WPA Murals and American Abstract Artists

Williamsburg Houses

Murals by Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden were part of a group of works assigned by the New York City Mural Division of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project in 1936 for installation in the public areas of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Houses, a public housing development designed by William Lescaze.

The Williamsburg Housing Project consists of twenty buildings which are being erected under the supervision of the PWA and the New York Housing Authority. The architectural design is functional. These buildings contain social rooms which were open to the WPA/FAP for decoration. The decision to place abstract murals in these rooms was made because these areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment for the tenants. The more arbitrary color, possible when not determined by the description of objects, enables the artist to place an emphasis on its psychological potential to stimulate relaxation. The arbitrary use of shapes provides an opportunity to create color patterns clearly related to the interior architecture and complementing the architect’s intentions.

—Burgoyne Diller, Project Supervisor of the New York City Mural Division [11]

The group of paintings are thought to be the first and among the most important abstract murals in the United States. For decades, art historians and the artists who painted them came to believe that the murals had been lost or destroyed. [12]

Ilya Bolowtowsky Mural Painted Over
Courtesy of Shamil Salah / Hudson and Salah Art Conservation Studios

This mural is shown as it was found in an abandoned recreation room in the Williamsburg Housing Project. Some of the pictorial elements are visible in the background behind and above the graffiti and to the right of The Ya Ya. There is also a faint triangle to the left of the window on the right.

The mural, pictured below, and the other murals were found and restored. Their canvas backings were sliced from the walls with pneumatic chisels. Layers of over-painting and grime were removed from the murals with chemical solvents and the application of heat and dry ice. Some had been covered by as many as eight coats of wall paint and, in two instances, painted with rubber cement so they could be used as self-adhesive bulletin boards. [13] The murals have been placed on long-term loan to the Brooklyn Museum by the New York City Housing Authority and have been on display since 1990 in the continuing exhibition Williamsburg Murals: A Rediscovery.

Ilya Bolowtowsky Untitled 1936 at the Brooklyn Museum
Ilya Bolowtowsky, Untitled 1936. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum. Digital Collections and Services (DIG_E_2009_Williamsburg)

These murals, as well as many others, symbolize the effort that is being made by the WPA/FAP to stimulate rather than to restrict the direction of painting, which, in the last analysis, should be the artists’ prerogative.

— Burgoyne Diller, Project Supervisor of the New York City Mural Division [14]

Balcomb Greene Untitled 1936 at the Brooklyn Museum
Balcomb Greene, Untitled 1936. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. Digital Collections and Services (DIG_E_2009_Williamsburg)
 Paul Kelpe Untitled 1938 (2 panels) at the Brooklyn Museum
Paul Kelpe, Untitled 1938 (2 panels). Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. Digital Collections and Services (DIG_E_2009_Williamsburg)

Williamsburg Murals on Display at the Brooklyn Museum

Ilya Bolotowsky, Untitled 1936, oil on canvas, 85 x 211 inches

Balcomb Greene, Untitled 1936, oil on canvas, 91 1/2 x 129 1/4 inches

Paul Kelpe, Untitled (left panel of two) 1938, oil on canvas, 98 1/4 x 89 1/2 inches and Untitled (right panel of two) 1938, oil on canvas, 98 1/4 x 95 7/8 inches

Albert Swinden, Untitled 1939, oil on canvas, 111 1/2 x 168 inches

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Notes

11. O'Connor, Francis V. Art for the Millions, p. 69.

12. Honan, William H. “Long-Lost Brooklyn Murals Are Being Restored” , The New York Times, 20 July 1988.

13. Honan.

14. O'Connor, Francis V. The New Deal Art Projects, p. 71.