With Bernie Sanders barely an echo now, and with Republican president-elect Donald Trump sweeping up more than 60m votes on his way to the White House, the notion of a left-wing insurgency—especially a Communist one—is a thought reserved for conspiracy theorists.
But there was a time when the spectre of Communism haunted the US, and when the Communist Party USA demanded attention. At Galerie St. Etienne in New York, the show You Say You Want a Revolution is devoted to the work of those artists in (or close to) the party from the 1930s to the present. It reminds us that there were themes in art, and in politics, that got far more attention in an earlier era than they do today.
Posters lead the way here, with rallying cries and images intended to reach an audience that might not see paintings in museums; the more easily-reproducible the portraits of Marx, Engels or Lenin, the better.
Heroic icons also found their way into the paintings of agitators like William Gropper, who urged artists to make propaganda. Yet this was not simply art for propaganda’s sake. Gropper’s Little Steel (around 1938), a depiction of a battle in the streets, looks inspired by Poussin as much as by any party line. The drawing Strike Scene (1934) by the Ukrainian-born Louis Lozowick, in which a black worker and a strikebreaking cop with a club do battle, has the improbable grace of a revolutionary pas de deux.
There was even some humour. Study for Men Without Women (1932), a drawing by Stuart Davis for his mural for the Men’s Lounge at Radio City Music Hall, is a satirical tribute to the accoutrements of the bourgeois male—Modernism as mockery.
But much of the work in the show is in a somber palette, making you wonder about the radiant future that the Communist party promised. By 1929, the Great Depression made images of poverty and homelessness inevitable. Homeless men in New York were a subject for Raphael Soyer (born in Russia in 1899) who paid them to pose in his studio.
His unsentimental In the City Park (1935) groups three jobless men together on a bench under a blue sky as people walk by blithely in the background of Union Square. While images of breadlines show the throngs of an undifferentiated proletariat, this group portrait observes fragile souls.
Other pictures, of plutocrats, draw on anti-heroic Weimar grotesquery. Two works by George Grosz—a German former Communist who kept a low profile in Joseph McCarthy's America—reflect those roots. Many of the show’s artists, like Grosz and Ben Shahn, were born in Europe, and brought with them artistic traditions and political affinities to the US. The pioneering Armenian abstractionist Arshile Gorky admired Stalin (who himself called artists “the engineers of human souls”), but disparaged pictures of poverty and oppression as “poor art for poor people.”
The conventional wisdom is that narrative painting and representational art gave way to abstraction after the Second World War, partly because content-free abstraction could find a market among wealthy buyers. The Red Scare of the 1950s chased much of the left away from the party and party subjects. Sectarian infighting also culled the ranks.
Yet as the smoke cleared after Hiroshima, the painter Philip Evergood (born Howard Blakshi in 1901) painted Renunciation (1946), which imagined a panoramic atomic future. His vision is of a nuclear blast in the Pacific that blows ships out of the water. (It was painted around the time the US began nuclear weapons testing on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.) Under mushroom clouds, we see the survivors: apes who read books and presumably run the show after the demise of humanity. Renunciation is a parable of devolution. (It also anticipates the tale of the Planet of the Apes movie franchise, where apes and ruins are what remain after global war.)
The volatile entropy of Renunciation, with its deadpan gallows humor, might not have sat well with party censors. The party line at the time (when the USSR was also seeking the bomb) was a message of peace. Pablo Picasso’s Dove (1949)—reproductions of which were distributed worldwide by the French Communist party—remains one of his most–reproduced works. (Picasso, like Leger, was a member of the French Communist party, and was a major donor to its cause.)
As US Communist Party membership declined in the 1950s and 1960s, artists who continued to address political themes in their work found a home with the New Left, a vague and broad movement that was fuelled as much by the Civil Rights movement as it was by opposition to capitalism. That tendency was broad enough to include the painter Leon Golub and the transgressive cartoonist Robert Crumb, and many other in between. (Like the title of this show, it was more Lennon than Lenin.)
Yet some on the left never abandoned shady images of scarcity and class struggle. Sue Coe, a transplant from England, is a rare youthful party member (in her 60s) in what is now a gerontocracy. Her dark drawing, NY Soup Kitchen, a week before Xmas (1992), is as grim as anything from the Great Depression. Especially in the age of Trump, the party may be (to paraphrase Leon Trotsky) on the trash heap of history, but the injustices of capitalism are still with us.
• David D’Arcy is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper.
• You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party, Galerie St. Etienne, New York, until 11 February 2017