The collapse of the world economy in 1929, accompanied by the apparent success of the new Soviet state, got many American artists fired up for drastic social change, if not outright revolution. This exhibition focuses on the members of the John Reed Club and the American Artists’ Congress, two organizations that promoted the ideals of Marx and world communism.
Since the exhibition is based on (but not limited to) the Block Museum’s own collection of prints, Chicago artists get the most wall space, especially Morris Topchevsky, Carl Hoeckner and Henry Simon. Without exception, their work is dramatic, figurative, hard-hitting and on message. But, that’s about all they had in common. Reflecting his study with Diego Rivera in Mexico, Topchevsky depicted worker/victims with the stately innocence found in fourteenth-century Italian fresco. Hoeckner was closer to German Expressionism, depicting the shocked and nearly zombified characters that would continue to appear in Chicago figurative art throughout the rest of the century. Simon was more theatrical, whimsical and entertaining.
And then there are the artists from New York City. They upheld art for art’s sake. Stuart Davis may have been the National Chairman of the American Artists’ Congress, but his abstract, linear depiction is more suitable for a Modernist manifesto. Raphael Soyer seems more intent on Rembrandt-like characterization and atmospheric chiaroscuro than in arousing political allegiance. Kenneth Hayes Miller depicted bourgeois shoppers with such a light touch. It drew sharp ideological criticism at the time from the great art historian Meyer Schapiro.
Overall, there is a surprising variety of art from artists who shared a similar ideological commitment, but one thing they all had in common: none were looking inward. They were all convinced that there was something about the world that was true and needed to be told during their transformative moment in human history. That’s what makes each image so exciting, even if it is only depicting a frumpy Chicago street on a gray Chicago day in Reginald Marsh’s “Chicago 1930,” which is, by the way, one fabulous watercolor.
The moment would vanish as soon as Hitler and Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August of 1939, bringing the “Red Decade” to a close. Properly chastened, progressive American artists have explored introspection ever since, leaving social idealism to vendors of sentimentality, and Marxism to university professors. (Chris Miller)
Through June 22 at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston.