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A Long Lost Work from the WPA
On “Rainy Day on the Square”
In this series, the curatorial team presents one work from the Meural art library we find essential.
It’s election day, which likely means continually checking in on results and pundits until late in the night (and likely tomorrow morning as well). So it’s momentarily refreshing to remember a time when politics wasn’t so much about, well, politics. In the middle of the 1930s, when the Great Depression called for widespread relief, the country had no better option than to unite. In January of 1935, Congress introduced a joint resolution (requiring approval from both the House and the Senate) called the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. A few months later it was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as part of his monumental New Deal program. The act introduced a bundle of public works program; the most substantial of these was the Works Progress Administration, with an initial appropriation of $4.9 billion (or ~7% of the nation’s yearly GDP). Much of that money went to traditional programs—infrastructure, education, city-building—but a small portion (~$27 million) went to Federal Project Number One, which employed 40,000 artists, writers, musicians, and actors. (As one of the New Deal architects Harry Hopkins said, “Hell, they’ve got to eat, too.”)
If this feels revolutionary, it’s because it was. The United States government was valuing the work of artists as equal to that of labor, business, and agriculture. It helped keep afloat many painters we recognize as geniuses today: Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera, and Marsden Hartley to name a few. But of course, with around 10,000 artists on the payroll of the Federal Arts Project (a program within Federal Project Number One), there were many artists we don’t know. This playlist features works of celebrated artists (such as Nan Lurie and Elizabeth Olds) along those lost to history. One such artist is Elias Mandel Grossman.
His Rainy Day on the Square caught my eye for its verisimilitude, but kept it for something else. To sound trite, the sketch is alive—that is, everything in it feels ephemeral. The trees seem like accidents, a blur made by the quick turn of your head. Their branches shoot into the sky as if just for an instant, like dendrites of a nerve cell (an image Grossman couldn’t have possibly had in mind). Leaves hover above them, unattached, impossibly. A figure crossing the arch (this is Washington Square, in Manhattan) looks rushed. Perhaps he just wants to get to a drier place. The rain has slicked the roads and inverted the world into a ghostlike, slippier version of itself. And on the sides we have buildings that lose their details the further they fall into the periphery.
The only object here that seems to be set in place is the arch. (In a small bit of metaphorical irony, it was modeled on the Arc de Triomphe; the WPA would, in part, help turn the tide of the world of art, moving its epicenter from Paris to New York.) In Grossman’s rendering, it absorbs all of the surrounding light. Its lines are decided. This is, somehow, logical. It will remain long after the man is gone, the cars too. The trees and the buildings will stand for decades but the arch will see them replaced, given new facades—I know because I’ve passed the scene many times.
— Andrew Lipstein, Head of Editorial