Published: June 18, 2002
By Stephen May
NEW YORK CITY – Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997), who parlayed his humble origins, union activism and social conscience into an impressive group of bold and colorful paintings, is one of the greatest American self-taught artists of all time. His body of work, begun when he was 31 years old, reflects his working-class background, his appreciation for the dignity of labor, his radical political beliefs and his passionate concern about current events. Large, busy, appealing and filled with symbol-laden messages, Fasanella’s paintings are hard to forget and deserve greater recognition.
A fine retrospective of his work, “,” on view at the venerable New-York Historical Society through July 14, offers compelling evidence of the artist’s talent and interests. Organized by the leading Fasanella authority Paul S. D’Ambrosio, chief curator of the New York State Historical Association and its Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, the exhibition opened at the Fenimore. It continued in a smaller version at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., and concludes its tour at the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art in Orlando, Fla., August 15 to November 20. The show is accompanied by a fine, informative book authored by D’Ambrosio.
Born Raphaele Fasanella to Italian immigrant parents, young Ralph was raised in the Bronx and on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. “Old Neighborhood” (1980) recalls the busy area around the Fasanellas’ apartment on 216th Street in the Bronx. It reflects childhood memories of the 66-year-old painter, and puts one in mind of the nostalgic memory paintings of Grandma Moses.
Fasanella’s father Joe was an ice deliveryman and his mother Ginevra a garment factory seamstress. Making the rounds on his father’s horse-drawn wagon, young Ralph learned the physical rigors of working-class life. His socially conscious mother, a union activist and antifascist, introduced him to the struggles of laboring people, the iniquities of social injustice and the value of self-education.
A tough, unruly street kid given to petty thievery and brushes with the law, Fasanella served three hitches in a reform school, the New York Catholic Protectory. The harsh regimen there is powerfully evoked in several paintings, notably “Lineup at the Protectory #2” (1961), showing rows of uniformed boys lined up in a tightly enclosed courtyard before marching to Mass.
D’Ambrosio suggests in his book that the hermetic setting may have “as its subtext the condition of the democratic socialist and individualist in a society marked by rigidly enforced conformity.” Certainly Fasanella’s unhappy experiences at the school stimulated a lifelong resentment of authority and mistrust of the Church.
In other works Fasanella depicted a happier aspect of Protectory life — recesses when the boys played baseball. That sport was a lifetime obsession of the artist.
Although he dropped out of school after the eighth grade, Fasanella by that time had become a voracious reader, with an interest in everything from baseball box scores to the Italian antifascist movement, in which his mother was so active. He later maintained a large library in his home.
Going to work full-time at age 15, Fasanella shuttled among various low-wage jobs in the garment industry such as errand boy and shipping clerk, with extended periods of unemployment. With several of his friends he joined the Workers Alliance and the Young Communist League (YCL), which organized protest meetings and demonstrations for jobs. His participation in the YCL, particularly, stimulated him to begin reading the Daily Worker and the likes of George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.
In 1937, acting on his progressive ideals, the 23-year-old joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and set out for the Spanish Civil War to confront fascism directly. He made it from France to Spain by crossing the Pyrenees on foot in winter. Thereafter he endured cold, hunger, bombings and artillery fire while driving supply trucks.
Returning to the United States after 18 months of war, Fasanella plunged into labor union organizational work, as unions sought to augment their membership in order to protect Depression-era workers. He organized for a variety of unions, notably the United Electrical Workers, participating in the successful drive to organize the Sperry Rand Corporation in 1942. His easy charm, worldly experiences and sense of humor made him an effective organizer, honing his sense of teamwork and affinity with fellow workers.
In “Organizing Committee” (1989) and similar works, he later recalled the camaraderie of organizing groups at work in union halls. They underscore Fasanella’s conviction that the everyday heroes of the labor movement were the field organizers and shop stewards who built strong unions one member at a time.
In 1944, although troubled by painful sensations in his fingers, Fasanella on a whim took up drawing. Finding himself surprisingly skillful, he eagerly began to sketch everything in sight. Before long he tried his hand at painting, using inexpensive poster paints on cardboard to create scenes of neighborhoods from his childhood.
Having quit his union job in 1946, Fasanella began working at his brother’s gas station in the Bronx, and painted at night. At first he concentrated on views of the interior of his apartment on Grove Street in Greenwich Village and streetscapes of the lively neighborhood around it, Christopher and Sullivan Streets and Sheridan Square. His painting of the old “S. Klein” store (1949) was recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from ACA Galleries in New York.
