPA commissioned many artists employed through their relief programs to paint murals all over the fair, which provided a major showcase for abstract artists like Bolotowsky (Edward). The study for the mural was painted in 1938 and completed in 1939 just as the Fair was going to open. Though the study measures 30 by 48 inches on canvas, the completed mural was 10 by 16 feet (Bolotowsky & Geldzahler, p. 18). The surviving study, though, still “shows his intent to create an ideal, balanced composition devoid of a dominant form” and stands in marked contrast to the regionalist style of a majority of New Deal murals and artworks. The study was acquired by the Art Institute by the Wilson L. Mead Fund in 1977, and is permanently housed in their American collection (Mahoney, p. 261-262).

Source notes

Brenner, Anita. "AMERICAN CREATES AMERICAN MURALS." New York Times 10 Apr. 1938: 124. The New York Times (ProQuest). Web. 

Edward, Alden J. "FAIR'S ART DISPLAY GAINS NEW WORK." New York Times 21 June 1940: 21. The New York Times (ProQuest). Web. 

Bolotowsky, Ilya, and Henry Geldzahler. "Adventures with Bolotowsky." Archives of American Art Journal 22.1 (1982): 8-31. JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 

Mahoney, Denise. "Study for the Hall of Sciences Medical Sciences Mural at the 1939 World's Fair in New York." American Modernism at the Art Institute of Chicago: From    World War I to 1955. By Judith Barter. Chicago, IL: Art 
Institute of Chicago, 2009. 260-62. Print.

Project originally submitted by Trevor McCulloch on December 17, 2013.

We welcome contributions of additional information on any New Deal project site.


Location Info

111 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60603

Coordinates: 41.879547, -87.623724

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