By Nancy Nesvet
In his centennial year, Ralph Fasanella, an artist who painted for thirty years before he was recognized as a great painter, is currently celebrated in Cooperstown, NY, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Each show illustrates his dedication to working people and the America he loved.
Following 2013 exhibits in Lawrence, Massachusetts and at the Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York City, the celebration of Ralph Fasanella’s centennial continues. In Washington, D.C. the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s exhibition, Lest We Forget, May 2-August 3, features Fasanella’s paintings of New York City, Lawrence, Mass., strikes, and laborers. There are paintings of political events as well, including the Rosenberg trial, the Kennedy assassination, and the McCarthy trials. Fasanella’s “Family Supper” borrows from the Ellis Island Memorial, “Modern Times,” and is a comprehensive painting of the demonstrations and political causes that were prominent around 1960. Also present are paintings of his family, including his “Iceman” father, which furthers the theme “Lest We Forget,” a phrase used by Ralph Fasanella exonerating us to not forget where we came from. These paintings of people, locations, and events do not only express Mr. Fasanella’s personal history. They also call forth our country’s trials, tribulations, and achievements. In this way, they pay homage to the life work of an artist who documented the history of the America he loved so much, reminding people not to forget their pasts
The exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum begins with a nine-foot long triptych of New York City. It began as a single canvas, with Broadway at its center, and grew to include the Queensboro bridge, as well as the uptown neighborhoods that border it. The canvas extends to include the waterways surrounding the city and its active residents. It forms an outline of Manhattan, from its southern tip at Battery Park to its northern edge in Harlem. The view of New York City neighborhoods ranges from the Lower East Side to Queens, enabling people to identify with their own environs. The painting begs us to inspect each group of New Yorkers as we follow them across the horizontal canvas. This piece leads us to the rest of the exhibit, which is concerned with America’s then political climate and events.
Fasanella painted the possibilities of Americans, from where they had gone wrong, to how they could find a just America. Politics is at the forefront in this collection of paintings, especially in “McCarthy Era Garden Party,” and “The Rosenberg’s Grey Day,” both of which depict what Fasanella believed was the wrongful execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In “Garden Party,” he shows the ring of protesters and the Disneyesque, Colonial-referencing palm trees, in pots held by a photographer and another observer. The Rosenbergs face the crowd of protesters, not the House Un-American Activities Committee (on a raised stage in the painting) who indicted them. “McCarthy Press” and “American Tragedy” use color and content to share Fasanella’s view of McCarthyism and the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a tragic period in American history. They are dominated by the iconic A form, representing the shadow of the atomic bomb. “Modern Times,” upbeat despite its depiction of demonstrating youth and partially clothed young women, shows freedom of the body, not the mind, which Fasanella thought to be more important. “Pie in the Sky,” shows how symbols of the middle class trapped people into believing they were free, successful, and part of the American dream. Further into the exhibition, “The Great Strike” depicts what has become known as the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Here, we see people of varied ethnicities protesting for fair wages, similar to the protesters seen in the “Garden Party” protest. This theme of people demonstrating their beliefs is also seen in “Modern Times,” where 1960s era youths protest American involvement in the Vietnam War, showing the ability of common people, real Americans, to affect change. Realizing Fasanella’s early occupation as a union organizer and involvement with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which fought fascism in Spain, these paintings show his belief that justice can prevail if the people do not give up. Indeed, for thirty years until he achieved the recognition of the art and wider world, Fasanella kept painting, revealing historical events that needed to be witnessed, talked about, and remembered, “lest we forget.”
Ralph Fasanella: The Art of Social Engagement, May 2-August 3, draws its title from Fasanella’s name for his style. Featuring the pieces: “The Great Strike; Lawrence 1912-The Bread and Roses Strike,” “Working at the Mill,” “Red Sky,” and others, this exhibit features paintings of workers and the places at which they labored. At the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, at 815 16th Street, NW, across the street from the White House, these paintings remind us of Ralph Fasanella’s history as a labor organizer and fighter for human rights throughout his life. Concerned with the urban American and the struggles of immigrants and the working class, his visual depictions in “The Butcher,” and “Mill Workers,” constitute an illustrated history of America for new Americans are often unable to learn about their new country through text. This exhibit further explores in “Lawrence 1912-The Bread and Roses Strike,” “The Great Strike,” and “CMA Union Hall,” immigrants coming together to gain just wages and safe conditions in America’s workplace and society.
