- Los Angeles, CA
- Site Type:
- Murals, Art Works
- New Deal Agencies:
- Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), Arts Programs
- Ben Messick, Leo Katz, Tyrone Comfort
- Quality of Information:
- Site Survival:
- No Longer Extant
In 1934, Leo Katz painted a three-panel mural in the lobby of Frank Wiggins Trade School (today’s Los Angeles Trade-Technical College) in Los Angeles, CA. Katz was assisted by artists Tyrone Comfort and Ben Messick. The side panels were funded by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP); the central panel was completed at Katz’ own expense following the termination of the PWAP in May 1934.
The April 1937 issue of Los Angeles School Journal noted that an “unsuccessful attempt” was made by a first artist before Katz took over. Having “just returned from Mexico filled with enthusiasm from his study of Toltec and Aztec civilization, [Katz] conceived an entirely different theme: that of interpreting his philosophies concerning man and the usage of tools from the earliest to the present” (Wells, p. 19).
Writing in the Los Angeles Times in July 1934, art critic Arthur Millier argued that the murals—still works-in-progress—”break ground new to American art” (Millier, “Current Year Notable for Important Mural Paintings”).
The first two murals, painted on the lobby’s side walls, depicted Toltec and Aztec civilizations. Katz painted the third mural without PWAP or school approval. Upon its completion in June 1935, “a storm of controversy arose. Artists and art critics were almost unanimous in their praise of the mural and a portion of the press was for it, but at length it was decided by the Board of Education that the mural was not quite appropriate to the Trade School and accordingly was ordered removed and stored” (Wells, p. 20).
Millier was one of the critics who praised the third mural: “The culminating panel is a vigorous summing up of man’s eternal dilemma in terms of modern American civilization. A magnificent figure of an athletic young man, courageous and fine, walks with arms extended, stepping among the inventions of modern mechanics. But his eyes are sightless. […]
“To the right and left of the central figure of Man are two arresting creations. One is a horrible evocation of greed, holding a skull from which drop golden coins. Below is organized and unorganized warfare and the knives, guns, tanks and other tools which are used in it.
Opposing greed is a magnificent conception of the mother spirit, a noble woman-figure with ample breasts of compassion, symbolizing the spirit which nourishes peaceful creative progress. The motion-picture camera is opposed, on this side, to the machine gun on the other. A cannon points towards war, an astronomical telescope leads towards peace. Below Compassion are two charming lovers, about whom swirl flames of blue and violet becoming serene white as they rise to the great mother who shelters a girl under her arm” (Millier, “Murals Showing Tools’ use Completed in Trade School“).
It was Katz’ depictions of war and greed that were criticized by the Board of Education. Katz responded that he “would sooner risk my reputation as an honest artist than to change the mural. The young generation demands facts and asks the artist not to be flattered but to tell of life as it is. The older generation has been used to considering murals as pretty decorations, but there has been a great awakening and movement in realization of the power of mural painting” (“Furor Stirred by Noted Artist’s Paintings at School Depicting War and Greed”).
Katz received some support from the public, with Millier reporting that “an engineer from the Hoover Dam called this [Katz’s third] panel the greatest thing he had ever seen, after the dam. A woman beside him said: ‘Life is greater than any dam—and this picture is life itself'” (Millier, “Brush Strokes”).
Nonetheless, the central panel was removed in September 1935. Writing in the Los Angeles School Journal 18 months later, N. W. Wells of Edison Junior High School suggested that “the mural might well find its proper place in a setting which would foster serious contemplation of its message. What place could be more appropriate than the new library of the Los Angeles Junior College?” (Wells, p. 20).
In June 1939, the remaining side panels were removed and returned to the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The current status of all three panels is unknown.
Wells, N. W. “Federal Art Project and the Schools.” Los Angeles School Journal XX, no. 29 (April 26, 1937): 17–25.
"Furor Stirred by Noted Artist's Paintings at School Depicting War and Greed." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jul 24, 1935.
"Katz Murals Ordered Out: Old Row Ends Over W.P.A. Paintings at Wiggins School." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jun 06, 1939.
Millier, Arthur. "Brush Strokes." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jul 28, 1935.
Millier, Arthur. "Murals Showing Tools' use Completed in Trade School." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jun 30, 1935.
Millier, Arthur. "Current Year Notable for Important Mural Paintings." Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Jul 08, 1934.
Site originally submitted by Natalie McDonald on February 11, 2023.
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