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The Left Front: Radical Art in the "Red Decade," 1929-1940 opens at the Block Museum
Harry Gottlieb, The Strike Is Won, 1937, screenprint on cream wove paper. Collection of Belverd and Marian Needles. © Estate of Harry Gottlieb. Color screenprint, 12 1/4 x 16 1/2 in.
EVANSTON, IL.- Economic downturn engenders a grim mood in the United States. Public protests and police clashes function as a release valve for feelings of economic hopelessness and despair. A new president—accused of "socialism”—fights dysfunctional government, establishes a Wall Street bail out and nationwide social safety net to stem the tide. The threat of military conflict looms abroad and social discord brews on US shores. Immigrant and minorities struggle for civil rights. The United States in the 1930s: plus ça change?

The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940 revisits a moment in American social and cultural history when visual artists, through their membership in the John Reed Club (JRC), joined forces to form a “left front” with writers and intellectuals dedicated to making socially-conscious art. Named for the journalist-activist who witnessed and wrote about the 1917 Russian Revolution, John Reed Clubs spread to thirty cities in the United States, becoming the most prominent organization of American artists committed to social change in the 1930s. Organized in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, JRC artists responded to the crises of their decade by embracing the motto “art as a social weapon.”

The Left Front will be the first exhibition to consider the visual arts legacy of the JRC and its successor organization, the American Artists Congress (AAC). The goal is to reframe the connection between artists and activism during this so-called “Red Decade.” While many of the artists featured in the exhibition are best remembered as beneficiaries of the New Deal Works Progress Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Left Front aims to reclaim a social justice identity for this generation. Eight decades of activist art practice following the 1930s, to today, have proven that socially conscious art is not merely a “Red” phenomenon. This exhibition asks viewers to reconsider these artists as social justice pioneers and to rethink the legacy of “revolutionary” art today. The manifesto of the John Reed Club called on all artists to "abandon decisively the treacherous illusion that art can exist for art’s sake, or that the artist can remain remote from the historic conflicts in which all men must take side." Members worked to forge "a new art that shall be a weapon in the battle for a new and superior world." The exhibition features over 100 prints, paintings, posters, rare books and ephemera by artists associated with these two collectives. Primarily drawn from the collection of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, the exhibition features important loans from private collections and institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, and Jane Addams Memorial Hull-House Museum.

The Left Front is divided into two chronologically driven themes: the Revolutionary Front 1929–1935 and the Popular Front 1935–1940. Artworks featured in the “Revolutionary Front” correspond to the aims and ambitions of the JRC, with its emphasis on the artist’s role in elevating the working class and the use of art as a “weapon” to combat social ills. The “Popular Front” considers the transition in the mid-1930s from the militant tone of the JRC towards the broad-minded approach of the AAC, which sought to unite radical leftists and centrist liberals in a shared battle against Fascism.

Within these chronological guideposts, the exhibition explores six key themes of activism and collectivity. The first subsections “Class Struggle” and “Workers of the World Unite!” explore JRC artists at their most uncompromising. These sections interpret the iconography of works such Harry Sternberg’s haunting “Steel Town” lithographs by returning to the writings of economic theorist Karl Marx, whose essays provided artists on the left with a vocabulary to describe the destructive qualities of capitalism. In these works, the industrial production takes on a brooding, almost sublime quality of desolation. Alexander Stavenitz’s intaglio print, Subway No. 2 shows the alienation and loneliness of a homeless subway rider. Stavenitz’s image contrasts dramatically with Carl Hoeckner’s The Yes Machine an indictment of a wealthy but withered capitalist surrounded by ugly and obsequious “yes men.”