Fasanella’s ambivalence about religion, triggered by his exposure at the Catholic reform school and his political education in the Young Communist League and the Lincoln Brigade, was reflected in several early works. In his ambitious 1947 painting “Pie in the Sky” he juxtaposed views into the orderly interiors of busy tenement buildings, their roofs festooned with laundry drying on lines, with a church pointing to a vision of heaven, replete with pearly gates and luxurious homes. The title, drawn from a union song dismissing the promise of heaven in favor of battling for economic justice on earth, suggests Fasanella’s skepticism about the Church’s promise of a better life in heaven and his doubts about hopes for a dream house in the suburbs. It is a fascinating piece of social commentary, rendered in a colorful style reminiscent of works by American avant-garde court painter Florine Stettheimer.
In 1948 Fasanella completed one of his first mural-sized works, measuring 50 by 80 inches, “May Day,” in which he sought to recapture the size, scope and spirit of this annual protest parade, which drew upwards of 200,000 demonstrators to Union Square in Manhattan. In this extraordinarily sweeping and ambitious panoramic view, throngs of marchers pass by a reviewing stand featuring figures ranging from Karl Marx to anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The structure is topped by portraits of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The designation of the march is Fasanella’s utopian version of a worker’s paradise populated with happy families among model houses. “May Day” is a prized possession of the New York State Historical Association.
That same year Fasanella began a compelling, decade-long series of paintings of a crucified iceman, an homage to his long-suffering father, who by then had left such work and the family and returned to Italy. In the culminating image, “Iceman Crucified #4” (1958), the figure of his father is fixed to a cross, with giant ice tongs behind him and surrounded by street scenes from his old delivery route. Joe Fasanella’s horse-drawn ice wagon in the lower right faces a large new refrigerator being delivered in the lower left, symbolizing the disappearance of his father’s trade and way of life.
To drive home the artist’s point, a sign reading “Lest We Forget” appears above the iceman’s head. “This is a clear message to the members of the rising middle class in the late 1950s; Remember where you came from, remember who you are. And most of all, remember that somebody sacrificed everything to give you a better life,” writes D’Ambrosio.
On a happier note, Fasanella drew on his memories of the close-knit Italian communities in which he grew up in the large and lively “Festa” (1957). In this evocation of Italian street festivals, a crowd of families socializes around the brightly colored figure of a saint, with a pile of donated money at his feet.
In 1957 the artist also executed the huge, breathtaking urban panorama, “New York City,” measuring 50 by 110 inches. After years of thinking about the subject, Fasanella decided that, as he put it, “There’s no place like New York, and I wanted to get it all, hug it all, everything.” He acquired an enormous canvas and then, he recalled, “the painting exploded.”
The canvas, a composite of streetscapes and urban skyline, astutely composed with compelling detail and expansive scope, carries the viewer’s eye across the 59th Street Bridge to Manhattan, and then Queens and Long Island. Foreground vignettes recall areas where the artist lived in the city. “The finished work,” observes D’Ambrosio correctly, “is one of the most visually arresting images of New York City in the history of American art.” Little wonder that Mayor John V. Lindsay borrowed it for display in City Hall in 1972.
Some years earlier, Fasanella was deeply involved to politics himself, running for the City Council on the American Labor Party ticket during the 1949 mayor campaign of radical politician Vito Marcantonio. Campaigning on issues of housing and health care, while supporting Marcantonio’s ultraprogressive program, Fasanella faced often-hostile crowds, but managed to poll about 11,000 votes — nearly ten percent of the electorate and only slightly less than Marcantonio’s citywide percentage. It was a respectable showing in the face of the anticommunist fervor of the period, and provided fodder for several memorable paintings.
In 1950 Fasanella married Eva Lazorek, a schoolteacher, who supported the couple financially and emotionally through years of artistic obscurity and blacklisting by the FBI. Said Eva, “He was the most fascinating person I had ever met, and subconsciously I wanted to be part of the creative explosion which I sensed was fermenting within him.” Her steadfast loyalty through thick and thin contributed immensely to her husband’s successful paintings. To this day she remains record-keeper and champion of her husband’s legacy.
In the late 1960s Fasanella and two associates purchased Happy and Bud’s gas station in the Bronx, where he reveled in daily contacts with working-class customers and neighbors. In “Happy and Bud’s Service Station” (1968) he portrayed it as a kind of hub of community activity, as over a score of adults and children congregate waiting for cars to be serviced. The presence of a dozen vehicles suggests that business is good. A 1983 version of the scene is called “Gas Station Playground.”
