Russell Lee

The Photography of Russell Lee

Born to an affluent mid-western family in Ottawa, Illinois, in July of 1903, Russell Werner Lee was an American photographer and photojournalist, who is best known for his work during the years of the Great Depression. He attended the Culver Military Academy in Indiana and studied at Lehigh University in Bethelem, Pennsylvania, where in 1925 he earned his degree in Chemical Engineering. Lee obtained a position at the chemical company Certainteed Products where he worked as a plant chemist making roofing materials. 

Dissatisfied with his job and secure financially due to inherited property, Lee began experimenting in 1935 with a small Contax 35mm camera and darkroom printing. His earliest photographs were taken in the artist colony at Woodstock, New York, and later in Pennsylvania during visits with friends. It was during these visits that Lee shot a series of images depicting the working and living conditions of coal miners who toiled inside small bootleg mines in Pennsylvania. In the winter of 1935, Lee wandered the streets of New York where he photographed the poverty around him. He also shot a series of images in New York City of the evangelist Father Divine who arrived with a large group of his followers for an event.

Russell Lee’s interest in social issues and his use of photography to document social conditions brought him into contact with several social-realist  artists, among whom were photographer and lithographer Ben Shahn and film maker Pare Lorentz, whose films documented the New Deal. Through his association with Ben Shahn, Lee became involved with the documentation program of the Historical Division of the Resettlement Administration. This program, later renamed the Farm Security Administration, assessed the effects of government programs during the Great Depression era. 

Along with team members Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans, Lee documented the plight of tenant farmers, migrant workers and sharecroppers suffering from drought and financial distress. He was assigned by his team leader Roy Stryker, an economist and photographer, to travel throughout the Midwest and West Coastal areas of the United States; some of Lee’s best known early photographs were those taken in rural Iowa in 1936. During his travels for the FSA, he produced iconic studies of the people living in San Augustine, Texas in 1939 and the small rural Pie Town, New Mexico in 1949. During the 1940s, Lee’s images appeared in many popular journals including Life, Fortune, U.S. Camera, and Look magazine.

In the spring and summer of 1942, Russell Lee was one of several government photographers to document the forced relocation of Japanese Americans from the west coast. He produced over six hundred images of families waiting for their travel arrangements and their ensuing daily lives in the detention facilities. With the defunding of the Farm Security Administration in 1943, Lee joined the Army’s Air Transport Command as a captain. He was assigned to take aerial surveillance photographs, including air field approaches used to supply the troops, as well as documentary images of local conditions on the ground.

In 1946 and 1947, Lee worked for the Department of the Interior and helped to compile a survey and document with images the communities involved in mining bituminous coal. He created over four thousand photographs of miners and the working conditions inside the coal mines. In 1946, Lee produced a series of photographs on a Pentecostal Church of God in a coal camp in Kentucky. In 1947, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he continued his photographic work.

In 1965, Russell Lee became the first instructor of photography at Austin’s University of Texas where he taught until 1973. In the latter part of his life, he often traveled as a photographer on assignment for various magazines and corporations, the University of Texas, and the federal government. The state of Texas became a major focus of his work until his death, at the age of eighty-three, in August of 1986. 

Russell Lee’s works are held in the collections of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, the Wittliff Collections of Texas State University in San Marcos, and the Dolph Briscoe Center of American History in Austin, among others. Over nineteen thousand images taken by Russell Lee are housed in the Photography Archive of the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Note: For those interested, I recommend Professor of History Emeritus F. Jack Hurley’s September 1973 article on Russell Lee, originally published in IMAGE: Journal of Photography and Motion Pictures of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House. This extensive biography, containing many quotes by Lee, is located at the online art and humanities site “American Suburb X” :  https://americansuburbx.com/2010/02/theory-f-jack-hurley-on-russell-lee.html

Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Russell Werner Lee”, Date Unknown

Second Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Russell Lee Taking Photo of Children”, Date Unknown

Third Insert Image: Russell Lee, “Perry Drugs Store”, Date Unknown

Bottom Insert Image: Russell Lee, “Shoeshine Boy, San Antonio, Texas”, 1949, Russell Lee Photograph Collection University of Texas at Austin

Martin Wong

Paintings by Martin Wong

Born in Portland, Oregon in July of 1946, Martin Wong was an American painter of Chinese-Mexican ancestry whose work was a studious blend of visionary and social realism art styles. His work explored different ethnic and racial identities, and acknowledged his own queer sexuality.

