A show that shouts with its artists' good intentions

The decade of the 1930s was a critical period for American society in general and for American art in particular. The Great Depression had flattened the economy, and the spread of Fascism in Europe threatened both democratic institutions and the freedom to create art as one wished. Artists, writers, and others interested in the arts were especially concerned. In February 1936, 400 such individuals met at Town Hall here to form the American Artists' Congress and to sign its ``Call Against Fascism.'' Over the next few years, 500 more signed, including many of the leading cultural figures of the day. By 1942, the year it was dissolved, the Congress had sponsored numerous traveling exhibitions, lectures, and publications, and had done its best to galvanize the creative imagination of Americans by using art as a stimulus for peace through culture.

As a 50th anniversary celebration of the original signing, ACA Galleries here is presenting a commemorative exhibition of the work of 70 artists involved with the Congress since its inception. It includes paintings, sculpture, works on paper, and photographs, many of which have not been seen by the public in decades, and all of which are of at least thematic and historical interest.

Roughly half the works on view have considerable artistic merit, and a dozen or so are truly exceptional for one reason or another. High on that list are pieces by Bernice Abbott, Milton Avery, Paul Cadmus, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, James Turnbull, and Max Weber, with a special vote going to Arnold Blanch's ``New England,'' Werner Drewes's ``Fight,'' Philip Evergood's ``Street Corner,'' and William Gropper's ``Strike.''

The most remarkable thing about this show, however, is its stylistic diversity, and the creative integrity -- if not always the talent -- of the artists represented. All of which proves, of course, that American art before Abstract Expressionism was not as provincial and dismal as it is assumed to have been today. It may be true that it was limited in scope, a bit too willing to believe that the depiction of national themes and regional subjects almost automatically led to artistic quality and truth. And it may, on occasion, have been somewhat simplistically involved with one or another aspect of European modernism. On the whole, however, despite the fact that a few of its most highly regarded figures have proven to be little more than sentimental illustrators or melodramatic propagandists, American art during this period was considerably livelier and more forward-looking than we now give it credit for being.

We need only study the works by Calder, Davis, Drewes, Jan Matulka, Theodore Roszak, and Louis Shanker in this exhibition, for instance, to realize that modernism was alive and active and on its way to greater things long before it scored its first great American victory through Abstract Expressionism. And as for work that did not ally itself with the modernist vision but that attempted to be ``modern'' within more traditional stylistic guidelines, we need only look to Evergood's remarkable ``Street Corner,'' Gropper's impressive ``Strike,'' and Weber's ``Colonial Table and Flowers'' for verification that quality in art derives at least as much from the depth of an artist's expressive commitment as from his or her choice of style.

This is a show that shouts out with its artists' good intentions -- be they social, political, or purely formal. How can one fault -- except on the most rigid qualitative grounds -- such images as Peggy Bacon's ``Spring Fever,'' with its street peddlers and other delightful neighborhood types in front of a Lower East Side tenement? Or Hugo Gellert's crisply drawn ``A Wounded Striker and a Soldier,'' which may be a bit more cartoon than work of art, but which is a knockout nevertheless?

If I seem somewhat uncritical, it's only because so many of these works are honest, well executed, and unpretentious and represent a difficult transitional period when American art found itself caught between a simplistic form of cultural isolationism and a more aggressively modernist and international attitude. The latter, of course, won out eventually, and because it did, we tend today to be unduly harsh on those who ``lost.'' If nothing else, this exhibition should help us correct that error.

At ACA Galleries, 21 East 67 Street, through March l.

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