Last year Yale University Press was pleased to publish two illuminating studies of 1930s public murals: Swing Landscape: Stuart Davis and the Modernist Mural (selected as Outstanding Exhibition Catalogue of 2020 by the Midwest Art History Society) and Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics, and Public Murals in 1930s New York. In Swing Landscape, Jennifer McComas explores one of the greatest paintings of twentieth-century America and provides an indispensable study of interwar modernism, mural painting, and urban development. In Modernism for the Masses, Jody Patterson transforms standard narratives of modernism and explores the reasons for the omission of the mural’s history from chronicles of American art. The two authors recently discussed the circumstances surrounding the exhibition of Stuart Davis’ energetic and colorful painting, “Swing Landscape,” and considered more broadly the role of abstract murals in New Deal public art.
Jennifer McComas: Jody, you and I have both been researching modernist murals for many years. Recently, we’ve seen a broad resurgence of interest in American murals of the 1930s, especially those produced under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the federally funded programs established by President Roosevelt to offset the worst effects of the Great Depression. Your book considers a range of mural projects that resulted from direct support the government offered to artists between 1935 and 1943. Could you speak to how the federal government’s investment in art at that time—especially public art—benefited both artists and the public?
Jody Patterson: The New Deal embraced culture as a cornerstone of life in a democracy, even during a time (much like our own) of acute social, political, and economic crisis. Art wasn’t just a luxury for the privileged few. It was recognized as a form of expression that contributed to the health and well-being of the nation. Art was a source of knowledge, beauty, and civic pride. And artists were brought out of the ivory tower and enfranchised as essential workers worthy of a living wage. Although the arts projects only accounted for something like 1% of the federal money allotted to the WPA, they are one of the most visible legacies of the New Deal, especially the public murals that brought art to schools, post offices, hospitals, and even prisons in communities across the nation.
One of the most celebrated paintings to have been produced under the WPA is Stuart Davis’s mural, Swing Landscape, dating from 1938, whichis the subject of your catalogue. It’s long been of interest to me too, not least because the abstract murals produced during the 1930s have received far less attention than the better-known figurative works. Swing Landscape was designed as a work of public art but was never installed in the location for which it was intended. What did you learn about the history of its commissioning and the site it was planned for?
Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Swing Landscape, 1938, Oil on canvas. Allocated by the U.S. Government, Commissioned through the New Deal Art Projects, Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University. 42.1.
JM: Swing Landscape, as you point out, was conceived of as a work of public art. It was painted for New York’s Williamsburg Houses, one of the country’s first publically funded housing projects. An ambitious program of public art—both murals and sculptures—was envisioned for this housing complex, which was built between 1936 and 1938. The idea was that residents would be able to interact with art during their everyday lives, that art would enhance their daily routines. Enhancing the quality of life of less advantaged members of society through art was a revolutionary idea. Sadly, concepts like this remain controversial today, when expenditures on art are often seen as “frivolous” and we are seeing massive cuts in arts and humanities education. In the Williamsburg Houses, seventeen murals by twelve painters were initially planned to be installed in social rooms used for recreational purposes and meetings. This placement, along with the completely abstract nature of the mural program, is significant because the murals were not at all connected to the residents’ working lives. Instead, I’d suggest they had a more spiritual intent, in that they were designed to help people relax and to enhance the atmosphere in which they enjoyed their free time. This is a departure from so many other WPA murals which contained didactic or moralistic messages for their viewers. However, for financial and possibly aesthetic reasons, many of the murals commissioned for this site were not ultimately executed and only five were actually installed.
JP: How do you think being in a museum collection has altered our understanding of Swing Landscape? What impact has it had on audiences at the university and elsewhere?
JM: Swing Landscape was one of just two (or maybe three) murals that were completed but not installed in the Williamsburg Houses. For many decades, nobody really knew why it had been rejected from the site—the extant documents relating to this project are not complete, so it was a real mystery of art history! However, the research I undertook for my catalogue leads me to believe that the mural’s overwhelming vibrancy may have been deemed incompatible with the architecture of the Williamsburg Houses.
One important point to note is that most WPA murals, including Swing Landscape, weren’t painted directly on walls, but on canvas, which made them portable. In early 1942 the mural was allocated to Indiana University by the WPA. At this time, we didn’t yet have a museum at the university, and the mural was moved around to various locations on campus. It even served as a backdrop to a swing orchestra at one time! In the early 1940s, not many of the university’s students—or even faculty—were familiar with modern art and many didn’t approve of it. Swing Landscape might have been their first exposure to abstract painting. So even though its audience wasn’t the one for whom it was intended, the mural still had a public function and definitely wasn’t placed in a setting where it would be accessible only to an “elite” audience. Its educational significance probably increased after it obtained a permanent home in the university’s museum in the early 1960s. Many of our artist alumni have told me of the critical formative role Swing Landscape played on their own artistic development.
JP: How do you think our understanding of abstract murals such as Swing Landscape has shifted in the decades since they were painted?
JM: One of the goals of my catalogue was to recover some of the social and political meanings embedded within Swing Landscape’s composition, meanings which were lost or diminished when art historians approached the mural primarily from a formalist perspective. Being displayed in a museum as a large easel painting definitely influences not just how the public encounters and engages with the mural, but even how scholars have understood and interpreted it throughout the past decades.
JP: We’ve both grappled with how Swing Landscape has been decontextualized not only from its origins as a work of public art, but has even been disconnected from the history of federal patronage. This started early, didn’t it?
JM: Yes, the very first time Swing Landscape was displayed to the public was actually in an art gallery. This was in May 1938, in a mural exhibition at the Federal Art Gallery, which was connected with the WPA’s Federal Art Project. So initially, Swing Landscape was still framed very much within a public art context. But a significant shift occurred in 1945, when Swing Landscape was highlighted in Stuart Davis’s first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. It was for this occasion that the mural was first mounted on stretcher bars and placed within a white frame: these interventions definitively transformed it into an easel painting, or at least something that approximated an easel painting. This exhibition took place two years after the WPA was dissolved, so it’s also interesting to note that neither the MoMA exhibition catalogue or even Davis’s own autobiography (also from 1945) discussed Swing Landscape’s relationship to the federal art projects of the New Deal era. These developments in 1945 paved the way for the overwhelmingly formalist perspective which became predominant in discussions of Davis’s work. But to appreciate Swing Landscape for its formal aspects alone misses the richness of its historical specificity, and that’s something we have both been trying to recover in our work on abstract murals of the 1930s, perhaps especially when they end up on the wall of a museum.
Given the current resurgence of interest in New Deal public art, what lessons do you think might be applied now?
JP: Certainly the New Deal arts programs and the role they accorded to art and artists can offer inspiration—if not an actual blueprint—to arts administrators today. President Biden campaigned on a “build back better” platform, and he has consistently been a champion of public support for the culture sector, so one can only hope that art will be part of the renewal process as the nation recovers from the pandemic and comes to terms with a period of protracted social and political turmoil. Interest in the public art of the New Deal era focuses our attention on important questions about the function of art in a democracy. These questions become even more urgent when we realize that artists in America are confronting challenges not unlike the ones faced in the 1930s. As you and I have learned through our research on New Deal public art, history has much to teach us about how to help a nation recover. Artists need work, and we could once again participate in and be the beneficiaries of a world in which artistic expression is valued as an integral and enriching aspect of our everyday lives. Swing Landscape stands as a testament to a moment when that seemed possible, and maybe it can be again today.
Jennifer McComas is curator of European and American art at the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University. Jody Patterson is associate professor and Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Chair of Art History at Ohio State University.