The Shapes of Things to Come

Before many Americans had ever seen an abstract painting, the WPA commissioned artists to create large, avant-garde murals—for installation in a public housing project.

Then

Mural Division, Works Progress Administration, 1936–39

Brooklyn, New York

Then

Mural Division, Works Progress Administration, 1936–39

Brooklyn, New York

On September 30, 1937, Bessie Grabkowitz paid $6.65 for her first week’s rent in her new apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg and told the New York Times that she appreciated its sunny interior, as well as the fact that there was “an extra room for the children.” Such an everyday event wouldn’t usually be fodder for the paper of record, but Grabkowitz was the first paying tenant of the newly opened Williamsburg Houses, a landmark affordable housing development spearheaded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration. The PWA had been founded in 1933, and the Houses were among over 34,000 public infrastructure projects built under its auspices, alongside dams, hospitals, and airports.

The Houses were among the first of their kind to be built in New York, and they were surprisingly pedigreed: they were built in the International Style—the clean, modernist look pioneered by, among others, the Bauhaus school and Le Corbusier—and designed by architects William Lescaze and Richmond H. Shreve. (The latter’s firm had also led the construction of the Empire State Building, completed just six years before.) The Houses consisted of four blocks of 20 four-story buildings, all of which were angled against the city grid. The development offered 1,622 spacious apartments, pedestrian pathways, courtyards, and basement community spaces. They were also home to some of the first abstract public murals in the United States.

Burgoyne Diller, head of the Mural Division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was tasked with decorating the development’s community rooms. The vast majority of murals commissioned on behalf of the WPA were representational, and many depicted industrious men and women at work in a variety of jobs. Diller, an abstract painter, had something else in mind for the Williamsburg Houses.

Panel from Ilya Bolotowsky’s mural for the Williamsburg Houses, 1936. Brooklyn Museum. Digital Collections and Services. © 2019 The Estate of Ilya Bolotowsky / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

“The decision to place abstract murals in these rooms was made because these areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment for the tenants,” Diller explained in an essay published in 1973. This was his tactful explanation; the reality is that he was not a fan of the Houses’ design. Speaking with an oral historian in 1964, Diller recalled that he thought “people moving into this housing project might need that touch of color and decoration around, something to add a little life and gaiety to these rather bleak buildings.”

A colleague told the Times in 1988 that Diller felt that, “at the end of eight hours spent among moving belts, machines and factory stacks, the painted images of more machines and factory stacks would be of no comfort” to the tenants.

Paul Kelpe’s panels for the Williamsburg Houses, circa 1938, on view at the Brooklyn Museum in 2009. Brooklyn Museum. Digital Collections and Services. Installation view from the exhibition Williamsburg Murals: A Rediscovery.
Balcomb Greene’s panel for the Williamsburg Houses, circa 1936, at the Brooklyn Museum in 2009. Brooklyn Museum. Digital Collections and Services. Installation view from the exhibition Williamsburg Murals: A Rediscovery.

Diller commissioned 12 artists to paint on the walls of the housing project’s recreation rooms in the late 1930s, including murals by four men—Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden—who were all were members of the cooperative exhibition group American Abstract Artists. Each colorful, nonobjective mural was very different in composition, and yet they were all distinctly of a set.

The paintings enriched the lives of the Williamsburg Houses residents while also serving as their first exposure to abstract art, which would’ve still been unfamiliar to many low-income Americans at the time. (In the mid-1930s, future Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock was still painting figurative scenes of cotton pickers for the Federal Art Project; Pablo Picasso, already widely celebrated in Europe, wouldn’t have his first MoMA retrospective until the end of the decade.) But the murals Diller had commissioned—like many works produced by WPA artists—would eventually fall into neglect. They were painted over several times. Two were coated in rubber cement to be used as self-adhesive notice boards. It wasn’t until 1987, after years of fundraising, that the canvas-backed murals were removed from the walls of the Houses so that they could be painstakingly restored. Although the Houses still stand today, the restored murals are now on long-term loan to the Brooklyn Museum from the New York City Housing Authority.

“These are extremely important artworks, quite courageous and extraordinary,” said art historian Francis V. O’Conner, in the same 1988 New York Times story about the murals’ restoration. “They were painted in the most radical style you could get at the time.”

Then

Mural Division, Works Progress Administration, 1936–39

Brooklyn, New York

Now

Mildred Beltré, 2019

Brooklyn, New York

Now

Mildred Beltré, 2019

Brooklyn, New York

From 1996 to 2006, I worked for the Harborview Art Program that was a part of Community Operations for the New York City Housing Authority. First, I was a teaching artist conducting art workshops throughout the city in various community centers; later I became the community coordinator for Brooklyn. While at this job, I took a group of children to the Brooklyn Museum, which is where I first discovered the Williamsburg Murals: four abstract paintings which once adorned the walls of the basement community rooms at the public housing development called the Williamsburg Houses, and which are now on display in the museum’s café.

A tapestry inspired by Paul Kelpe’s 1938 mural, with text from a 1936 Federal Art Project poster promoting planned housing.

When we think about Depression-era murals, we usually imagine something figurative: scenes of science and industry, or of strong workers building America. The Williamsburg Murals were the first abstract public artwork commissioned by the Works Progress Administration. They were designed for the spaces where people who lived in the housing project could go and relax and not think about their jobs. There’s a class association with abstraction—that it doesn’t belong in a place like a public housing project. I would argue that it actually does belong there, and that it has its own kind of politics.

A tapestry with artwork inspired by Balcomb Greene’s mural, in a courtyard at the Williamsburg Houses.

I created tapestries based on the abstract images from the Williamsburg Murals, and overlaid them with slogans from Federal Art Project posters that were made to sell the idea of public housing to the public. “Eliminate Crime in the Slums Through Housing,” reads one from 1936; “Planned Housing Fights Disease,” says another from the same year, overlaid with an image of a microbe. Another shows an illustration of chaotic inner city life: “Must We Always Have This? Why Not Housing?”

A tapestry inspired by Albert Swinden’s 1936 mural. The text comes from a WPA poster for the New York City Housing Authority.
The artist hangs a tapestry at the Williamsburg Houses.

I used deteriorated images of the murals, transforming them from the hard material of the wall to the soft material of a blanket, then overlaid them with text from the posters. Murals are usually fixed—they’re hard, they’re thick. I liked the idea of a soft, mobile mural, one that could be moved around, even returned to Williamsburg Houses, where I recently hung up the tapestries and photographed them. The public, outdoor areas around housing projects were designed to be community gathering spaces; today they are often spaces of police surveillance, flooded at night with the glare of klieg lights. As we were hanging the pieces, people would stop and watch; maybe they wanted to talk or ask questions, or maybe they recognized the images. It felt like the start of a conversation, of a sense of community.

Tapestry inspired by Ilya Bolotowsky’s 1936 mural commissioned for the Houses.

With my work for Federal Project No. 2, I aim to draw attention to the goal of community building that was at the heart of public housing. I want to bring warmth back to these structures, as opposed to the hardness of the brick and mortar. Community operations programs, like the one I participated in, are disappearing from housing projects because money is only being directed to repairs.

The human aspect gets lost a little bit, when you are thinking about public housing. You have to remember there are different kinds of shelter. The softness of the tapestries was important to me in that way. These murals, unlike the originals, could conceivably be wrapped around you.

Mildred Beltré is a multidisciplinary artist invested in grassroots activism, social justice, and political movements. Her work spans photography, printmaking, drawing, text-based formats, and fiber arts. She is currently an associate professor of drawing and printmaking at the University of Vermont.

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