The New York Times

REVIEWS: Times Were Hard, Yet Art Flourished

Published: September 26, 2004

'The W.P.A. Era:
Art Across America'
Nassau County Museum of Art, One Museum Drive, Roslyn Harbor, (516)484-9337. Through Oct. 31.

Seventy years ago, in response to the economic crisis of the Great Depression, and the 25 percent unemployment rate, Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration created a series of federal job programs. The controversial experiment offered jobs in all categories, including the arts. As Roosevelt's work-relief czar, Harry Hopkins, remarked, artists ''have to eat, like other people.''

The largest and best-known program was the Works Progress Administration, which ran the Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1943 and employed some 5,000 artists nationwide. The Treasury Department also ran its own work-relief projects and commissioned art for federal buildings. For convenience, the whole enterprise is generally grouped under the W.P.A. rubric, but New Deal is a more accurate catchall.

While few participants in those programs are still alive, their art survives. This show surveys what remains, from the easel paintings and graphics that were widely distributed to schools, hospitals and libraries, to murals for various types of public buildings. Numerous mural sketches and studies, as well as actual murals that have since been removed from their original locations, are included.

Not everything on view was made on the projects. Thomas Hart Benton and José Clemente Orozco were never on the New Deal payroll, and some of those who were are represented here by outside work. Sadly, Chaim Gross is the only sculptor. Portable New Deal sculpture is not easy to come by, but non-project work of the period by Augusta Savage, José de Rivera, Ibram Lassaw and others would have added an important dimension.

Still, the show's scope is impressive without being overwhelming, and its concentration on New York is appropriate, given that more than half the artists who worked on New Deal projects lived here.

Informative wall labels and an illustrated time line help make sense of the confusing federal bureaucracy and establish a context for the art programs, where seasoned professionals like Stuart Davis and Peggy Bacon and young hopefuls like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner were paid to make their art with few restrictions on subject matter or style. The W.P.A. in particular found room for American Scene and Social Realist painters, Surrealists, expressionists and geometric abstractionists alike.

The show also illustrates the range of quality that was inevitable in a program where need was as important a qualification as talent. Arshile Gorky, who is represented by a handsome study for his abstract Newark Airport murals, bit the hand that fed him by calling the W.P.A. ''poor art for poor people,'' and a few of the examples here bear him out. But many more prove him very wrong, and demonstrate the paradoxical vitality of American art in an era of unprecedented economic hardship and social strife.

'Projects '04'
Carriage House, Islip Art Museum, 50 Irish Lane, East Islip, (631)224-5402. Through Oct. 3.

The museum's latest group of site-specific installations features nine artists, three of whom have reconfigured the building's interior dimensions.

Sean Brix describes his work as ''redefining space in the real world.'' But he does not so much redefine space as counteract it.

His geometric designs painted on the staircase create optical illusions of angled structures and a steep vanishing point perspective that are at odds with the architectural setting. A traced shadow in the stairwell suggests an imaginary inhabitant, the only kind who could navigate successfully in such a confusing artificial environment.

In an adjacent space, Han Sam Son's ''Architecture for Room No.2'' represents geometry and structure degraded. It also reorients the way a visitor experiences the space it occupies.

Mr. Son's labyrinth of empty cardboard boxes, layered and stacked in building-block units, is slashed, scarred and mutilated, like the ruins of a shantytown. The material has an acoustic effect, muffling footsteps and voices, so the environment becomes even eerier when more than one person is in the room.

To enter McKendree Key's ''Room No.4 Divided Into Thirds,'' I had to scuttle under a white Lycra membrane that stretches across the space, roughly four feet from the floor. A ladder that penetrates the elastic cloth leads through another membrane at the eight-foot level. The climb is not difficult, but it induces a strange, and oddly pleasant, sensation of simultaneous horizontal compression and vertical expansion.

The other artists have adapted their work to the various spaces, rather than the other way around. Janell O'Rourke's amusing ''Frog Pond'' appropriately occupies the bathroom's shower stall. Suspended within their assigned spaces are Fumito Hiraoka's ''Obsessive Compulsive II,'' an intimidating ductwork construction that recirculates its own air, and Helen Brough's ''Mellow Summer,'' a collection of light-catching colored acrylic shapes that swoop and soar playfully in the air.

Diane Carr's ''Brick Space'' uses stacks of paper bags with collaged ends to set up a dialogue between two-dimensional surface pattern and three-dimensional structure. ''Escaping Eden,'' Nina Sweeny's series of landscape models, with their perfect grass, glittering streams and uniform artificial trees, could hold their own anywhere, and Jill Downen's ''Architectural Cellulite,'' a wall that responds to the pull of gravity, makes a general statement about humanizing the built environment.