Living in the Reagan era, it's hard to imagine a federally funded arts project large enough to generate jobs for more than 9 million people, but the WPA did exactly that. Conceived in 1935 as part of F.D.R.'s New Deal, the WPA provided artists of every stripe a standard pay of $23.60 per week to create artworks geared towards bolstering the morale of a country in the grip of a severe depression. Though a number of famous artists were beneficiaries of Roosevelt's brainstorm, most of the participants lived out their lives in relative obscurity following the termination of the program in 1943.
Paintings by nine lesser known WPA workers who went on to establish credible careers as fine artists are currently on view in an excellent exhibition that stands as a bittersweet reminder of an American Dream that comes to seem increasingly remote. Portraying the working class as possessing boundless dignity and resilience, these pictures are infused with a spirit of hope that's sadly moving in that it seems a bit quaint today.
The majority of these artists were either born or lived in New York and their work is rooted in a distinctly urban sensibility; we see, for instance, construction workers relaxing on the girders of a high rise in Joseph Wolins' "Lunch Hour." Painting in a muted, lyrical style evocative of Charles Sheeler, Wolins specialized in exterior scenes: industrial ports with tugboats and towers spewing steam, a chicken market, a view of an overground subway bridge on the Bowery.
Joseph Delaney's paintings also have a yeasty vibrancy. The son of a minister, Delaney landed a job as a bellhop that gave him a crash course in the wild side of life. You can almost smell the reefer in "George's Bar," Delaney's portrait of a rocking gin joint packed with carousing men and women looking for the heart of Saturday night.
Grimmer Depression realities show in Charles Keeler's chronicle of the hellish days of workers carving out subway tunnels. Jules Halfant gives a low-rent tour of junkyards, riverfronts and Hoovervilles. This work is as committed to the Modernist ethic as it is to populist propaganda; pictures are loose and vaguely theoretical in the manner of Stuart Davis or Milton Avery.
The most forward thinking experimentalist here, however, is Lucia Salemme, whose cool cityscapes approach pure geometric abstraction. Joseph Solman structured pictures on a loose grid but his work is swept with an emotionalism that puts them in the Expressionist camp.
The oddest work in the show is by Seymour Franks. Stricken with polio at 16, Franks spent much of his young life in hospitals and was strongly influenced by Picasso's Blue and Rose periods. Franks' broodingly romantic paintings convey the impression of a loner who remained isolated even as those around him pulled together to survive the Depression. Evocative of the thorn and thistled terrain of Sleeping Beauty, Franks' "Stormy Landscape" suggests that there will always remain intangible needs that can't be met with $23.60 per month. (Phantom Gallery, 8251 Melrose, to Jan. 1)