Raised by a supportive family in the Chinatown district of San Francisco, Martin Wong began to express his artistic inclination at an early age. He entered California’s Humboldt State University and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Ceramics in 1968. Wong won a competitive ceramics exhibition held in 1970 at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

Wong resided in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district from 1964 to 1978. While at home, he studied art history and became interested in subjects such as modern painting and Asian decorative objects. During this period, Wong was active in the art scene of the Bay Area, often painting portraits under the pseudonym of Human Instamatic. He also served as the set designer for the art performance group The Angels of Light, a social trope that was part of the emerging gay consciousness of the period.

Encouraged by his friends’ response to his art, Wong made the decision in 1978 to settle in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for a career as an artist. Largely self-taught, his work was inspired by his immediate surroundings and ranged from uncompromising renderings of the Lower East Side’s decay to colorful paintings of the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco. Wong also painted a series of work entitled “Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired”, artworks identical in color and shape to standard city traffic signs that utilized sign-language of the deaf to express their message.

In 1982 at the group exhibition “Crime Show” held at the collective gallery ABC No Rio in the Lower East Side, Martin Wong met poet Miguel Piñero, a leading member of the Nuyorican literary movement and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Short Eyes”. Shortly after their meeting, Piñero moved into Wong’s apartment which began a relationship that would last until Piñero’s death in 1988. Through Piñero association, Wong became more integrated into the local Latino community; he began a series of collaborative work with Piñero that became entitled “Urban Landscapes”. This series of paintings combined Wong’s meticulous cityscapes and stylized sign-language with Piñero’s prose and poetry. Wong presented these paintings at a solo exhibition in 1984 at curator and recording artist Barry Blinderman’s Semaphore Gallery East.

In 1985 and 1986, Wong began a series of work entitled “The Last Picture Show”, a series of life-size images of shuttered storefronts. He amassed a large graffiti collection while living in New York and, in 1989, co-founded with friend Peter Broda the Museum of American Graffiti on the East Village’s Bond Street. By the 1990s, Wong’s work became quieter and more grim as gentrification took over the neighborhood and his peers were dying for drug addiction and AIDS.

In 1993, Matin Wong had a solo exhibition, “Chinatown Paintings”, at the San Francisco Art Institute. In these works based on his own memories and experiences, he presented an outsider’s view of Chinatown that lent itself more to myth than reality. Following complications in his health in 1994, Wong donated his graffiti collection to the Museum of the City of New York. In 1994, he was diagnosed with AIDS and, with declining health, moved back to San Francisco. He died under his parents’ care at the age of fifty-three from AIDS-related illness in August of 1999.

A retrospective of Martin Wong’s work was held at the Bronx Museum of Arts in 2015. His work can be found in many public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Syracuse University Collection, the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.

Note: Martin Wong’s 1984 painting, “My Secret World”, included in the above images, is an image of his first residence in Manhattan, a cheap hotel bedroom on the Lower East Side with a view to the South Street Seaport. The bedroom pictured is tidy with three of his earlier works on the walls. One depicts a series of hands sprouting from white cuff=links, The hands spell out in American Sign Language the words “Physiatrist Testify: Demon dogs drive man to murder”, which references the serial killer Son of Sam who stalked New York in 1983. Included in the books presented on the dresser are fictional works by Raymond Chandler and John Cheever.

