"New Deal" exhibit recalls U.S. history

On Sept. 5 the Kinetic Gallery opened its doors for its first exhibit of the semester, “New Deal for the Arts.” With lively music and a slide show of photographs to set the mood of the 1930s, the exhibit showcased a collection of works from various American artists commissioned under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Great Depression program that promoted public arts. Without any historical context, the 17 paintings simply portray natural landscapes of American scenery and various still-lifes of plants and flowers. Many of the paintings highlight the natural beauty of New York State. Aside from its aesthetic purposes, the paintings had a more significant historical value. The selected paintings in “New Deal for the Arts” belong to a larger collection of works loaned to the Kinetic Gallery by Livingston Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting arts and culture within the county.

Artist Inez Abernathy’s “Spring in Wallkill, New York,” embraces the theme of the exhibit. The oil on canvas depicts the quaint town of Wallkill in Orange County, New York. Abundant in impressionistic brushstrokes and spring colors, the artist seems to have captured a fleeting moment in time. Like the works around it, Abernathy’s piece is without figures, featuring a single blossoming tree and a view into a valley.

Abernathy had another standout piece titled “Blue and Gold,” reminiscent of Claude Monet’s “Haystacks.” The oil is, once again, quickly and impressionistically applied. Its warm hues and tones match the peaceful affect of a New York sunset. Not all paintings, however, are set upstate. “Long Island Landscape” by artist Charles Henning is a more picturesque oil painting of a red barn surrounded by a field of crops in downstate New York. While Henning’s piece differs geographically, it still contains the stylistically repetitive qualities that the other works had, including a lacking technical abilities.

Livingston Arts Director Chris Norton accompanied the exhibition with a brief but thorough background on the time period and history behind the artwork. Norton explained to the audience members that this was tumultuous time for the United States––the Dust Bowl, Great Depression and a difficult transition in presidency were all contributing factors. Norton explained that the paintings were originally displayed on the walls of tuberculosis hospital.

“When that tuberculosis hospital closed, it was run by the state. They sold it to Livingston County for a dollar, literally $1 around 1970,” he said. His talk put the works into an understandable perspective, providing them with increased significance.

“[The] main goal was to put these artists to work. They were never told what they could paint,” Norton said. “They’re all New York City artists, collected in Woodstock, New York and brought to upstate New York.”

The artists Norton refers to were part of Roosevelt’s solution to America’s struggles: the Works Progress Administration was one of the many successful programs under his New Deal policy.

“They knew where [the art] was going, they knew they were going to be [displayed] in a hospital, where people had to get well, so it’s all positive…landscapes and pretty flowers,” Norton said. He also referenced “The Red Clown” by Charles Willmont, a strange oil painting of a grinning circus clown. “Some of these were in the children’s hospital,” he explained.

While the exhibition overall is about the art, it’s more about the time period and history behind it. Unfortunately, in this case, the art doesn’t begin to reflect the political and emotional stress America experienced; it simply serves as a backdrop to it.