Working from home as COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests continue to grip the country, I’ve found myself imagining how artists might be enlisted in reshaping our society and rebuilding in the wake of this moment of reckoning. These questions have shed new light on a project I began last year, to research and catalog MoMA’s holdings of over 400 prints from the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP). The Roosevelt administration established the FAP in 1935 to provide wages for nearly 10,000 artists at different stages in their careers. The program’s commitment to keeping artists on payroll as the country navigated recovery from the Great Depression is often cited as an unprecedented moment in American history, when artists and art were deemed central to economic recovery.
The FAP employed artists to work in different divisions based on medium, such as easel painting, sculpture, printmaking, and mural painting. The printmakers in the program were especially prolific: from 1935 to 1943, they produced 240,000 impressions from 11,000 different compositions, far outpacing the production of other divisions thanks to printmaking’s defining characteristic of reproducibility. MoMA’s prints were allocated to the Museum as extended loans, mostly following the government’s liquidation of the program’s assets to institutions across the country in 1943. The FAP prints entrusted to MoMA testify to an ethos of collaboration and camaraderie that enabled technological innovations in printmaking. The influence of the WPA printmakers and their ingenuity is most palpable when the FAP prints are considered alongside later prints from MoMA’s collection. Put in conversation, these works tell a vital story about how FAP artists laid the foundation for the direction of modern and contemporary American printmaking.
Anthony Velonis. Decoration Empire. 1939
Take silkscreen pioneer Anthony Velonis’s Decoration Empire (1939). Developed in the United States in the early 20th century as a tool for printing banners and other advertising materials, screenprinting was considered an exclusively commercial process. Velonis first learned the technique in commercial print shops in the 1920s and began experimenting in his own shop in the early 1930s. Recognizing that screenprinting allowed artists to experiment with color, hard-edged lines, and texture, Velonis helped elevate screenprinting to a recognized art form by petitioning the program to initiate a Silk Screen Unit in 1938. In Decoration Empire, Velonis pushes the medium in new directions, contrasting characteristic hard-edged lines denoting form with painterly olive passages and a sinuous ultramarine pattern cast over the blue vase, all printed through differently sized mesh screens. Velonis used this print as a teaching tool at the Silk Screen Unit in New York. In 1940, after Unit artists coined a new name for the medium—serigraphs—exhibitions of screenprints, mostly by artists working for the FAP, began to gain traction across the US.
Jackson Pollock. Untitled. c. 1938–41
Riva Helfond. Curtain Factory. c. 1936–39
June Wayne. At Last a Thousand I. 1965