Second Insert Image: Martin Wong, “Starry Night”, 1982, Oil on Canvas, 55.9 x 76.2 cm, Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York

Third Insert Image: Martin Wong, “Crossing Sign”, Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired Series, 1990, DOT Aluminum Steel Signs

Fourth Insert Image: Martin Wong, “Angelito”, 1992, Acrylic on Canvas, 61 x 56.2 cm, Private Collection

Bottom Insert Image: Martin Wong, “Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball”, 1978-1981, Acrylic on Canvas, 122 x 122 cm, Private Collection

Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi

Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi, “Subway Exit, 1946, Oil on Canvas, 76.2 x 66 cm, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University

Born in April of 1906 in Cairo, Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi was an American painter. He was the only son of Talmiro Guglielmi, a violinist and viola player with Arturo Toscanini’s orchestra, and Dometilla Secchi Guglielmi, who returned to her native Milan shortly after her son’s birth. Talmiro Guglielmi toured with Toscanini’s orchestra throughout Australia, Europe and the Americas. After a tour through Canada, Brazil and North America with Russian ballerina Anna Pavolova, he brought his family to New York City where the settled in the largely Italian immigrant community of East Harlem.

At a young age, Louis Guglielmi pursued an interest in sculpture and worked in a local bronze casting facility in the city. During his high school years,.he began in 1920 evening art classes at the National Academy of Design and studied sculpture at Manhattan’s Beaux Arts Institute. In 1923, Guglielmi  left high school to concentrate full-time on courses at the National Academy. At his life drawing class, Guglielmi met fellow student Gregorio Prestopino, who is known for his  social realist scenes of the urban working-class executed  in the style of the Ashcan School . Through their college years, the two men shared a studio space in the city. 

After his graduation in 1926, Guglielmi struggled financially for six years and took various inadequately-paid jobs to support his painting. In 1927 at the age of twenty-one, he was granted citizenship in the United States. Guglielmi relocated in 1932 to the New England area and, once again, began a serious period of intense painting. With the aid of a fellowship, he was able to spend eleven summers at the prestigious MacDowell Art Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The solitude of the scenery surrounding the colony and Guglielmi’s interactions with his fellow artists inspired him and focused a new  direction to his work: the plight of humanity caught in the midst of the Great Depression.

During the early 1930s as the Depression settled on the country, Louis Guglielmi applied for relief from the government. In 1934, he managed to secure meager wages as a painter for the Works Project Administration, the federal New Deal program the employed jobseekers, mostly men and not formally educated, for public works projects. This program subsidized many artists and craftsmen in the 1930s. Guglielmi worked with the WPA for five years during which time he traveled and painted both easel work and murals.

Having seen Guglielmi’s work for the WPA, prominent art dealer Edith Gregor Halpert invited him in 1936 to join the group of artists at her Downtown Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village. In 1938, Guglielmi showcased his paintings in his first solo exhibition which was held at Halpert’s gallery to major critical acclaim. On May 22nd in 1939, he married Anne Di Maggio, who seven years later gave birth to a son.

Louis Guglielmi’s work just before the Second World War were often bleak images of suffering. He spent 1943 through 1945 in the United States Army Corps of Engineers, a time in which he did not produce any paintings. Guglielmi’s existing work, though, was in included in the 1943 “American Realists and Magic Realists” exhibition held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. After his experiences in the war, Guglielmi’s work changed in style and content; he became more concerned with the formal issues of society: poverty, the living and working conditions of the poor, and the political issues of the time.

Guglielmi became influenced at this time by the work of Fauvist painters Joan Miró and Henri Matisse, and the bold, colorful paintings of his friend Stuart Davis. His paintings lightened in spirit and communicated to the viewer a sense of energy and optimism. Guglielmi’s body of work contains aspects of all the various movements of his time: surrealism, cubism, geometric abstraction, regionalism and social realism. His experiments with form, a major component of his work, set him apart from the prevailing American style of Abstract Expressionism, which in effect marginalized his status as a contemporary painter.

Louis Guglielmi was an instructor of art at Manhattan’s New School of Social Research from 1950 to 1951. Beginning in June of 1950, he taught at Louisiana State University, first as a visiting artist and later in the position of an associate professor which he held until 1953. In 1952, Guglielmi was presented a Temple Gold Medal from the Pennsylvania Academy in recognition of his work.

