June 3, 2016
by Aaron Ehrlich
William Gropper’s Joe Magarac (1946), one of only a few works on canvas in Art for Every Home, celebrates the working man as a proud paragon of American society. Gropper’s attraction to the mythic Pennsylvania steelworker hero is best understood both through his strong far-left sympathies and his capacities as both painter and cartoonist. Born into poverty at the turn of the century, Gropper began his art training at the Ferrer School, whose key faculty consisted of Ashcan school alumni George Bellows and Robert Henri, themselves committed leftists.
During his stint at the Ferrer School, Gropper lost his aunt in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, an event that stoked his disaffection with what he saw as an exploitative manufacturing culture. Joe Magarac is the product of Gropper’s lifelong faith in the spirit of the worker as noble load-bearer, coupled with his belief in the power of American mythology and folklore to affect attitudes and minds.
Gropper’s depiction of Magarac toes the line between mythic and religious. The bare-chested giant effortlessly forms a red-hot steel beam into an arc before a crowd of staggered onlookers. In the distance stands the steel mill, its massive size diminished by Magarac’s hulking display of will. As emphasized by the titular figure’s towering scale and glowing red hands, Joe Magarac affirms in no uncertain terms the invaluable role of the workingman’s spirit in postwar America, amid the nation’s increasingly chilly relationship with Stalinist USSR (where Gropper had honeymooned almost twenty years previously).
Despite Gropper’s distrust of American capitalism, Joe Magarac is a celebratory affair. The painting humanizes a regional emblem of self-sacrificing, team-oriented work, turning Magarac into both a representation of virtuous labor in the abstract, universal sense, and a more literal symbol of working-class American identity. In Gropper’s rendering, Magarac is a hero not only to Pennsylvania steel workers, but to working class folk the world over.
Joe Magarac extolls an industry at its apex that, in the decades following the painting’s execution, was to undergo significant decline due to mechanization, labor outsourcing, and globalized trade. By 1977, the year of Gropper’s death, the American steel industry was thouroughly emaciated — the cities it once sustained now part of the Rust Belt. Thus, in hindsight, Joe Magarac represents William Gropper’s unwitting, preemptive lamentation for the once-mighty American steel industry, and the remarkable pieces of Americana it produced.