Focusing on the decade following the stock market crash of 1929, The Left Front examines the crucial moment in American history when artists took to their printing presses (and brushes and cameras) amid the economic and social devastation brought on by the Great Depression. Coming together in the John Reed Club, a Communist Party–affiliated organization founded in New York City directly after the crash, these men and women embraced the motto “art as a social weapon.” Named after the journalist-activist who witnessed and wrote about the 1917 Russian Revolution, John Reed Clubs spread across the country, numbering about thirty chapters nationwide. The New York chapter’s manifesto called on artists to “abandon decisively the treacherous illusion that art can exist for art’s sake, or that the artist can remain remote from the historic conflicts in which all men must take sides.”
The exhibition is organized in four sections. Class Struggle establishes the artists’ pro-worker and anti-capitalist stance through their images of unemployed workers, rich industrialists, and urban poverty. Workers of the World, Unite! explores labor—its conditions, the place of workers in society at large, efforts to organize, and the role of race. Addressing concepts of style, What Is Revolutionary Art? examines the artists’ differing approaches to conveying political messages—the struggle to balance their politically driven allegiance to Russian-style socialist realism with their interest in European modernism and their drive to forge an independent American aesthetics. Finally, The Popular Front focuses on the American Artists’ Congress—the John Reed Club’s less rigidly doctrinaire successor, which aimed to recruit a wider spectrum of left-leaning artists to help combat the alarming growth of fascism in Europe.
Although Left Front artists worked in a wide variety of media, they were especially drawn to printmaking—which countered the elitism of painting by making their art more affordable. In the wake of our own recent Great Recession, many artists today are grappling with questions of art and activism. The Left Front not only opens a window onto a vital period in the history of American art and politics, it also brings to mind artists’ responses to pressing issues of our time, such as great inequities in income and opportunity. In so doing, the exhibition asks what revolutionary art was during the turbulent 1930s, and what it can be today.