A Living for Us All

Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933

Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933
Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Steven M. Raas and Sandra S. Raas; © Oakland Museum of California, the City of Oakland, gift of Paul S. Taylor; photo: Don Ross.

The process felt like a treasure hunt—or Christmas morning. Box by box, my San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) colleagues and I sifted through 870 artworks made under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), most of which hadn’t had eyes on them for years.

Working throughout 2021 in the museum’s subterranean storage, I and three fellow curators narrowed down our WPA collection to just over fifty objects that would comprise our 2022 exhibition A Living for Us All: Artists and the WPA.

One of the ideas that propels my curatorial practice is my strong belief in the lessons historical material holds for the present. SFMOMA has stewarded an allocation of WPA art works and ephemera since 1943, when the federal art programs concluded and thousands of artworks commissioned during the Great Depression were distributed to institutions across the country.

David P. Chun, Unemployed, ca. 1935

David P. Chun, Unemployed, ca. 1935
Collection SFMOMA, Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender; © Estate of David P. Chun; photo: Don Ross.

Nearly eighty years later, when the precarity that typically clouds many artists’ livelihoods was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the time seemed ripe to look back on the WPA as a model for what’s possible when art is regarded as a public resource. During the Great Depression, the WPA sustained some 10,000 artists whose works have come to define the American experience.

Since this swath of SFMOMA’s collection has been so understudied, our first step was to catalog the range of WPA artworks, which spans paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures and textiles.  Piece by piece, we recorded such information as the name of the artist, title, medium and date, while noting objects that impressed us as true standouts—whether for their artistry, subject matter or condition. A particularly thrilling find was a vibrantly colored, abstract tapestry by the artist George Harris so pristine that it’s likely that the box it was stored in hadn’t been opened in decades.

Sibyl Anikeef, Filipino Lettuce Worker, Salinas, California, 1936

Sibyl Anikeef, Filipino Lettuce Worker, Salinas, California, 1936
Collection SFMOMA, The United States General Services Administration, formerly Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration (WPA), allocation to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo: Don Ross.

As cataloging progressed and the pile of standouts grew, so did the number of possible themes for the exhibition. The selection coalesced around themes like labor and industry, but also—surprisingly— surrealism and abstraction. I had always associated art of the 1930s and 1940s with social realism, but the amount of work more abstract in nature was truly astonishing.

Gradually, it became clear that the central contribution of our exhibition would be to underscore the WPA’s eclecticism, recuperating the vast scope of styles the artists turned to in giving visual form to their communities and circumstances. It was thrilling to display artworks of different media together in the same space, which is somewhat atypical of collection presentations at SFMOMA.

Sibyl Anikeef, Cypress, 1941

Sibyl Anikeef, Cypress, 1941
Collection SFMOMA, The United States General Services Administration, formerly Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration (WPA), allocation to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo: Don Ross.

Our strategy to interweave media enabled us to draw unexpected connections. One such highlight was juxtaposing a woodblock by David P. Chun with a documentary photograph by Dorothea Lange, both depicting the White Angel Breadline on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Lange’s portrait is iconic, so it was remarkable to discover a print depicting the same scene and with a different, wider perspective. Whereas Lange focused on one man to symbolize the struggle of many, Chun exploited the woodcut technique’s capacity for texture to underscore the weariness in his subjects’ faces.

We also seized the opportunity to research under-sung artists like Sibyl Anikeef, one of eight photographers who documented California for the Federal Art Project. Ancestry.com came to the rescue in confirming Anikeef’s and other artists’ life dates and trajectories. Born in Chicago, Anikeef settled in Carmel in the 1930s with her husband Vasile, a Russian opera singer. Whether depicting agricultural laborers or twisted cypress trees along California’s coast, her work from this period is marked by a profound lyricism.

Ida Abelman, Countryside, ca. 1935-1943 

Ida Abelman, Countryside, 1935-1943
Collection SFMOMA, The United States General Services Administration, formerly Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration (WPA), allocation to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo: Don Ross.

We used wall labels to flesh out the historical context and details of how the art programs operated. The label for Ida Abelman’s woodcut Countryside, for instance, relates that she was paid $23 per week for her work with the New York chapter of the Federal Art Project. A vitrine in the second room held a number of documentary photos of artists at work in media we could not otherwise display, like murals, mosaics and sculpture.

