The WPA (Works Progress Administration) and the Federal Art Project

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Artists wishing to be considered for the Federal Art Project under the auspices of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) had to prove they were poor and had to submit samples of their work. They first had to apply for Home Relief and then after being confirmed as impoverished could apply to the Federal Art Project. If accepted on the Project, artists would receive a regular salary of about $24 a week. Art critic Harold Rosenberg's wife recalled the reaction of New York artists to the start of the program: "They were shouting with the excitement of children at a zoo... 'Hurry. Grab some paintings. Hurry! Grab anything you've got framed and come along." (DK121)

By mid-November approximately 1100 artists were working for the WPA, many in the Mural Division, headed by Burgoyne Diller. (DK) Artists who worked in the Mural Division included Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky. (DK125/126/128)

Burgoyne Diller:

"I had to scheme to get work for abstract artists. I succeeded some of the time, like getting Gorky transferred from the easel project to my mural project and obtaining for him a commission to paint walls at Newark Airport. In negotiating for the work I had to agree that it would not be abstract." (IS104)

From December 1935 to July 1937 Gorky was paid $2,026.80 by the WPA - equivalent to a monthly salary of $103.40. He paid $50/month for his studio, leaving him $53.50 for all other expenses. (BA248)

Balcomb Greene [artist and WPA supervisor]:

"As a member of the Mural Division of the Federal Arts Project, Gorky joined the Artists Union. He attended Union meetings, served on committees, and spoke with much feeling on many issues. He considered it his mission to instill into the rank and file of the organization a respect for art and a suspicion of the political adventurer. He would gain the floor on the most inauspicious occasions and declaim about the contours in Ingres, which personally I do not think much attracted him. In his broken explosive English, he seemed to give the impression that Ingres might at any moment lend his support to the cause. I could become furious when he was not on my side. Sometimes, he would seem extremely witty. I wanted Gorky with me intimately." (BA251)

The art favoured by the WPA tended to be figurative rather than abstract. Burgoyne Diller later recalled the difficulty he had in getting assignments for abstract artists: "I mean if I had ten jobs going, I could afford to start one that might be aesthetically a little questionable to some people." When architect William Lescaze was commissioned to build a housing project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Diller thought that the abstract painters "should have walls to work on" adding "we could probably have these abstract painters do things that would be very decorative, very colourful... something to give a little life and gaiety to these rather bleak buildings." Artists working on the Williamsburg project included Balcomb Greene and Willem de Kooning. Although de Kooning did not complete any murals during the six months he worked on the project, one of his preparatory works was included in the "New Horizons in American Art" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. (DK125/126/128)

Another interesting project was a collaboration with the French artist, Léger, suggested by Frederick Kiesler, the Austrian architect who would later design Peggy Guggenheim's innovative gallery, The Art of This Century in 1942. Among the artists who worked on the Léger project were Willem de Kooning and Balcomb Greene. De Kooning was at first unaware that Léger was involved but later recalled that when the artists on the project first met with Léger, "it was like meeting God." De Kooning thought that Léger "looked like a longshoreman, a big man... His collar was frayed but clean. He wasn't like a great artist; there was nothing artistic about him... Léger became a human being for us the very first day. He wouldn't permit you to hold him in awe. We were supposed to submit our sketches for his criticism. I remember the first time we passed them all around the group. Léger just took a long look and without saying a word began to whistle. We all burst into laughter." (DK127) The art was meant to be used for the French Line pier on Hudson River, but when Léger met with the head of the French Line the project was cancelled. The head of the French Line refused to give his permission because, he said, Léger was a Communist. (DK129)

Willem de Kooning:

"Léger was surprised to find so many New York artists - more than in Paris - who were aware of his painting, understood it, and were able to work with him... We all worked in the same room at Thirty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue. It was like a shop. Léger took us to the French Line pier. He decided to do the outside, where there was ironwork, and we would do the inside rooms, each of us was to have one panel. He sent us to the Museum of Natural History to get ideas about the sea and to draw undersea objects - ordinary objects. We were to do our own designs and he would criticize them and unify them. We really wouldn't be like assistants; he was very nice about this. He talked to us as if we were professionals. But he did seem a little bored with our sketches." (IS52)

More than 200,000 artworks were created under the Federal Art Project. Many of the works, however, were destroyed or lost. The sculptor Chaim Gross once noticed a truck driving up Canal Street in New York filled with canvases which the driver had bought in bulk from the WPA to sell to plumbers to use for wrapping pipes as canvas was scarce during the war. Gross bought the unstretched canvases. Among them were two abstract paintings by Arshile Gorky.

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