Lisa N. Peters
A number of years ago, several murals from the mid-1930s were installed at the Brooklyn Museum. Their intriguing story soon came to light. It turns out that they were part of a group of works commissioned in 1936 by the New York Mural Division of the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project for public areas in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Housing Project (designed by the Swiss-born architect William Lescaze and built in the then-modern International Style). The murals had been forgotten for many years. In some cases they had been covered with rubber cement and used as bulletin boards. In others, they had been locked away in storage rooms.
Reclaimed by the New York City Housing Authority in 1984, they underwent a long process of restoration and rescue. What makes the murals distinctive and significant is that they are abstract! At the time, almost all other public murals were representational, portraying primarily illustrative scenes from American history.
The murals came to fruition through the efforts of the artist Burgoyne Diller who, as an administrator in the mural division, promoted non-representational styles in mural painting even before abstract art had gained acceptance in America. Burgoyne Diller was, in fact, indefatigable, in his work for the mural division, as he sought work for artists he respected and convinced sponsors to accept stylistic modes that were then unpopular. In the case of the Williamsburg murals, he argued that the murals would provide relaxation to tenants from the images of technology that surrounded them in their workplaces. The result was a commission for twelve artists to create murals for the twenty buildings in the low-income housing project. Diller espoused the point of view of the American Abstract Artists, the group of artists begun in 1936 to which he belonged, that abstraction could have broader implications than politically or socially based content, as its aesthetics could be universally understood. Such work, he felt, transcended the isolationist attitude of the era, manifested in American Regionalist art.
The murals on view at the Brooklyn Museum are by the pioneering American abstractionists, Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden; the mural by Stuart Davis (Swing Landscape, 1938) belongs to Indiana University Art Museum and that by Francis Criss (Sixth Avenue El, 1937) to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The whereabouts of the murals by other artists, including Byron Browne and Jan Matulka, are unknown today. With their faded colors restored, their crisp, austere, and sophisticated spatial arrangements once more apparent, the murals are just as fresh today as when they were painted. It was due to the efforts of Burgoyne Diller in murals such as these that abstract art developed in America, laying the groundwork for the rise of the New York School in the late 1940s.