Back in the 1980’s, in what our President and First Lady like to call the “greed decade”-to distinguish it, I suppose, from the Clinton-led, Reagan-free, officially approved boom years of the 1990’s-I met a young Wall Street trader who was deep into collecting Depression art. You probably know the sort of art I mean: drawings of cloth-capped men standing in bread lines or selling apples on street corners; lithographs of striking factory workers and disaffected coal miners; woodcuts of exploited cotton-pickers and lynchings in the South; and cartoons of bloated capitalists and corrupt politicians in the company of the fallen women with whom they took their pleasure.
For the benefit of latecomers to this century, in whose minds the history of the decades preceding their own arrival on the scene is sometimes a little vague, I should also explain that the Depression-the Great Depression, as it was sometimes called-took place in the 1930’s. It came just after the prosperity of the Jazz Age in the 1920’s and just before the prosperity of the war economy in the 1940’s. In other words: ancient history.
I thought it odd that a prospering young Wall Street trader, who showed no other obvious signs of harboring eccentric tastes or a keen interest in radical political ideas, seemed to derive so much satisfaction from the acquisition of so many dispiriting depictions of misery, exploitation and loss. Was it merely a question of surrounding himself with reminders of “There but for the grace of God go I”? Or was it, perhaps, that prime examples of Depression art-especially works on paper such as this fellow collected-were, relative to the many more glamorous art objects on offer, unfashionable and therefore dirt cheap? Or was it, more simply, a way of appeasing an uneasy social conscience while indulging in one of the few remaining pleasures that-unlike sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco and delicious food-doesn’t actually threaten to shorten your life?
However we may account for this curious appetite for images of deprivation in the ranks of the most affluent among us, I can attest to the fact that it persists as a factor on the current art scene. A marginal factor, perhaps, but a factor nonetheless. Even in the boom years of the 1990’s, there are still well-heeled people who are drawn to art of this persuasion, and there is no shortage of inventory to satisfy their desire to take possession of its lugubrious depictions of the dispossessed. In January, the ACA Gallery devoted a large exhibition to the art of William Gropper to mark the centenary of the artist’s birth, and currently the Forum Gallery is offering us a show called Radical Views: George Grosz and Philip Evergood.
About the art of William Gropper the only thing to be said at this late date is that it is all just as awful as I remembered it was. To call his pictures painted cartoons, as people often have, is, I think, a slander on the fine art of political cartooning. Most of the oeuvre amounts to little more than Stalinist clichés, and what can still be looked at without embarrassment-embarrassment, that is, that stuff like this was ever taken seriously as art -may best be described as sub-Grosz: the drawing called The Coffee Pot (1932), for example.
George Grosz was something else, of course. In his heyday, which was in Germany from the end of World War I to his departure for New York in 1933, he performed brilliantly as an unforgiving satirist of Weimar decadence. Deeply involved in the German Dada movement, which was far more political than its Duchampian counterpart in America, Grosz inevitably succumbed for a time to Communist influence and produced his share of facile propaganda art. Yet his visceral hatred of all forms of absolute authority just as inevitably made him an unreliable Bolshevik. At his best, he was a first-rate draftsman-the painting medium was never to be his real métier-and some of his finest drawings are anything but satires. See, for example, the splendid Portrait of a Man and the equally fine portrait of Mother Grosz (both 1925) in the current exhibition. Even an earlier satirical drawing like The Duel (1919) exhibits a restraint and command that are too often missing from the later work.
The work of Grosz’s American period-he died in 1959, shortly after his return to Germany-is often said to be problematic. It is certainly more problematic than the art of his Weimar years, uneven as some of that may be. In America he could no longer function as a lacerating satirist, and the satires he devoted to Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930’s were never in his best vein. The fact is, he loved this country too much to ridicule it in the manner of his Weimar satires, and in America he wanted desperately to produce an art worthy of the museums. In the end, he even denounced satire as an inferior form of expression. He returned to Germany a broken man.
Still, I am not sure it is entirely fair to Philip Evergood to exhibit his paintings and drawings in the company of George Grosz. Whatever his other failings, Grosz was a master draftsman in his greatest work, and Evergood was never an artist in that class. He wasn’t a very good painter, either. A picture like Minehead: In Memory of Zola’s Germinal (1940) is a feeble attempt to recycle Depression-era sentimentalities by way of 19th-century literary sources. The Indestructibles (Prisoners) (1946) is even worse. And when Evergood departed from his social and political themes to wander into the realm of pictorial fantasy, he had no gift for that, either. While not quite as hopeless a case as Gropper, his work, too, is a reminder that a good deal of Depression art was valued for its political content and not for its artistic accomplishment.
In the catalogue of the Radical Views show, Barbara Krulik writes of Grosz and Evergood that “they used their work as a forum for social conscience, to support class struggle and to criticize the inconsistencies in their societies.” How George Grosz would have winced at a euphemism like “inconsistencies”! But the real point is that it is only as stale evidence of what “social conscience” meant in Depression art that work like that of Evergood and Gropper now survives, whereas even the most violent of Grosz’s satirical drawings continues to interest us as art. There is a difference, after all, between artistic achievement and historical memorabilia-never mind Stalinist memorabilia-and this juxtaposition of work by Evergood and Grosz demonstrates that difference with a vengeance.
Radical Views: George Grosz and Philip Evergood remains on view at the Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue at 58th Street, through Feb. 21.