WPA Murals and American Abstract Artists

Hospital for Chronic Diseases on Welfare Island

The WPA/FAP hired Ilya Bolotowsky to create a mural, Abstraction 1941, for the Day Room of the Hospital for Chronic Diseases on Welfare Island in New York City. The hospital was later renamed Goldwater Memorial Hospital, and is now called Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility, on what is now Roosevelt Island. Ilya Bolotowsky’s mural fell victim to neglect and was painted over in the 1950s.

Ilya Bolotowsky WPA Mural 1941
The Day Room as it appeared in 1941. Courtesy of the Municipal Art Society of New York

In Ilya Bolotowsky’s statement that accompanied his preliminary sketch for the mural submitted to the New York City WPA/FAP Mural Division, he wrote:

The Day Room of the hospital is circular in shape. It is a very unusually beautiful room. However, its roundness might give some patients a feeling of being walled-in and fenced off from the rest of the world. Therefore, in the mural I have sought to create a feeling of a free, open space…The shapes of the doors and windows all around the day room have been woven into the design…Since straight lines are the most restful things to contemplate, this mural is of straight lines and geometric shapes₊The day room, its architecture, and its mural form one plastic unit…

Ilya Bolotowsky began to recreate the lost mural in acrylic in 1981. Decades before this, Jackson Pollock had found Bolotowsky’s mural maquette in gouache with some discarded WPA material. Lee Krasner later donated it to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Ilya Bolotowsky obtained a photograph of his mural maquette from the Guggenheim Museum, squared off for reference purposes at one inch to the foot to use in recreating the mural. He died before finishing it in 1981. [15]

Restoration of Ilya Bolotowsky WPA Mural
Courtesy of the Municipal Art Society of New York and conservator Luca Bonetti

In 1991 the Municipal Art Society of New York created the Adopt-a-Mural program in partnership with the Art Commission of the City of New York. The Adopt-a-Mural program raises money from corporate and private donors to restore New York City’s most threatened and neglected murals. Seventeen murals were selected to launch the program, including Ilya Bolotowsky’s Abstraction, 1941. [16]

It took the Municipal Art Society a decade to raise the necessary funding for the conservation so that the Adopt-a-Mural program could restore Bolowtowsky’s WPA mural. Andrew Bolotowsky, the artist’s son, guided the conservator and his staff in throughout the restoration. Having the photograph of the mural maquette was fortunate for the conservation because it could be used in feasibility tests for the removal of the over-painting and in the restoration, enabling Luca Bonetti to restore the mural exactly as it was created. [17]

Restoration of Ilya Bolotowsky WPA Mural
Courtesy of the Municipal Art Society of New York and conservator Luca Bonetti

For decades Ilya Blotowsky’s mural was hidden under seven coats of paint including speckled white, yellow, green, pink, and an institutional brown. To restore the mural the conservator and his assistants had to painstakingly chip off the first three paint layers with chisels. The next four layers required a paint removing solvent paste and were then peeled off with a special paper. Adhesive was then injected into the canvas base where detachment was occurring. Any missing areas were carefully in-painted. [18]

Restoration of Ilya Bolotowsky WPA Mural
Courtesy of Gail Gregg / American Abstract Artists

Before long I was combining the biomorphic forms with the rectilinear…My Williamsburg Housing Project Mural of 1937…and the mural for the Hall of Medical Science, New York World’s Fair, 1938-39, are examples. By the time I was designing the fifty foot mural for the Hospital for Chronic Diseases [Coler-Goldwater Hospital] …the biomorphic elements were completely excluded from my work. This last mural was close to the Suprematist style.

—Ilya Bolotowsky [19]

Ilya Bolotowsky WPA Mural After Restoration
Ilya Bolotowsky , Abstraction 1941, oil on canvas, 85 x 600 inches.
Courtesy of the Municipal Art Society of New York and conservator Luca Bonetti

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Notes

15. Phyllis Samitz Cohen, Director of the Adopt-a-Monument/Mural Program, Municipal Art Society of New York, Letter to AAA Web Designer, 19 Feb. 2010 and an email, 25 Feb. 2010. Information about the restoration can be found in Wakin, Daniel J. “Shedding 7 Coats, A Beauty Emerges On a Hospital Wall; Years and Paint Stripped Away From a Noted Abstract Mural,” The New York Times, 27 June 2001.

16. Adopt-a-Mural, catalog, The Municipal Art Society of New York and The Art Commission of the City of New York, 1991. Editor/Author Phyllis Samitz Cohen. p. 5.

17. Cohen.

18. Cohen.

19. Adopt-a-Mural, catalog, p. 24.