The third exhibition, Everyday Heroes: Ralph Fasanella’s Paintings of American Life presents a comprehensive view of the career of Ralph Fasanella, encompassing all stages of his painting career: politics, laborers at their jobs and leisure activities, and baseball. At the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown, New York from April 1 to May 26, 2014, it completes the centennial cycle of work by this artist of varied events and geographies, always documenting the lives, struggles and successes of new Americans. According to the guest curator, Sarah Grey, for Fasanella, “Community was whole and alive, especially among the working class who knew struggle and supported each other.” Ms. Grey calls Fasanella “an activist and one of the great self-taught painters of all time.”
The exhibition begins with “Blind News Dealer,” a fixture of New York City life, and a portrait of someone who disseminates printed information. Ralph Fasanella educated himself at the public library and at public museums, and often includes words or newspapers in his pieces. It continues with paintings of “Christopher Street,” part of Greenwich Village, and later, “Tony Pastor’s Place,” a dark painting, unusual for Fasanella who believed this club full of players who thought inconsequential thoughts rather than worked to better themselves and their society. He believed that clubs led to social destruction, shown by the frowns on the faces. “May Day,” one of the great political panoramas painted by Fasanella, celebrates labor’s holiday. In “Sandlot,” we are treated to a downward view of a child perched in the limbs of a tree who looks down at a ball game at the site of Fasanella’s former gas station in the East Bronx, New York; urban renewal at its finest. In “Dress Shop,” are the workers in New York’s garment factories, where his mother worked at one time, and where he did research for the paintings by talking to and watching the Asian workers at the sewing machines. The detail in the painting documents the process of garment making, which has hardly changed over several decades. In “Bench Workers-Morey Machine Shop,” Fasanella creates a painting from his visual memory of a shop he worked in during his early adult years, showing himself drilling holes in metal parts.
In “Playdome-The Kennedy Years,” he uses a sports stadium to organize the composition, while including everyone from the Kennedys to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who are at the center of the painting, to review the history of the period. Here, a backdrop of the White House features a garden party, complete with symmetrical palm trees and an amusement park where corporate entities, including IBM, DuPont, Ford, ATT, US Steel, Standard Oil and GM grab coins from a lifting rocket, recalling the military-industrial complex while African-Americans serve refreshments and run track. Clearly, Fasanella uses this painting to comment on society at the time, including his desire for full integration of all, and control of corporate greed. “Festa,” shows the San Gennaro Festival, one of the most popular Italian-American festivals held in downtown New York. He replaces the central statue of the saint with a woman, clad in white, as if a bride, to celebrate the role of women in his life, and express the respect he has for them. The exhibit ends with “Coffee Break,” which shows laborers enjoying a much-deserved interlude from their chaotic day.
Although Everyday Heroes closes on May 26, several of the paintings will be on display as part of the permanent collection of the Fenimore Museum. The museum is a perfect setting for the Ralph Fasanella show, as a large part of its collection is concerned with paintings of laborers and crafts-persons at their work, including rural crafts-persons in George Eastman’s “The Blacksmith Shop,” “The Scissors Grinder,” and “The Woodcutter,” who is shown clearing land for his farm. Other paintings on permanent view at the Fenimore speak to other bodies of Fasanella’s work. “Uprising of the North” shows two armies acting as pillars on the sides of the U.S. Capitol as Fort Sumter erupts in fire, flanked by the flags and names of the Union states. It is easy to compare the symbolism and use of text in this painting to Fasanella’s “history” paintings. As we view “Homage to Hank Greenberg,” by Malcah Zeldis, Museum Director Paul D’Ambrosio notes that this autobiographical work depicting the view from the front porch of the painter’s home in Detroit “gives the Jewish community a sense of belonging.” Indeed, that is exactly what Ralph Fasanella did in all his paintings. He included all his viewers in his vision of a community of Americans, new and old, toiling and reaping the rewards of their work toward a better life and nation.