Fasanella’s firm belief in the innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 as atomic spies, was reflected in several powerful, elaborate paintings. His sense of what he regarded as the injustice of their conviction and execution was first spelled out in “Garden Party” (1954), finished on an emotional high not long after their deaths.
Fasanella concluded that the Rosenbergs were, as D’Ambrosio puts it, “the preeminent martyrs of the left,” scapegoats sacrificed to cow the left amidst Cold War hysteria. This view manifested itself in “Grey Day” (1963).
This complex but accessible picture revolves around a large central “A” for “Atom,” powerful symbol of the energy source for much of the Cold War tensions that doomed the Rosenbergs. At three levels within the letter are, at the top, figures of prosecutors, military and business types. In the middle level the Rosenbergs are shown at home with books at their feet, suggesting they were political martyrs who died for their ideas. In a row of jail cells in the bottom level the Rosenbergs are seen on opposite sides, separated by cells containing other jailed inmates.
Outside the giant “A” on the left is a gaggle of supporters (including Fasanella) demonstrating against the execution. On the right are groups of well-to-do persons indifferent to the protesting working stiffs. It is a wonderfully expressive, symbol-filled political statement from the heart.
D’Ambrosio sees this and related works as appealingly expressive paintings indicating that Fasanella had evolved “a mature style of visual social commentary by combining a solid overall composition with an effective composite of images related to the subject matter if not by time and space.”
Like so many Americans, Fasanella was devastated by the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, responding with a large and complicated painting that also reflected his dislike for Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican nominee for President in 1964. He used every inch of his 42- by 90-inch canvas to pour his emotions into a work originally entitled “Tunnel of Lies,” then renamed “American Tragedy” (1964).
In this powerful picture, the Texas Book Depository, with a gun-pointing Lee Harvey Oswald in a window, frames a large figure on horseback — apparently a composite of Goldwater and Lyndon B. Johnson — brandishing a pistol and running roughshod over Kennedy’s grave. On the left side area a series of vignettes from recent civil rights protests, including figures ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr, to Bayard Rustin. On the right side, beyond the Kennedys waving from their open car to welcoming crowds in Dallas, are a series of oil wells that appear to double as missile silos, Fasanella symbols of American wealth and power.
D’Ambrosio finds “American Tragedy” to be one of Fasanella’s strongest efforts to underscore the threats posed by “capitalist greed” and to shake American complacency about the horrendous events of the 1960s. The artist’s social protest works owed much to the radical Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, says D’Ambrosio, “particularly the belief that the role of art was to raise consciousness and that realism was the only appropriate idiom for reaching the masses.” Fasanella’s “protest paintings,” D’Ambrosio concludes, “demonstrate the effectiveness of the mural style practiced in a folk idiom on movable canvases.”
In the early 1970s Fasanella turned from overt social protest to paintings celebrating the spirit of the urban working class, as exemplified by members of his own family. “Dress Shop” (1972), measuring 45 by 90 inches, shows a large garment factory with a cutaway wall providing views of bustling employees, including his mother and sister Tess, hard at work. Below that floor are cutaway views of seven orderly working-class apartments, with residents going about their daily activities, and a sign reading “In Memory of the Triangle Shirt Workers,” recalling the disastrous 1911 sweatshop fire in which 145 young women died. Tenement buildings flanking the factory also offer cutaway glimpses of a variety of working-class figures.
This is, in a sense, Fasanella’s tribute to his mother and sister as seamstresses, and to all who work with their hands for a living. This grand work is owned by the New York State Historical Association and displayed in the stately Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.
In a similarly commemorative vein, “Family Supper” (1972) depicts the oversized figure of the painter’s mother, garbed in angelic white, presiding over a kind of Last Supper with her husband and children. In the large tenement interior, images of his mother (behind) and father (to the right) on crucifixes are reminders of their sacrifices for the family. Arrayed around the apartment are father Joe’s ice bucket and tongs, mother Ginevra’s sewing machine, a steamer trunk from Italy, and other working-class artifacts. This 72- by 50-inch tribute to Fasanella’s gentle, nurturing mother and the hard life she led is now displayed by the National Park Service at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
In “Dress Shop” and “Family Supper,” writes D’Ambrosio, Fasanella “places the mantle of heroism squarely on the shoulders of the working men and women who toiled daily to survive in a hostile world.” “Remember who you are,” Fasanella would admonish, “…don’t forget your past.”
For his first quarter century as a painter, Fasanella worked in relative obscurity, exhibiting intermittently in galleries, a museum or two, union halls, churches and local art competitions. From time to time he won critical praise, but mostly his art went unnoticed by the general public.
