Art of and for the people

In his new, comprehensive book about the artist Ralph Fasanella ("Ralph Fasanella's America," Fenimore Art Museum), Paul D'Ambrosio describes his art as "the visual manifestation of street talk - direct, opinionated, improvisational, and passionate."

Fasanella (1914-1997) was the son of Italian immigrants in New York. A self-taught artist, his vigorous, ordered work is mercifully free from art-school training or museum aestheticism. Several of the New York School artists (Ad Reinhardt, Ben Shahn), however, appreciated his first works in the late 1940s.

Fasanella was always his own man, and his passion, in his art no less than in his labor activism, was for his working-class roots. Indeed, the art came directly out of his progressive left-wing ideology. Before taking up painting, Fasanella was a union organizer. He wanted his art to speak to working men and women - to let them see in it their own lives, to convey a message of both celebration and protest. D'Ambrosio calls Fasanella's paintings "memories of the past, visions of the future."

Many of his paintings, although "public art," ironically found their way into private collections. A Fasanella supporter, Ron Carver, began a campaign to bring the work into public view. In 1995, 45 years after it was painted, "Subway Riders No. 2" was installed in the subway station at 53rd Street and 5th Avenue. Today, the image is encountered daily by thousands of working New Yorkers.

D'Ambrosio presents Fasanella's career as "a series of five motivations: exploration, celebration, protest, commemoration, and quotation."

"Subway Riders No. 2" comes under the "celebration" stage of his work, at a time when overt political expression of left-wing views was under siege. The painting is a calculated cross-section of the the cultural mix of people the artist saw and sketched on his daily commute from the Upper West Side to his bread-and-butter job at a factory on Long Island. It is a composite of observed subway riders and portraits of friends.

An appreciative visitor to the Fasanella home in 1972, Agnes Halsey Jones, described his paintings as "the heartbeat of New York City, and always he takes you behind the brick walls." Or, in this case, below the streets.

'Ralph Fasanella's America' is on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., through Dec. 31. It will then travel to New York City and Orlando, Fla.

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