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


I had an excellent model working for me, a young man with a splendid physique and a somewhat less admirable character. I made a rough sketch of the figure I had in mind; the model looked at it and said, “Let’s see what we can do!” He found a couple of pieces of stout rope, climbed to the top of our scaffold, fifty feet above, and lashed himself by his wrists to the top beams. The strain was terrific, but for a short time I could see exactly the dynamic posture I needed. I painted furiously as long as he could hold out. The sweat poured from us both. He would collapse and rest at intervals, then return to his crucifixion. After a couple of days of this agony he would disappear, sometimes for a week. The project’s timekeepers would come to check on us, and I would tell them I had sent him off on an errand for me. After several days’ absence he would come back rather sheepishly and tell me he had been on a binge and had run into a pretty girl. According to these accounts, his extra-mural activities were as athletic as any work he did for me. But he made up for these prolonged absences by brilliant performances on the scaffold, and Prometheus got painted.

In the meantime the library prepared to erect a scaffolding in the Great Hall. One day the custodian of the building, Mr. Fedeler, took me to the attic, a vast area of beams and catwalks above the entire building, two blocks long. One of the catwalks passed alongside the top of my vault. We stood looking down on its curving sides, and I mentioned the expensive new roof and said I was glad there’d be no more leaks to contend with. “There was nothing wrong with the old roof,” he said. “The new roof was an unnecessary expense. My maintenance men, going about their work up here, stop off at this spot, and urinate on this vault. I’ve tried, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Finally the scaffold was in place and we ascended to a giddy height and walked over loosely laid boards fifty feet above the marble floor. We cleaned the ceiling area and mounted our mural with white lead. It had been impossible to obtain a single piece of canvas large enough for this space, and my mural was painted in three overlapping strips. This had made its execution difficult, since these overlaps had to be painted out beyond each other four times, but it facilitated installation. It was only necessary to roll out each strip with a white lead paste and then cut through these overlaps and clean up the smears of white lead and retouch these seams. It wasn’t a heroic task like Michelangelo’s on the Sistine ceiling, but it was difficult enough.

By this time the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, the country was at war, and the library began to worry about the scaffolding. This hall was the entrance to the Card Catalogue Room and the enormous Main Reading Room, and it might have been difficult to evacuate hundreds of people through our forest of iron pipes. We were urged to hurry, and we ran a race with time. From my point of view it was essential to get it right once and for all, because I knew it would be a long time before I would ever get up there again.

With the war, the Art Projects quickly came to an end. The administrative agencies continued to operate for a short time, but it was their task now to “liquidate” the projects. Federal support of the arts ended with the end of the emergency that had brought it into being.

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times. It was the best because it was the worst. Business came to a standstill, the banks closed, people everywhere were thrown out of work—and almost overnight New York became the Great Good Place and America the Land of Promise. Until then, every man’s hand had been against every man. Now, suddenly, all were kindly and helpful and filled with compassionate purpose.

I know now that it was our golden age, the only humane era in our history, the one brief period when we permitted ourselves to be good. Before that time, all was business, and after it all has been war. But this golden age was an accident; it was nothing of our choosing. Business is the license to steal; war is the license to kill; and America is the land of license. Two years of killing, during the First World War, were followed by ten years of riotous stealing. After World War I (we hadn’t yet learned that war need never stop at all), Warren Gamaliel Harding cried, “Back to normalcy!” and Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.”

Then suddenly the country went broke. But the ensuing golden age was a fool ‘s paradise. The stealing stopped, but only because there was nothing left to steal. Within ten years business had discovered war, with a rapaciousness that led even a triumphant general to cower before the monster of our “military-industrial complex.” Again as in 1929 we are assured that nothing can now stop the progress of this boom. But what we really know is that this time the bust will be complete and final. This time there will be no relief for anyone—for the artist or for the millionaire. There isn’t going to be any refuge.