The exhibition Coal & Steel, Sources & Uses, is on view at the Susan Teller Gallery now through August 29, 2012. These fifty American paintings and works on paper from 1932 to 1952 are by more than twenty artists including Will Barnet, James Daugherty, Hugo Gellert, James Penney, Angelo Pinto, and Ben Shahn.
Coal mining and steel production, foundations of American industry, were strong sources of inspiration for artists of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. During The Depression these male-dominated fields were fraught conflicting issues. Were they dangerous, un-caring institutions that abused workers who were desperate for any employment, or were they sources of a living wage and the dignity of a day’s labor?
In part this exhibition was conceived when curator Barbara Zabel was compiling America @ Work, shown Spring, 2012, at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum of Connecticut College. Zabel featured several of the works shown here, including Harry Sternberg’s monumental Steel, 1938, as well as Ida Abelman’s Man and Machine, 1936, Hugh Mesibov’s Steel Industry, 1940, and Ben Shahn’s Head of a Welder, 1935.
Sternberg, is a source for a great deal of this material. In 1936 he was awarded a Guggenheim Grant for the study American industry, and his painting Steel, mentioned above, is a direct consequence of that grant. Riva Helfond, whose future husband Bill Barrett, was from Lansford, Pennsylvania, was Sternberg’s conduit to actual mines and mining communities, largely in the northeastern, anthracite region. Sternberg, a teacher at the Art Students League, made frequent weekend trips taking members of his class: Blanche Grambs, Helfond, Axel Horn, and Charles Keller. (Winifred Lubell went once, but there had been an accident a day or so before. Everything was shut down they returned home without any art work.) Keller also had connections to mines in North Carolina, Alex Horn to mines in West Virginia.
In Philadelphia Michael J. Gallagher, who was from a mining family, lead the Work Progress Administration (WPA) Printmaking Shop. Gallagher’s works range from the drawing Mine Cave-In, 1936, in which to men huddle under crushing beams, to Sunder Afternoon, 1937, an idyllic view of a young couple gazing into the future; they are silhouetted against a giant colliery. Hugh Mesibov worked with Gallagher on the WPA and in the 1940s he worked at Cramps Shipyard. (Cramps was re-opened for the war effort; at it’s height employed 18,000 laborers.) Mesibov’s painting, Manayunk, 1940, a rare modernist work in the show, is nearly fauvist in it glory of the hilly industrial community. Angelo Pinto was also drawn to Manayunk, however his equally picturesque view owes a debt to the Etching Revival.
While coal fed the furnaces of factories and homes, steel was used to build the factories themselves, the infrastructure of railroads, bridges, canals and skyscrapers. Sternberg and Mesibov knew the northeastern steel area of Bethlehem; Rita Albers and her husband Mervin Jules were drawn to the Pittsburgh area. As the country entered World War II, steel was used to build the great ships and the machines of war, and then to re-build the American Dream as with Fred Shane’s Clam Shell Dredge, 1952, Mitchell Siporin’s Railroaders, 1950, and Lynd Ward’s Pipelines, 1946.
All images may be seen under Exhibitions, at www.susantellergallery.com.