With the intention of remaining in Europe for the summer, Guglielmi  traveled to Italy in the spring of 1956. However, after four days in Italy, he returned back to the United States. That summer, Guglielmi took his wife and ten-year old son to their new home in Amagansett, a small town located on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. On September 3rd of 1956, Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi died of a sudden heart attack. A retrospective of his work, entitled “O. Louis Guglielmi” The Complete Precisionist”, was held in February of 1961 at New York’s distinguished Nordness Gallery. 

Note: In January of 2014, Guglielmi’s works, including his 1946 “Subway Exit”, were presented as part of the Georgia Museum of Art’s exhibition “Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy”. This show was a historical reproduction of the 1946 traveling exhibition “Advancing American Art” that was sponsored by LeRoy Davidson of the U.S. State Department. The  2014 “Art Interrupted” show reunited all the paintings of the original exhibition and scrutinized the U.S. State Department’s use of fine art as a tool in the Cold War. Works in the exhibition included paintings by such artists as Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, Ben Shahn, and Stuart Davis.

LeRoy Davidson’s intent for the 1946 traveling collection was to exhibit the diversity of American art, demonstrate the power of democracy, and promote good will among the United States, Europe and Latin America. The exhibition, however, received intense criticism from the press. Provoked by the press, members of the U.S. Congress and President Harry Truman deemed the art in the show un-American. By 1948, all seventy-nine works in the show were auctioned off. Davidson was forced to resign, his position in the State Department was abolished, and the entire project ridiculed in the press.

Second Insert Image: O. Louis Guglielmi, “The Amrican Dream”, 1935, Oil on Masonite, 54.6 x 76.2 cm, Private Collection

Third Insert Image: o. Louis Guglielmi, “One Third of a Nation”, 1939, Oil and Tempera on Wood, 76.2 x 61 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Fifth Insert Image: Osvaldo Louis Guglielmi, “View in Chambers Street”, 1936, Oil on Canvas, Private Collection

Bottom Insert Image: O. Louis Guglielmi, “Relief Blues”, circa 1938, Tempera on Fibreboard, 61.1 x 76.2 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

 

Calendar

A Year: Day to Day Men: 12th of September, Solar Year 2018

The Garden Wall

September 12, 1898 marks the birthdate of the social realist artist Ben Shahn.

Ben Shahn began his path to becoming an artist when his family left Lithuania and moved to Brooklyn, New York. He was trained in his early years as a lithographer and graphic designer; his experience in these fields would be apparent in his future works, combining text with images. Although Shahn attended New York University as a biology student in 1919, he left to pursue art at City College in 1921 and later at the National Academy of Design.

Ben Shahn’s twenty-three gouache paintings of the trials of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti communicated the political concerns of his time. Shahn followed the trial closely and believed, like many people worldwide, that the two men were not given a fair trial. Shahn participated in protests and made his gouache paintings in 1931 and 1932. Many were based on photographs appearing in the newspapers. “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” was exhibited in 1932 and received acclaim for both the public and the critics.

Ben Shahn’s work came to the attention of Diego Rivera. In May and June of 1933, Shahn served as an assistant to Rivera while Rivera executed his New York Rockefeller Center mural. During the Depression years, Shahn worked for the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, photographing the American south; his social documentary style emphasized the people’s living and working conditions. Shahn also painted many fresco murals for schools, post offices, and government buildings; the art he made affirmed his social justice ideals and the legacy of the Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Shahn mixed different genres of art; however, his body of work is distinctive for its lack of traditional portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. He used both expressive and precise visual languages, which he united through the consistency of using a strong line in his work. Shahn’s background in lithography contributed to his devotion to detail; his work is also noted for his use of unique symbolism, often compared to the imagery in Paul Klee’s drawings.

Ben Shahn’s social-realist vision informed his approach to art; his examination of the status quo inspired his creative process. Although Shahn often explored contested themes of modern urban life, organized labor, immigration and injustice, he did so while maintaining a compassionate tone. Shahn identified himself as a communicative artist, challenging the esoteric pretensions of art, which he believed disconnect the artists and their work from the public.