Morris Topchevsky’s watercolor Strike Against Wage Cuts projects the possibility of labor effectively resisting exploitation and oppression through class and interracial solidarity. Artists like Topchevsky identified with figures on the margins of society, particularly African-Americans. He emphasized this by featuring a striker’s placard that reads: “Negro & White Workers Unite.” The JRC devoted an exhibition to the theme of “The Struggle for Negro Rights,” and the Left Front explores this commitment through artworks describing this struggle. Prentiss Taylor, a New York artist and friend of Langston Hughes (members of the New York chapter of the JRC), created a series of prints inspired by Hughes’s one-act play, Scottsboro Ltd. The prints give image to the infamous trial of nine African-American men charged (and later acquitted) for the rape of a white woman. Two of Taylor’s prints, along with a first edition copy of the published play, drive home the message of leftist solidarity with victims of racial injustice.

An interlude titled Revolutionary Art? bridges the two chronological zones. Through these works, visitors can assess the contradictory answers artists offered to the question of what constitutes radical art practice. Is it possible to consider the French-inspired cubism of Stuart Davis, the precision realism of Louis Lozowick, or the geometric abstraction of Werner Drewes all examples of “revolutionary art?” How did the controversial question of form dovetail with these artists’ political motivations? The 1930s is usually considered a decade in which the American avant-garde broke ranks with European-driven modernism, but to what consequence? This exhibition proposes that a reexamination of this period can establish new parameters for reinterpreting the political avant-garde within the complex evolution of American modernism—where the “freedom” of practice characterizing the Popular Front 1930s anticipates how cultural ideologies would develop in the world post-World War II. This section also considers printmaking as a democratic medium – an “Art for the Masses” primed for expedient and abundant production and wide dissemination.

The final section of the exhibition addresses the period of the Popular Front, as figured by the American Artists’ Congress. By 1935 it became clear that the goal of a proletarian world revolution was untenable. Worse, the unyielding factionalism driving Communist revolutionary sentiment alienated potential sympathizers and splintered political parties across the center and left. This disunity, in Germany in particular, allowed for a small but vocal minority to grasp control of power in 1933: the National Socialists led by Adolf Hitler. It was the goal of the Popular Front to build a coalition among Communists, Socialists, Democrats and independent leftists of all persuasions. Under the watchwords of “peace and democracy,” and “against war and fascism,” the AAC organized artists who worked in all styles and with all media. The Popular Front section of the exhibition addresses how artists responded to the Spanish Civil War, including the bombing of Guernica, and the looming specter of world war.

In this section, the rare portfolio titled Gift to Biro-Bidjan (1937) will be presented in its entirety. Produced by the Chicago chapter of the AAC, this ensemble of fifteen stunning and diverse woodcut prints addresses social justice, immigration, and anti-Semitism. It was originally intended for an art museum at Biro-Bidjan, an autonomous Jewish region in the Soviet Union. The portfolio not only includes contributions from important Chicago artists such as Edward Millman, Alex Topchevsky, Morris Topchevksy, and Bernece Berkman—all of whom appear elsewhere in the exhibition—it is also a fascinating document of solidarity between the AAC and the USSR’s utopian, if ultimately harrowing, project for worker collectivization.

The Gift to Biro-Bidjan introduces an important philosophical turn to the exhibition: the USSR as a political and aesthetic inspiration to America’s leftist artists would ultimately prove disillusioning by the end of the “Red Decade.” The portfolio never arrived at its intended destination, and Biro-Bidjan spiraled into famine, poverty, and disease—as did much of Europe with the onset of World War II. The exhibition concludes with the unraveling of the political solidarity that bound the two collectives in the 1930s, a melancholy closure to the caution urged by artist Rockwell Kent in 1936: “seek justification for war only after you shall have established here in America such a paradise for all as may truly deserve the shedding of blood for the preservation of its integrity. That Paradise, to win it and to keep it, is a thing worth fighting for.”

In today’s political and artistic climate, the bracing images by 1930s artist-activists take on new relevance. The questions raised by the artworks in The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade” will form the basis of associated interpretive programming, including scholarly lectures, participatory theater and performance events, printmaking demonstrations, a film series and newspaper-style publication—all exploring how art activism of the past connects to that of the present. We believe the Left Front images are a crucial resource for understanding how moments of social, political, and economic crisis once catalyzed a country's artistic response. In turn, they provide a model of how artists once labored to secure a more equitable present, and hospitable future, for all Americans.

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