What put him on the map and made his name well-known almost overnight was a flattering feature article in New York magazine in October 1972 that outlined his life and themes of his work. A smiling Fasanella, in his service station outfit, surrounded by his paintings, appeared on the cover with the heading: “This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living. He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”
The article coincided with a retrospective and sale of his art at Automation House, a labor center on East 68th Street in Manhattan, that attracted further attention from the media and the public. An instant celebrity, Fasanella was pursued for dinners and interviews. While welcome, all this attention distracted him from his work; he claimed he was unable to paint for six months.
Around this time Fasanella sold the gas station in order to paint full-time. He moved to a newly built, split-level house with a studio in Ardsley, in Westchester County, organized by his ever-supportive wife, Eva. After taking some time to acclimate himself to life in these large suburban quarters, he went back to work.
“Zingarella” (1973), an Italian term for a lively, vivacious woman, supplied the title for Fasanella’s depiction of an elaborately dressed, comely young woman posed before a large window opening onto his verdant Ardsley backyard. The image was based on a print of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s “Agostina” that hung in Fasanella’s new studio.
He began to show at increasingly important galleries and various exhibition spaces, and was the subject of reviews and articles. In 1974 Alfred A. Knopf published a widely publicized, coffee-table book, Fasanella’s City, that explored his life and art. The author was Patrick Watson.
Restless in his suburban existence, Fasanella began to plan an ambitious series of paintings on the history of the working class in America. This led him to visit Lawrence, Mass., the gritty Massachusetts city that was the site of the famous, often violent, “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912. In that titanic struggle, 20,000 immigrant workers, aided by the militant Industrial Workers of America (IWW), waged a two-month, wintertime battle with mill owners over hours and pay.
The first major textile strike in this country, the workers won, in part because so many disparate ethnic groups, led by immigrant women, achieved solidarity. In all, workers from at least 30 different nations, speaking 45 different languages, united, persevered — and achieved success. Fasanella called it “the first time a labor union ever won a victory.”
Living a Spartan existence for two years in Lawrence’s downtown YMCA, Fasanella talked with locals with first-hand recollections of the events of 1912, researched the strike at the public library, closely examined the cluster of old mill buildings, and roamed the streets soaking up the ambience of the city. “I’m trying to grab this thing [Lawrence] physically and emotionally,” he told a newspaper reporter.
Out of this total immersion in 1976 came a series of major paintings that recaptured the look and feel of the city, its people and omnipresent mills — and events of the celebrated strike. In “Garden Street” (1976) he depicted the huge, impersonal mill buildings towering over workers’ brick row houses, in front of which families stroll, play games and converse. Several other paintings feature cutaway views of the complex, noisy machines and busy workers in the mammoth mills.
Two vast canvases deal with scenes relating directly to the strike. In “Lawrence 1912 – The Bread and Roses Strike” (1977) bosses look on from a towering mill behind as IWW leader Big Bill Haywood addresses a throng of strikers. To the right, brown-shirted militia march along a street in front of an open view of a courtroom in which strike leaders are on trial. On the street in front of the militia, a child has been trampled by a white militia horse. Police and strikers skirmish all over the place. Above a building to the right a martyred mill worker has been crucified against a smokestack, entwined with cotton threads. This gripping, chilling picture, packed into a 45- by 90-inch canvas, is usually exhibited in the Lawrence Heritage State Park.
An even larger painting, “The Great Strike (IWW Strike)” 1978, measuring a whopping 65 by 188 inches, once graced a committee room in the US House of Representatives and is now prominently displayed in the lobby of the AFL-CIO headquarters near the White House in Washington, D.C. It repeats some of the events of the prior picture, with the dramatic addition of a wide swath of newspaper headlines chronicling the course of the strike.
The divergent origins of the IWW organizers and the immigrant strikers are symbolized by images in the upper corners of the work. In the upper left, a locomotive carrying the IWW slogan, “One Big Union of All Workers,” chugs toward Lawrence from a western mining town. In the upper right, a boatload of immigrants, leaving peaceful Italy behind, steams past the Statue of Liberty toward the United States. “At the heart of ‘The Great Strike’ is the incendiary convergence of these forces — from east and west — in the industrial heartland of America,” writes D’Ambrosio.
These epic pictures, rendered in an idiosyncratic style and emphasizing the role of immigrant, working-class strikers pursuing their dreams of a better life, constitute remarkable contributions to American history painting. As D’Ambrosio puts it, “The Lawrence series stands today as one of the most important and visually powerful bodies of historical painting produced by a Twentieth Century American artist.” By recording the physical ambience of the mill town, detailing how labor was performed in the mills, and illustrating the confrontations between labor and management in the early Twentieth Century, “Fasanella did more than open America’s eyes to a forgotten past; he expanded the ways of seeing that past,” concludes D’Ambrosio.
