Wall to Wall

Public murals are contested spaces, where retellings of history and visions of the future fight for prominence.

Then

Anton Refregier, 1948

San Francisco

Then

Anton Refregier, 1948

San Francisco

“Some night, perhaps, men will come with buckets of white paint and it will take very little time to destroy that which took me so long to make,” wrote Anton Refregier in a 1949 manuscript recounting his creation of a 27-panel mural inside the lobby of the Rincon Annex, an imposing post office just off the Embarcadero in San Francisco. “And in the morning it will be just like it was three years ago. White walls without colors, without ideas, ideas that make some people so mad and so afraid.”

Refregier beat out 83 other artists in a 1941 competition to create the mural, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration. The Federal Art Project—a WPA program that provided unemployed artists with work—had sponsored the contest and awarded Refregier the $26,000 contract. This was the last good news the artist heard about the project, which seemed troubled from the start. First, the endeavor was put on hold when the country entered World War II following the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. After the war ended, Refregier was given the green light to resume his work on the paintings, which would show the history of California—from Sir Francis Drake’s voyage, to the Gold Rush and the San Francisco earthquake, through to various labor strikes. Then the trouble really began.

Refregier was born in Moscow in 1905 and emigrated to the United States in 1920. He studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design, first working as a set designer, then painting murals for ocean liners and private residences. He later landed work with the Federal Art Project, producing murals for post offices and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. A social realist painter, Refregier’s often depicted the trials and tribulations of workers; his World’s Fair mural was a celebration of the accomplishments of Federal Art Project employees. He was also a devoted defender of leftist causes and workers’ rights, and had done illustration work for the American Marxist publication The New Masses. The Rincon mural reflected Refregier’s empathy for the working class, even if that meant depicting a less-than-glowing version of California history.

Among the scenes depicted by Refregier—which included the 49ers panning for gold, the raising of California’s bear flag, and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge—were images of the 1877 San Francisco riot, in which whites attacked Chinese immigrants, and the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike. A panel that shows the 1945 meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco depicts the flags of the countries present, including the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle. Postwar America was in an anti-communist frenzy; Refregier’s Russian origins were enough for many to cast suspicion on his motives, even without his inclusion of pro-labor motifs.

As he worked, calls for revisions rolled in. Officials from the Public Buildings Administration in Washington, D.C., objected to a planned portrait of the late president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (In a November 1947 letter to the artist, they explained that they did not approve of depictions of any “prominent persons in any mural.”) Refregier told the San Francisco Chronicle that he believed the request was due to the Truman administration’s campaign to discredit Roosevelt—but still, he complied, leaving FDR out. The Catholic Church objected that a group of friars was depicted as too fat. (Refregier slimmed them down.) The Veterans of Foreign Wars objected to the use of their logo on a hat being worn by a protester in a three-panel scene depicting a waterfront strike, and argued that the entire sequence should be removed because of its Communist sentiment. On this point, Refregier fought back: he had photos of the event showing strikers wearing the hats, he told the Chronicle. Washington officials responded to the controversy by ordering the offending panels covered up until they could reach a decision, prompting longshoremen and artists who supported Refregier’s work to protest on his behalf outside the post office. Finally, officials decided the panels could be left in—if the artist would just remove the VFW hat. He did.

All 27 murals were completed at last in 1948. Chronicle columnist Herb Caen noted this accomplishment with no small amount of sarcasm: “Well, everybody can relax now,” he wrote. “On Tuesday, artist Anton Refregier put the final finishing touches on his ‘controversial’ murals at Rincon Annex Post Office ... The finished product is now pure and wholesome, guaranteed to wrinkle no brows and crease no brains.”

But the murals’ tribulations had still not come to an end. Local conservatives continued to stew over the content of the paintings, and in May 1953, Congressman Herbert Scudder of Sebastopol, California, a small, rural community about 50 miles north of San Francisco, submitted a resolution to Congress requesting the murals be removed. A hearing to decide their fate was held by the House Committee on Ways and Means. “It was the first instance of the death penalty being asked for paintings in a congressional action,” wrote the Chronicle.

