One step into the exhibition, and immediately the visitor is surrounded by a feeling of peace in the air. The grey walls display the large murals, but somehow the images can be both distinct in certain moments and fade into the background in others. It is grounding to see these works of art from the Federal Art Project, the Great Depression program that employed artists of all styles. The display cases in the exhibition give a good background on the history of each mural and their individual journeys from the day rooms in the Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island to the exhibit at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. The real reasoning behind the creation of each painting was to calm the patients as they waited in the day room. Together these pieces create a sense of tranquility, but individually it is clear that they are distinct in the styles and undertones intended by the artists.
The first of the pieces, all of which are referred to as Abstraction, is by Ilya Bolotowsky, a painter originally from Russia. Bolotowsky is known for his interest in the style of cubism, which is clear in his use of geometric pieces that collide with one another. The background uses the soft base colors of blue and brown, but brings life to the piece through the chaotic geometric shapes of pink and grey. The variety in the shapes and sizes of these figures adds an undertone of confusion to the piece, possibly to emulate the potential feelings of patients at the hospital. Bolotowsky also heavily favored straight lines in his pieces because he believed straight lines were relaxing and the best idea for patients to contemplate. These lines are clear throughout the mural, surrounding the geometric figures and creating a sense of continuity amongst the chaos. This idea follows the overarching theme in many of his pieces that an idealized, harmonious balance is dynamic rather than symmetrical.
The second piece is by British artist Albert Swinden. It is similarly calming, but unique in its style because of the geometric abstract figures that were the signature of Swinden at the time. His main focus in his pieces was on unity rather than individual parts. The painting from the hospital depicts unity by using geometric figures interconnected through lines and their placement within one another. The relaxing base shades of grey and blue surround the mural, contributing to the sense of peace that envelops all the paintings in this exhibit. The most intense color is a shade of light orange, which is used sparingly in the mural. The figures fit together perfectly, possibly to show the way that all mysteries in life fit together into a large connected puzzle. The few black stripes inside some of the geometric shapes could symbolize the difficult feelings patients may have faced during their stay. Swinden represents the idea that life has dark moments, but overall everything will be fine.
The final piece displayed is the mural by Joseph Rugolo, an American artist. His piece shows real images through distinct geometric figures. Instead of using shading and curvature to accentuate images such as the whale and ship, Rugolo emphasizes the two-dimensionality of the piece. He used many shades of bright blue, yellow and orange for the figures, and added a light purple to a murky brown background. These summer colors emphasize the peace of the oceanside scene he portrays. An interesting aspect of the painting is that the majority of the scene is meant to be shown as though it were occurring outside a window. This image creates a feeling of openness and connection with the outdoors through the clear intended motion of the whale and the waving of the flag. Patients likely found the image relaxing and enjoyed the reminder of the external world in summer. Rugolo’s artistic style was unique because he used a grid system. The process squares off a smaller drawing at one inch to a foot and then enlarges the image to mural size. This likely influenced the reasoning behind the placement of his figures, which are put in positions that clearly connect certain shapes with others. The disjointed and illogical sizing of some figures, such as the anchor near a small boat, is confusing. The disarray, however, only adds to the excitement in the piece. The mural ultimately seems to show the idea that confusion is outside, and the patients’, who are inside, have lives that are calm and organized.
These murals were influential on the subsequent abstract movement and are iconic parts of the famed Federal Art Project which is known for having pushed the long-accepted boundaries of art. Restoration on the murals has been ongoing since 2014. Bolotowsky’s mural was first painted over in 1957 and had seven layers of paint by the time of its first restoration in 1991. The Swinden and Rugolo canvases were still covered in paint a couple of years ago and therefore were initially difficult to locate. This exhibition is the first public display of these three murals from the hospital, which was demolished in 2015 for the Cornell Tech campus. All of the murals will soon be moved to a location on the new Cornell campus after the exhibition.
Revealed: WPA Murals from Roosevelt Island in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art runs until May 29.
Niagara Pal is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].