Douglas Crockwell

Douglas Crockwell, “Machinists”, 1932, Oil on Canvas 122 x 92 cm., Private Collection

Douglass Crockwell spent a good part of his career creating illustrations and advertisements for the “Saturday Evening Post”. His paintings appeared in promotions for Friskies dog food and in a poster for the American Relief for Holland, which won him a gold medal from the Art Director’s Club in 1946.

Crockwell created murals and posters for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, and also experimented with short flip-card films that could be viewed through a mutoscope. A few years before he died, Crockwell estimated that he had drawn four hundred full-page images, of which more than three billion prints had been made.

Mitchell Siporin

Mitchell Siporin, “Endless Voyage”, 1946, Oil on Canvas, University of Iowa Museum of Art

Mitchell Siporin was a social realist artist who focused on labor issues. After his family moved to Chicago, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago (Crane College), and in the early 1930s he worked as an illustrator for Esquire, The New Masses, and Ringmaster. Siporin gained early attention for his Haymarket series of drawings illustrating a notorious labor riot in Chicago in 1886 (1932–35).

From 1937 to 1942 he painted public murals for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), including a mural for in a St. Louis post office that was the largest single government commission. It is among the few WPA projects to show social conflict. Siporin was represented in the Century of Progress exhibition at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, and after the U.S. entered the conflict of World War II he joined the army, serving in North Africa and Italy.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1945) and the Prix de Rome for painting (1949). Siporin began teaching as director of the summer school program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1948. He founded the Department of Fine Arts at Brandeis University in 1954, where he taught until shortly before his death.

Daniel Robinson

Daniel Robinson, “Railroad Tunnel”, Oil on Canvas, 2016

Daniel Robinson is a young artist based in the small town of Fossil, Oregon. His paintings, often depicting idealized mixtures of industrial and rural landscapes, recall the social realist images of the 1930s and ‘40s. Robinson has been associated with Boston’s Mercury Gallery since 2000.

Stephen Greene

Stephen Greene, “The Mourners”, Oil on Canvas, 1946, 20 x 30 Inches

Stephen Greene was a painter from Valley Cottage, New York, known for his abstract paintings and in the 1940′s for his social realist figure paintings. Greene taught at Princeton University for many years where he was teacher to many well-known figures in the art world including Frank Stella and art critic and historian Michael Fried.

Greene had more than 2 dozen solo exhibitions of his work in leading art galleries in New York City. He also taught at the Art Students League of New York for several decades. After the mid-1950s and until his death Greene’s mature work was related to abstract expressionism, color field painting and surrealism.

“I have always wanted to achieve a profoundly moving image, to make of paint and canvas a visual fact worth dealing with on many levels. Art does set up a particular world and the one that suits my vision of what I see, know, deals with the dark side of experience as well as its enchantment and pleasures. In art, our hopes and desires shape our visions of fulfillment for more than the actual experiences that we may have.

My use of color and light that is mysterious is of an interior perception. My formal stance is very much involved with an underlying structure that is insistent to the life of the work. I remain subject ridden and how a vertical divides the space from top to bottom, from my earliest works to the present, is as much subject matter as overt reference to the known world. I prefer to make paintings that are sufficiently individual to be granted their own place.”                            — Stephen Greene, Valley Cottage, New York, 1999.

George Tooker

Paintings by George Tooker

George Clair Tooker, Jr. was an American figurative painter whose works are associated with the Magic Realism and Social Realism movements. Working with the then-revitalized tradition of egg tempera, Tooker addressed issues of modern-day alienation with subtly eerie and often visually literal depictions of social withdrawal and isolation. He was one of nine recipients of the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

Images from Top to Bottom;

George Tooker, “The Subway”, 1950, Egg Tempera on Composition Board, 46 x 92 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

George Tooker, “Divers”, 1962, Egg Tempera on Gessoed Panel, 30 x 46 cm, Private Collection

George Tooker, “Lunch”, 1964, Egg Tempera on Gessoed Panel,  50.8 x 66 cm, Columbus Museum of Art

George Tooker, “Window II”, 1956, Egg Tempera on Panel, 61 x 46 cm, Collection of James and Barbara Palmer