WPA Murals and American Abstract Artists

WPA/FAP Mural Division of New York City

During the Depression era, New Deal art projects of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Administration (1933 – 1943) employed artists to create murals, paintings and sculpture for public buildings including federal buildings, post offices, and courthouses. New Deal artists were also hired to create thousands of portable works of art that were loaned or allocated to museums and other public agencies.

Artwork created under the New Deal is often thought of as WPA art. There were four New Deal art projects. Three were administered by the Department of the Treasury: Public Works of Art Project (PWAP); Section of Fine Arts (SECTION), previously called the Section of Painting and Sculpture; and the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). The fourth was the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project (WPA/FAP). The WPA was the largest of the four and was active from August 1935 to July 1943. [1]

In 1935 Audrey McMahon was appointed one of five Regional Directors of the WPA Federal Art Project. McMahon was in charge of the New York region which included New York City (administered as a separate state), New York State, New Jersey and briefly Philadelphia. [2]

That same year Audrey McMahon appointed Burgoyne Diller as Project Supervisor of the New York City WPA/FAP Mural Division. In 1935 Harry Holtzman became Diller’s assistant in charge of abstract painters in the New York City Mural Division. [3]

Both Diller and Holtzman would become founding members of American Abstract Artists. Diller encouraged and expedited transfer of abstract artists from other divisions to the Mural Division. WPA/FAP created an immediate and valuable audience of peers for abstract artists. [4] Holtzman met abstract artists through his position and invited them to meetings when AAA was being formed. In addition to Burgoyne Diller and Harry Holtzman, early AAA members involved in the WPA include Rosalind Bengelsdorf, Ilya Bolotowsky, Harry Bowden, James Brooks, Byron Browne, Georgio Cavallon, Jose de Rivera, Werner Drewes, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, Lee Krasner, Ibram Lassaw, Michael Loew ,George McNeil, Irene Rice Pereira, Ad Reinhardt, Louis Schanker, David Smith, Albert Swinden, John von Wicht, [5] Karl Knaths [6], Esphyr Slobodkina, and Hananiah Harari.

WPA/FAP Mural Projects

Mural Project assignments consist of designing and executing murals and portable panels for public schools, high schools, colleges, hospitals, public and municipal buildings.

The project first surveys the public buildings, and then assigns artists to make preliminary sketches suitable to the nature of the building and consistent with the architectural scheme of the location. After these preliminary sketches have been approved by the Municipal Art Commission, the actual work on the walls is begun. The work is carried out under the constant supervision of the project heads until it is completed and given final approval by the Municipal Art Commission.

—Holger Cahill, National Director of the Federal Art Project of the WPA [7]

Participants in many WPA Federal Arts Projects were routinely required to submit sketches for the approval of WPA committees. The WPA committees evaluated the sketches for their aesthetic merit and suitability of proposed artwork, including sketches that were part of mural project proposals. [8] The murals approved usually contained historical narratives and portraits, depicted the American scene, or portrayed the worker. An exception to this was in the WPA/FAP Region that included New York City, New York State and New Jersey. In that region abstract murals were approved.

Burgoyne Diller persuaded the New York City Art Commission, WPA/FAP administrators, and many sponsors to accept abstract and semi-abstract murals for buildings. He enlisted the help of modern architects William Lescaze and Ian Woodner to accept abstract murals: Lescaze at the Williamsburg Housing Project and Woodner at the Health Building for the 1939 World’s Fair. [9]

Architects were required to approve proposed murals if the mural was to be installed in a new building. Institutions receiving the murals also sponsored them. Sponsorship included a signed agreement and money contributed toward the cost of materials. The government paid the artists’ wages, and the sponsor’s financial contribution guaranteed an interest in the artwork. [10]

Some of the murals created under the WPA/FAP have been preserved while others were painted over, destroyed or have disappeared. AAA founding members painted abstract WPA murals at two locations in New York City that were thought to be lost. These important historical works of art have been restored.

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1. O'Connor, Francis V. The New Deal Art Projects: An Anthology of Memoirs. Washington : Smithsonian Institution, 1972, p. 12.

2. O'Connor, Francis V. The New Deal Art Projects, p. 50, 54. Late in 1939 Audrey McMahon’s title was changed from Regional Director to Assistant to the National Director. (p. 63)

3. Lane, John R. and Susan C. Larsen. Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America 1927-1944. Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute: Pittsburgh. 1983, p. 23-29.

4. O'Connor, Francis V. The New Deal Art Projects, p. 227.

5. Lane, Larsen, p. 22-36 James Brooks is not listed in this reference. His WPA mural, Flight 1942, is on view at the Marine Air Terminal, LaGuardia Airport, New York City.

6. O'Connor, Francis V. Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project, Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973, p. 68.

7. Holger Cahill Papers, 1910-1993 bulk 1910-1960, Series 3: Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project: Administration of the State WPA/FAP. New York, Art Work in Non-Federal Buildings and the Federal Art Project of the City of New York, circa 1939. (Archives of American Art, Reel 5289, Frame 1462). This also lists the Project Supervisors of the New York City Mural Division and how the supervisory work was divided: Burgoyne Diller, Project Supervisor, was in charge of the work in public schools, high schools, colleges, libraries, public and municipal buildings; and Lou Block, Project Supervisor, was in charge of the work in hospitals.

8. Lane, Larsen, p. 22.

9. O'Connor, Francis V. The New Deal Art Projects, p. 227.

10. O'Connor, Francis V. The New Deal Art Projects, p. 232.