It was such a joy to work on this exhibition, which was a collaboration among early-career curators from different departments at SFMOMA. The icing on the cake was a tour for the Living New Deal! We hope that this exhilarating project leads to more New Deal curatorial projects in the future, as it remains a facet of our collection that deserves far more attention.

Learn More: https://www.vox.com/culture/21294431/new-deal-wpa-federal-art-project-coronavirus

Emilia Mickevicius, Ph.D is a historian and curator of photography, and works in the Photography department at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She received her Ph.D from Brown University in 2019. Her research has been supported by the Henry Luce Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Getty Research Institute, and the Center for Creative Photography.

Book Review: New Deal Photography: USA 1935-1943, Farm Security Administration, 605pp

Taschen, an international publishing company begun in Cologne in 1980, has achieved international renown for its standout coffee table books. Taschen’s art books span from western masterpieces to pop culture, including illustrated monographs on artists, musicians, and writers, classical and contemporary.

Under its Bibliotheca Universalis imprint, Taschen recently reprised 100 of what it calls its “favorites” in a compact, 6 x 8 inch format. Thankfully, the series includes New Deal Photography, USA 1935-1943, a compendium of more than 400 photographs commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression.

In producing what it calls its “democratically priced” edition, Taschen has not sacrificed the legendary quality for which it is famous.

Author Peter Walther has curated an extensive catalogue of indelible images—a “best of” by the best-known photographers of the era. Many of them got their start with the FSA, one of many New Deal programs to put people to work. In the wake of the short-lived Resettlement Administration, the FSA’s mandate was to combat rural poverty. One powerful weapon was to document it. Roy Stryker, who headed the project, described as its purpose “to introduce America to Americans.”

Photographers like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, and others fanned out across the country capturing images of the ruined landscape and those whose lives were upended by the nation’s environmental and economic collapse.

Over the course of eight years the FSA project resulted in the most comprehensive collection of social-documentary photographs of the 20th century.

Walther’s commentary, presented in English, French, and German, succinctly describes the historical context that fostered this uniquely American collection. The book includes rarely seen color photographs as well as many familiar black-and-white images of the displaced and desperate, such as Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” and Rothstein’s “Fleeing a Dust Storm.” Also included are brief bios and portraits of the photographers themselves whose iconic images have come to be recognized worldwide.

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Memories of Photographer Rondal Partridge (1917-2015)

Ron Partridge

Ron Partridge
Bedford Gallery Exhibition, 2010
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Ron Partridge was still working in his Berkeley, California, dark room well into his 90s. This brought his life full circle. Ron began his career in the darkroom, assisting his mother, photographer Imogen Cunningham. Ron went on to assist both Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange during the 1930s. Lange’s influence can be seen in Ron’s photographs for the National Youth Administration (NYA), a job that sent him throughout California chronicling the lives of young people on the brink of World War II.

Over the course of his long career as a photographer and filmmaker, Ron’s work embraced landscapes, people, objects, and architecture.

Photo of Dorothea Lange at work, 1936

Dorothea Lange, 1936
Photo of Dorothea Lange at work
Photo Credit: Rondal Partridge

In 2010, I co-curated an exhibit of New Deal art at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California. I made a point of inviting the few living New Deal artists that I knew of. It was a short list: Photographer Rondal Partridge, sculptor Milton Hebald, and WPA and Disney artist Tyrus Wong, (now 104 years old!)

Ron and I drove to the opening reception in my classic Plymouth Valiant. He clearly appreciated the attention that he and his work received that night. I continued to visit Ron after that exhibition. He was always excited about his latest project. In recent years he focused on framing dried plants—preserving the unique quality of each specimen. They were studies in form, some in partial states of decay. He relished the second-hand frames he collected for this work.

Ron Partridge and Harvey Smith

Ron Partridge and Harvey Smith
New Deal art exhibition, Bedford Gallery, 2010
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Anyone who knew Ron knew that he had strong views, a sense of irreverence, and a wonderful sense of humor. Like others I’ve met who worked for the New Deal, Ron was infused with the spirit of that time—a social conscience, ingenuity, and a drive to create—seemingly indifferent to fame and fortune. Ron passed away on June 19. He and his New Deal generation will be missed.

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.