For the last two decades of his life, with his reputation as the leading artist of the American working class well established, and gallery and traveling exhibitions of his work proliferating, Fasanella devoted much time to reworking themes from his New York roots. A recurrent subject was baseball, as played on city streets and in major-league ballparks. The latter, brightly hued evocations of teeming crowds and players in action on green fields, such as “Night Game – Yankee Stadium” (1981), convey his affection for the game and his joy at the spectacle it offered. The urban decay of the South Bronx in the surrounding skyline, however, reflects Fasanella’s concern about the decline of his old stomping grounds.
From time to time, he depicted current events, like the New York Daily News strike in the early 1990s, his disdain for the Ronald Reagan presidency, the end of the Cold War, gatherings in labor-union halls, and various eateries he frequented. In several canvases, notably “Nathan’s – 2 for $2” (1995), he portrayed a large restaurant in Yonkers where he often hung out. Its brightness and bustling atmosphere led him to dub it “a Coney Island for local working people.”
A significant development in the late 1980s and 1990s was the launching of Public Domain, an innovative effort to encourage grassroots fundraising to purchase and place Fasanella’s work in public places, such as museums, libraries, national and state parks, universities, the New York City subway, and union halls. Energetically spearheaded by Ron Carver, then a field organizer for United Electrical Workers and now a Teamsters official in Washington, Publics Domain was established in 1988 as a nonprofit organization. Under its aegis, Fasanella works were relocated to public sites from California to Maine and from Ellis Island to Washington, D.C.
First, $20,000 was raised to place a Fasanella painting in the New Bedford, Mass., City Hall, then $100,000 in donations resulted in Fasanella’s first depiction of the Bread and Roses strike being relocated to Lawrence State Heritage Park, and so on. This program ensured that this unique art will be seen by the public for all time.
In the last few years of his life, although slowed by emphysema brought on by years of heavy smoking, Fasanella managed to produce a couple of final paintings. He died in December 1997, and was buried in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., in a grave marked with a poignant epitaph in his own words: “Lest We Forget/Remember Who You Are/Remember Where You Came From/Don’t Forget the Past/Change the World/Artist of the People/Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997).”
That is a pretty good summary of the messages conveyed by this hard-working, self-taught, gifted artist, who turned his life experiences and deep commitment to working people into a body of art that will stand the test of time. No American artist has ever created so many compelling images that honor the dignity, sacrifices and challenges facing our working class. Those paintings constitute a priceless legacy from this remarkable man, who sought and succeeded in giving future generations visual reminders of an important aspect of our national heritage.
Today, Ralph Fasanella’s spirit lives on in the potent paintings that are spread among public and private collections across the country. His sprightly widow Eva, who lives in the house in Ardsley, maintains a lively interest in his legacy as archivist and invaluable source of information about her late husband’s work.
A good number of fine Fasanella paintings are available at ACA Galleries in New York, which hosted his first solo show back in 1947. The gallery mounts Fasanella exhibitions from time to time. Prices range from $4,500 for silk screen images to roughly $25,000 to $150,000 for oil paintings.
Available recently were such standouts as “The Kennedy Years – Playdome” (1963); “Watergate” (1976), and “Baseball Panorama” (1996). Particular highlights include “American Heritage” (1975), a 50- by 80-inch extravaganza of the White House, US Capitol and Jefferson Memorial, with Kennedy family members, postassassination vignettes, and tributes to the artist’s progressive movement heroes. It is priced at $120,000. “Ron’s Rollin” (1985), a colorful 50- by 90-inch commentary on the Reagan presidency, is priced at $150,000. For ACA Galleries information, 212-206-8080.
The 176-page exhibition catalog, , written by D’Ambrosio, the reigning authority on the subject, is superb. There are 111 illustrations, including 73 in full color, and a comprehensive, insightful text on Fasanella’s life and art. Published in 2001 by the New York State Historical Association, it is a good buy at $39.95. The book can be ordered by phone at 607-547-1494. This handsome volume is essential reading for fans, old and new, of Fasanella’s unusual oeuvre.
The New-York Historical Society is at 2 West 77th Street at Central Park West. For information, 212-873-3400. The Mennello Museum of American Folk Art is at 900 East Princeton Street in Orlando, Fla. For information, 407-246-4278.
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