Thousands of artists received funds through the Works Progress Administration and other New Deal programs during the 1930s and early 1940s. Some of the artists became household names—Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, and Cameron Booth, to name a few. Many others did not, but their work became part of the fabric of American culture in the form of post-office murals and handicrafts. By the People, For the People: New Deal Art at the Weisman offers up the full spectrum of work from this era.
The show draws from the museum’s impressive collection of New Deal art. It’s organized by a mish-mash of aesthetic and topical themes: work and industry, abstraction, photography, the University and Minnesota, women. The themes only serve to underscore the premise of the show: that New Deal art encompassed far more than social realism. The Weisman folks even managed to come up with a few examples of Surrealism, which gives you an idea of how eclectic and interesting this show really is.
The New Deal programs placed emphasis on regional folkways and traditions as subject matter. By the People contains many examples, but Lucia Wiley’s series based on the legend of Paul Bunyan—and, more broadly, the world of logging—caught my eye. She based a series of post-office murals on the oil illustrations, which resemble woodcuts in style. In one, Bunyan nearly fills the canvas. On one knee, head bowed, he cradles a young ox. The other images in the series swirl with energy, but the simple exchange between ox and man is oddly touching.
The show has a little of something for everyone. The colorful abstract paintings of Alexander Corrazo in one room, documentary photographs of Marion Post Woolcott in the next, and a handful of local landscapes of the Twin Cities circa 1940 in the next. The exhibit also highlights the work of women hired as New Deal artists, and will serve as the foundation for a series of lectures and seminars on this fascinating period in American art.
Through July 27, Weisman Art Museum.
Pictured: Dorothy Lau, Workers-Five O'Clock, ca. 1935-1940, oil on canvas