Excerpt from Virginia Hagelstein Marquardt, "Art on the Political Front in America: From The Liberator to Art Front," Art Journal (Vol. 52, No. 1, 72-81. Spring, 1993)
Virginia Hagelstein Marquardt:
Initially the publication [Art Front] was the dual venture of the Artists' Committee of Action and the Artists' Union. By the April 1935 issue, however, it was designated as the "Official Publication of the Artists' Union," though the masthead continued to display the emblems of the two founding groups until January 1937. Art Front united artists of all political persuasions in an effort to secure federal government support for the arts. Its title alluded not only to the political front--namely, the Popular Front against fascism and war--but also to the frontiers of artistic expression. During its three years of publication, Art Front became the single most important forum for radical and nonradical artists to air their views concerning the appropriate social function of art, to review and address new art movements, and to lobby for federal support.(34)
Though nonaligned, the magazine, especially during its first year of publication, was sympathetic to the radical heritage of the John Reed Club, which had been disbanded in 1934. Its ties to the radical movement were clear in its preference for socially critical art in opposition to artists who favoured an American art that depicted indigenous subject matter and used a formal language devoid of foreign influence. In a series of vitriolic and impassioned exchanges from February to May 1935, Thomas Hart Benton and John Stuart Curry advocated a patriotic subject matter that was essentially Midwestern and presented stereotypical images of the American West, while [Stuart] Davis and Jacob Burck countered that social-content art should reflect the socioeconomic conditions in the United States and should be based on an understanding of the underlying conditions and forces that operated internationally.(35)...
Abstraction was also debated at length, with writers revealing their respective forms of political activism. On the occasion of Fernand Léger's lecture "The New Realism," delivered at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, Balcomb Greene and Weinstock wrote conflicting assessments of Léger's abstract idiom. Greene noted that Léger's work, like that of any specialist, "must often fall beyond the comprehension of most people" and argued that "the complete revolutionist," unlike the strictly political revolutionary, who, according to Greene, was incomplete, would welcome a new art that although rejecting literal representation integrated "intellectual and emotional habits toward clarity, conciseness, and precision."(45) In contrast, Weinstock, arguing the social-realist position, dismissed Léger's work as demonstrating "a semi-idealistic relation to the visible world."(46) He opposed two-dimensional abstract painting as lacking a structured and relevant meaning and thereby allowing for subjective interpretation.(47) Davis countered Weinstock's argument with the assertion that the dialectical process required knowledge of the bourgeois tradition and abstraction. He suggested that the abstract artist might be best equipped to provide artistic expression to social problems because "he has already learned to abandon the ivory tower in his objective approach to materials."(48) Phil Bard captured radicals' view of the whimsical subjective techniques of the abstract artist in a drawing depicting the abstract artist painting from the perch of a rocking horse that alluded to Don Quixote's tilting at windmills.
During 1936, Art Front underwent a transformation that reflected its role as a nonpartisan Popular Front publication. In March 1936, a newly constituted editorial board was announced: Joe Solman, an artist with expressionist tendencies, replaced Davis as editor in chief; new members included Harold Rosenberg, also an expressionist artist, Greene, an abstractionist, and James Yeargans, a black artist; continuing members were Joseph Gower, Murray Hantman, Kainen, and Weinstock. Long-time radicals Gellert, Harold Glintenkamp, and Max Spivak resigned from the board...
Assessments of Surrealism as revolutionary art demonstrate a distinct shift from criticism to acceptance from 1935 to 1936. Writing in 1935 on the occasion of an exhibition of Salvador Dali's work, Davis, Weinstock, and Klein uniformly dismissed the idea that Surrealism was a revolutionary art form. Davis found that Dali's work "precludes any intention of change or movement";(51) Weinstock described Dali's technique as anachronistic and his content romantic;(52) and Klein claimed that Surrealists introduced "a set of new illusions in their flight from external reality into phantasy" and that the movement represented artists' struggle for freedom "symbolic of the needs of the great oppressed majority in capitalist society."(53) By 1936, however, Surrealism was discussed more favourably. Grace Clements asserted that Surrealists' techniques of juxtaposition and associative ideas were based on the dialectical materialistic method of using modernist technique and past art to create new content.(54) Similarly, Charmion Van Wiegand, in her review of the "Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, argued that Surrealism, in "contributing new discoveries of the inner life of fantasy by pictorializing the destructive and creative processes of the subconscious mind," offered techniques useful to the development of a new humanistic social art.(55)
The pictorial imagery of Art Front reflected the two phases of the magazine. Stuart Davis's cover of the May 1935 issue articulated Art Front's initial view of the activist artist: paint tube, palette knife, pencil, saw, hammer, and T-square, symbolic of the traditional artistic media of painting, sculpture, and drawing, are crossed by a banner of artists' demands. Issues of that year included political cartoons by Bard, Dehn, Boris Gorelick, Gropper, and Ben Shahn. A year later the May 1936 cover by Greene showed soldiers rendered as a simplified abstracted form. This shift from propagandist symbols to semi-abstraction indicates very clearly the more traditional artistic perspective of Art Front from 1936 on. Other covers included a primitivist woodcut (March 1937), a design of blue horses (April 1936), a sculpture entitled Homeless from the Federal Arts Project Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (September-October 1936), and a still-life object (November 1936).
Art Front was a forum for discussion of the many aesthetic and ideological positions concerning the relationship between art and society that coexisted in America in the mid-thirties. With its cessation in December 1937, Leftist publications of a more literary focus, principally the Partisan Review, continued the debate. By 1937, radicalism in America was in decline, in large part in response to artists' improved economic circumstances under the Federal Arts Project but also in protest against Stalin's purge of Bolsheviks and his non-aggression pact with Hitler. Nevertheless, during the period between the world wars, artists, critics, and writers wrestled with the issues of proletarian art, propaganda art, and social-content art in the Liberator, New Masses, and Art Front, all of which served as important forums for the debate on the nature and form of socially relevant art in America.
Notes: 34. For a full discussion of Art Front, see Francine Tyler, "Artists Respond to the Great Depression and the Threat of Fascism: The New York Artists' Union and Its Magazine Art
Front (1934-1937)," Ph.D. diss. (New York University, 1991).
35. See Stuart Davis, "The New York American Scene in Art," Art Front (February 1935): 6; Thomas H. Benton, "On the American Scene," Art Front (April 1935): 4, 8; "A Letter from Curry," Art Front (April 1935): 1; Jacob Burck, "'Benton Sees Red,'" Art Front (April 1935): 5, 8; "And So on Ad Infinitum" |letters from Thomas Benton, Jacob Kainen, Peter Blume, and Robert M. Coates~, Art Front (May 1935): 7-8.
45. Balcomb Greene, "The Function of Léger," Art Front (January 1936): 9.
46. Clarence Weinstock, "Freedom in Painting," Art Front (January 1936): 10.
47. Clarence Weinstock, "Contradictions in Abstraction," Art Front (April 1935): 7.
48. Stuart Davis, "A Medium of 2 Dimensions," Art Front (May 1935): 6.
51. Stuart Davis, "Paintings by Salvador Dali," Art Front (January 1935): 7.
52. Clarence Weinstock, "A Letter on Salvador Dali," Art Front (February 1935): 8.
53. Jerome Klein, "Dada for Propaganda," Art Front (February 1935): 8.
54. Grace Clements, "New Content--New Form," Art Front (March 1936): 8-9.
55. Charmion Van Wiegand, "The Surrealists," Art Front (January 1937): 14.