All the artists whose works fill three galleries displaying the Academy Art Museum’s two new exhibitions were once employed by the federal government. They were among thousands who earned $23.50 a week as part of the WPA – the Works Progress (later renamed Work Projects) Administration.
One of them was Werner Drewes, a German-born and trained printmaker who emigrated to the United States as the Nazis came to power. The museum’s comprehensive look at his career encompasses more than 40 works of art spanning five decades and as many progressions in content, style, and technique. “Werner Drewes Retrospective” takes us on a still-image time trip through one artist’s growth toward becoming a leading figure in abstract printmaking both in his adopted country and the art world as a whole.
From 1935 to 1943, Drewes and fellow WPA artists painted murals in public spaces and created posters supporting out-of-work writers, composers, musicians, actors, dancers, singers, and directors, not to mention stagehands and camera operators. They also taught art to the next generation while honing their own skills. It was all part of the New Deal, FDR’s response to the Great Depression, and the most significant public works program before the present-day COVID initiatives.
From an artistic perspective, the WPA, which put few restrictions on content or subject matter of whatever was produced under the Federal Art Project, was a godsend to artists of all stripes but particularly to those who primarily produced abstract imagery, which was all but unsalable in the Depression-era. Among the artists that the WPA kept afloat were Berenice Abbott, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner and her husband Jackson Pollock, Jacob Lawrence, Louise Nevelson, Diego Rivera, Mark Rothko, and John Sloan.
Drewes’ progress as an artist can be glimpsed from one gallery to the next through the lens of his mentors and predecessors, chief among them Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. At the start, notice the heavy black lines of his 1932 woodcut self-portrait compared to the far more delicate aquatint etching from 1977.
His 1961 “In the Birch Forest” woodcut marks a departure with its subtle color undertones amid a dominating geometric cluster of light-toned tree trunks. Colors turn brighter in “Interpenetration,” a 1976 oil painting, one of his pure studies in geometry, while a floating red heart in “Valentine for Maria,” 1984, suggests a figurative feminine face within an abstract landscape.
In the next gallery, Drewes turns to silkscreen with “Behind the Canal – New Hope” from 1941 and produces a “Gandhi” woodcut as realistic as a photograph, dated a decade earlier. Posters, among them a 1974 offset reproduction entitled “Art of the Print” for the National Academy of the Arts, fittingly encapsulates his life’s work in the concluding images of this smartly conceived exhibition, expanding the realm of printmaking beyond an artisanal trade.
Upstairs in the hallway gallery, “A More Abundant Life: WPA Artists from AAM’s Permanent Collection and Beyond” takes us on a mini-tour of New Deal artwork and graduate studies, starting with Robert Blackburn’s “Man in a Top Hat” lithograph depicting the wearer’s doleful demeanor. Charles White’s long-after-the-fact “I Have a Dream” 1976 lithograph is inspired by a black Madonna’s thoughtful pose during Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech.
In sharp contrast, Fritz Eichenberg’s self-descriptive “Seven Deadly Sins” delineates each one in garish vignettes. From “Bronx El” to “Old House,” Jacob Kainen presents eight etched scenes, 1940-48, including men feverishly at work in “Street Breakers.” Surrealist Rufino Tamayo, a Mexican native who worked in New York, gets our attention near the show’s end with “Cabeza Roja,” a 1975 lithographic portrait of a clown apparently named for a red-headed bird.
Steve Parks is a retired arts critic now living in Easton.
WERNER DREWES RETROSPECTIVE and
A MORE ABUNDANT LIFE
Now through March 2, Academy Art Museum, 106 South St., Easton
Opening reception, January 13 at 5:30 p.m.. academyartmuseum.org