To help put people back to work during the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt launched a "New Deal" in 1933. To mark that event's 75th anniversary, the Weisman Art Museum is throwing a coming-out party: From its holdings of about 1,000 art works from that era, more than 100 are coming out of storage for the exhibit "By the People, for the People."
The art was acquired through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), chiefly the Federal Art Project. Much of it is by local artists, including Dorothea Lau, Edwin Holm, Elizabeth Olds and Syd Fossum, but a good deal comes from national figures such as photographers Berenice Abbott and Edward Weston.
This eclectic and very welcome show, curated by the Weisman's Diane Mullin, includes paintings, prints, photos and ceramics divided into thematic categories such as industry, modernism (surrealism and abstraction), women and Minnesota subjects. Relatively few rural landscapes typical of the era are on view.
The surrealism is over-the-top in Robert Van Rosen's stick man in a crazed hospital ward, and derivative in Shirley Julian's Dali-esque lithographs. But there's a bright whimsy to Julia Thecla's gouache of two ballerinas on tiptoe upon mountain peaks, their upstretched arms encircling the clouds. And Gertrude Abercrombie's white objects -- whether a horse or a hat plume -- glow with great effect in her dim, mysterious landscapes.
The abstract work is strong. In "Construction in Space," Kurt Baumann works the lithographic stone into a wonderful variety of implied textures as well as shapes. And Alexander Corazzo's paintings are graphically forceful and complex in color.
In the industry section, Erle Loran's breezy-clean flour mills would seem more at home in California, where he later went to build his career. Thomas Hart Benton influenced Mac Le Sueur's swirling vision of an abandoned mine flown over by crows and Lucia Wiley's dynamic oil-on-board images of the logging industry. Don't overlook Wiley's small gem, a colorfully stylized gouache impression of Ojibwe Indians gathering wild rice.
Elof Wedin is at his best in two oils: "River Boats" and "Stiffy's - No. 2." Each has powerful colors, a boldly structured physical environment and oddly isolated figures in the tradition of George Tooker. Somewhat generic and picturesque early paintings by Stanford Fenelle and Cameron Booth -- of landscapes and university settings -- don't represent the more individual styles that each artist achieved later in the 1930s.
The show's best painting is probably Dewey Albinson's "River Flats." His dim jumble of receding shanty homes is enveloped in trees that loom high above and throw everything into shadow, just as that impoverished riverbank community lived in the shadow of Minneapolis itself.
Compared with their peers on the coasts or in Chicago, Minnesota artists soft-pedaled controversial Depression-era imagery such as strikes, bread lines or hungry children. Here, the greatest uproar occurred when a journalist claimed that a former stripper was among the actresses newly hired by the local Federal Theater Project. The exhibit's more socially critical images are photographs by non-Minnesotans such as Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and Jack Delano, whose "Child Dropping Tobacco Plants" at first looks like a girl gracefully skipping through a field. A second look reveals the sad reality of child labor.
The exhibit makes no convincing argument for its separate section of women's art, which only distracts by taking pictures out of more suitable thematic sections. The works reveal how many high-talent female artists were harmoniously integrated into that period, which in retrospect appears surprisingly nonsexist even by today's standards.
In fact, the University of Minnesota's holdings from the WPA era reflect the collecting skills of one woman, Ruth Lawrence, who directed the University Gallery (later Museum) from 1934 to 1957. The exhibit brings long-overdue attention to her remarkable career.
The university doesn't actually own any of the works it collected under the WPA. After paying the contributing artists, national programs such as the Federal Art Project would place their art in nonprofit institutions like the university. The government charged these institutions only for the cost of materials, which amounted to a one-time rental fee on a permanent loan, with the federal government maintaining ownership of the art.
That means those 1,000 art objects aren't going anywhere. Let's hope the university finds other inventive ways to bring them out of storage.
Doug Hanson writes frequently on the visual arts.