Federal Art Project of Works Progress Admin
Summary of Federal Art Project of Works Progress Admin
During its years of operation, the government-funded Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired hundreds of artists who collectively created more than 100,000 paintings and murals and over 18,000 sculptures to be found in municipal buildings, schools, and hospitals in all of the 48 states. Additionally, nearly 100 community art centers throughout the country provided art classes for children and developing artists. The FAP was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression, in which he sought to put as many unemployed Americans back to work as possible and to buoy morale of the citizens. Some of the 20th century's greatest visual artists were employed by the FAP, along with many nascent Abstract Expressionists.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- One of the main aims of the Federal Arts Project was to invoke familiar images that spoke of shared values and American progress, including technological wonders, fertile farmlands, small town life, and big city vibrancy. Additionally, the program hoped to foster the role of the arts in public life and to bring the artist closer to everyday, American life.
- The Federal Art Project tended to favor more realistic styles, including Social Realism and Regionalism, although many of the younger painters were able to execute more abstract work in some of the mural designs. The FAP allowed many artists for the first time to work exclusively as artists without taking up side jobs, and it brought the art they created in a variety of styles to communities and cities around the country through murals, easel paintings, photographs, posters, and sculptures.
- One of the most consequential aspects of the Project, according to the younger artists involved, with the sense of community that it fostered. By picking up their paychecks every week at the FAP office and getting to know each other as well as working on mural teams, artists no longer felt isolated and instead a camaraderie began to develop. Without this sense of community, it is hard to imagine the formation of Abstract Expressionism, one of the most significant groups in American modern art.
Overview of Federal Art Project of Works Progress Admin
In the mid 1930s, the United States remained at the center of a global economic depression. In an effort to provide economic relief to citizens who were having trouble finding work President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration. Several months later, a subdivision of the WPA called the Federal Art Project was developed in order to assist struggling artists.
The Most Important Art in Federal Art Project of Works Progress Admin
Aerial Map is one of two surviving murals that Gorky painted for Newark Airport's Administration Building. Originally ten murals comprised the cycle, entitled Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations. Drawing on his study of Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger, Gorky's composition relies on bold colors and simple, superimposed shapes to convey a sense of the terrain that one would see from the air or perhaps the shape of the airport itself. The short black dashes and dots in the white shape at the center of the canvas, which roughly resembles the outline of the United States, call to mind flight routes that one would map out. While Gorky's mural was controversial at the time because of its abstract nature, Gorky insisted that an art of the future was necessary to depict the transportation of the future.
The murals were painted over when the airport was turned into a military base during World War II. They were thought lost, but in 1972 they were rediscovered, concealed under fourteen coats of paint that had been applied over the years as part of regular maintenance. Two of the panels were recovered and restored and now on view at the Newark Museum.
Here, Mark Rothko depicts the eerily quiet and still interior of a subway station. The space is punctuated by evenly spaced columns that recede quickly into the background. The people depicted do not interact or speak with one another. The women on the bench, with their fancy hats and pointy shoes, are completely self-involved. The man who stands near the platform edge practically melds with the column he stands near. Rothko thus captures the isolation and loneliness that can befall one in a big city.
Untitled (The Subway) is probably one of the more realistic paintings Rothko created before he evolved to paint large abstract canvases with floating, sometimes translucent, rectangles stacked on top of each other. Even in this early painting, though, one can see the way in which Rothko manipulates color and space to evoke human emotions, an aim that he carried throughout his artistic career.
Few of Pollock's paintings that he created for the FAP survived, and those that do, like Cotton Pickers, have fairly traditional subject matter. Here, Pollock depicts the laborers, shielded from the sun in large hats and long sleeves, doing the back-breaking work of picking cotton. Pollock presents the plight of the workers in a sympathetic light. Solidarity with other impoverished workers was a staple of much WPA work.
The curves of the laborer's bodies and their simplified forms call to mind the style of Pollock's mentor, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was a proponent of Regionalism and American Scene painting, which focused less on urban scenes and more on Midwest small town and farming communities. Combining this subject matter with some of the more abstract forms of modern European art, Benton forged a uniquely American art that Pollock quickly mastered and surpassed.
Useful Resources on Federal Art Project of Works Progress Admin
- Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930's by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (1975)Our PickBy Francis V. O'Connor
- A New Deal for the Arts (1997)Our PickBy Bruce Bustard / In depth look at the arts initiative, based on the 1997 exhibit at the National Archives and Records Administration
- When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy (2009)By Roger Kennedy / A summary of the objectives that put the WPA into action
- Posters for the People: Art of the WPAOur PickBy Ennis Carter / Picture-based book about the works creates under the WPA
- Wall-to-Wall America: Post-Office Murals in the Great DepressionBy Karal Ann Marling /
- WPA MuralsOur PickLarge Database of murals created under the WPA, by state
- WNYC Archives & PreservationSounds file and Artists of WPA
- Labor Day Google doodle inspired by art created during The Great DepressionBrief article about how Google incorporated WPA works into a homepage doodle / Doodle from September, 2017
- Ben Shahn's Roosevelt/Jersey Homesteads Mural
- A Treasure Hunt for Lost WPA MasterpiecesOur PickBy Sarah Cascone / ArtNet News / April 22, 2014
- Jackson Pollock Made Exactly One Mosaic in His Lifetime -- and Now It's on Public ViewBy Sarah Cascone / ArtNet News / September 29, 2017
- 1934: The Art of the New DealBy Jerry Adler / Smithsonian Magazine / June 2009
- The Government Wants Its WPA Art Back"Articles for Collectors" / ArtBusiness.com
- Works Progress Administration Funds the Arts - 1930 filmOur PickBrief video detailing the scope of the WPA
- History Fair "Federal Art Project" DocumentaryArtworks and details from the WPA
- Supporting the Arts through the WPABrief Smithsonian documentary on the WPA
- 1934: A New Deal for Artists, Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Supporting the Arts through the WPA, Smithsonian American Art Museum