When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter


The technical crew worked only from Monday through Thursday, and I didn’t return to the island until the next Monday morning. I saw immediately that the marvelous adhesive was a serious failure. It had dried as hard as stone, but in the process it had swelled and blistered in places and had created ugly bumps and hollows in the canvas surface. We found that no rolling or pressure would smooth out these unsightly swellings. There was no cure but to cut through the painting at many points, dig out the blistered lumps of hardened glue, and patch the injured painting as best we could. That night I went home in despair. Next morning on my Way back to Ellis Island I picked up the Tribune . There it was—“That big mural at Ellis.Island won’t stay put,” wrote the Tribune , and went on to present a slapstick account of our troubles. On the Ellis Island ferry that morning I leaned over the rail looking at the waters of New York Harbor gliding” past and thought it might be better to slip over the side and have the agony over with. Something in the water caught my eye—a condom. Suddenly I was aware that the harbor was a mass of floating condoms—thousands, millions of them. I decided to wait and die some other way.

We repaired the damage after many days of hard work, and the remainder of my canvas sections were mounted successfully with white lead. I believe it was in the spring of 1937 that the completed mural was finally unveiled. The project invited a small group of interested people to attend. Ernest Peixotto was there representing the Mural Painters Society. Mrs. McMahon and the commissioner greeted each other cordially. Holger Cahill, the national director of the project, said to me, “Well, this puts you among the big contenders—though I’m not sure who they are!” I don’t recall that anybody was there from the Tribune .

In the autumn of 1937 the WPA office called me in to discuss an important project. Mrs. McMahon, Harry Knight, and Burgoyne Diller told me that they had for a long time tried unsuccessfully to secure the walls of New York’s public libraries as locations for mural decoration, but the library board had steadfastly declined to co-operate. They had decided on a frontal assault. If they could succeed in securing the main building on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, the branches should fall into their hands without trouble. With this aim, Diller had approached Mr. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, a member of the board of trustees of the library and chairman of the Art Commission of the City of New York, and had told him bluntly that it appeared that Mr. Stokes was hostile to young artists and indifferent to their fate. Mr. Stokes had been shocked by the charge and had denied it. Diller said that Mr. Stokes should prove his good faith by agreeing at least to look at sketches for those big empty spaces in the library’s third-floor hall, spaces designed by the architects Carrère and Hastings to contain mural paintings but left empty through the years. Stokes agreed.

This was the formidable task Mrs. McMahon and her project supervisors charged me with. I believe they selected me to spearhead their scheme because I had demonstrated at Ellis Island a capacity for endurance. When I met Mr. Stokes, I knew at once what I was in for. He was the greatest stickler for detail I have ever known. This extended to every aspect of the library project from beginning to end, from the punctuation of the contract between the Art Project and the library to the last detail of my paintings. I hung on by my teeth.

Stokes was a most remarkable man, and my association with him was one of the most difficult but also one of the most rewarding of my life. He had been an architect in his younger days—the Brummer Gallery on Fiftyseventh Street, one of the loveliest small buildings in New York, was his work. (It still stands, and since the closing of the Brummer Gallery it has housed a number of other businesses.) His life work was an incredible series of volumes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island , in which he literally catalogued the physical history of New York City, building by building and block by block, from the Battery to the Bronx. When I knew him, he was a solitary old man living out his days in an apartment in the East Sixties to which he had moved from Greenwich, Connecticut, after the death of a wife whom he adored. From the beginning he made the library murals his own project, and I believe that while the work went on, it was almost as much his concern as it was mine.