At the hearing, Scudder decried the murals as “subversive” and “historically inaccurate.” He even complained about the quality of the artwork, lambasting the “pot-bellied monks” (who apparently had not been slimmed enough for his liking) and the “dwarfed heads” and “sadist expressions” of other figures. Others defended the work. “These things happened,” Representative John F. Shelly from San Francisco argued at the hearing, “and we can’t say they didn’t because we don’t like the artist.” At the end of the hearing, the committee said it would take two weeks to decide on the fate of the murals. In the end, the committee bowed to the pressure of artists, museum directors, art critics, and a majority of California politicians. The murals could stay.

Today, the Rincon Annex has been rebranded the Rincon Center, a commercial property with offices and a food court. Downtown workers jetting in and out for a quick lunch may not even clock the historic murals in the lobby. In the 1980s, a series of new murals by the artist Richard Haas were added to the building’s atrium, depicting upbeat scenes of California agricultural workers, technology, and transportation.

“The Hass paintings depict the abundance and sense of well-being often associated with the accomplishments of free enterprise and the American Dream,” wrote Thomas Portue, the conservator tasked with caring for the Refregier murals, in a 2016 blog post for the American Institute for Conservation comparing the two projects. “There are obvious contrasts and a distinct irony associated with the juxtaposition of these two very different works of art. But I believe that standing between them gives one a great sense of what it means to be uniquely American.”

Then

Anton Refregier, 1948

San Francisco

Now

Peter Krashes, 2018

Brooklyn

Now

Peter Krashes, 2018

Brooklyn

I am a painter and local community organizer living in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. My activism is directed toward improving government transparency and accountability, in a neighborhood where the government is often caught between enabling corporations and serving the people who live there. Since it was first proposed in 2003, the implementation of the Pacific Park development—a megaproject which includes the Barclays Center arena and 16 other buildings on a 22-acre site—has shaped and challenged our way of life. (Originally called Atlantic Yards, the development was rebranded in 2014.) The project has long been plagued by delays, and its proposed 10-year timeline is now anticipated to stretch to 30 years, until 2035.

Prospect Heights is a small neighborhood where local community interests are challenged by unusually close proximity to international corporations. Pacific Park is being developed in part by Greenland USA, the American subsidiary of a Shanghai-based holdings company; Barclays Center was partly funded by Russian billionaire and politician Mikhail Prokhorov, who’s also partial owner of the Brooklyn Nets.

A year after the arena opened in 2012, MTV hosted its Video Music Awards there. There’s nothing more “Brooklyn” than a block party, and the street where MTV staged its red carpet is the same one where, every year, we have ours. Where Miley Cyrus stepped out of her limo to twerk for the cameras, our kids have their annual dance-off. Where fans were corralled to cheer on celebrities such as Ariana Grande, our kids have enjoyed hot dogs, face-painting, a bounce house, and a pet talent show. Our block party is staged by the community for the community; the MTV red carpet was staged by a corporation for a television audience. Our neighborhood’s real-world experience of the 2013 VMAs included navigating around steel barricades and being forced to show ID to get to our own front doors.

In August 2015, Pacific Park’s developers installed ten outdoor murals on an 820-foot construction fence on Dean Street. While clearly intended to project community and creativity, the murals were part of the developer’s branding of the project. A promotional event was held for local elected officials and press, including a marathon painting session to complete the murals in one day and a “block party” theme. Along with sidewalk chalk, kids were given coloring sheets branded with the name of the development.

From my vantage point, the event seemed primarily directed toward the cameras and media in attendance. It was as if the artwork—mostly geometric abstractions—was curated to be an anodyne backdrop for Instagram photos and TV interviews. The murals would stay up for more than two years, but little construction seemed to be taking place behind the fence, as the developers failed to meet their own deadlines again and again.

Advocacy has taught me to think through the goals of each stakeholder, especially policymakers and developers, and carefully scrutinize the potential outcomes of their decisions. This has also changed the way I think about art. Just a month after the Pacific Park murals went up in Brooklyn, I visited the Rincon Center in San Francisco, where I saw Anton Refregier’s 27-panel mural showing the history of California. He won the public commission in 1941, but Refregier was only able to finish the mural in 1948, after a long battle with state and local governments. Calls to see the murals destroyed came from powerful voices, including then-California congressman Richard Nixon.

Refregier’s insertion of a progressive political narrative into a public space—in this case, a post office—stands in stark juxtaposition to the market-directed murals placed on my own block, innocuous temporary placeholders for a neighborhood in flux. Refregier’s murals were permanent. It is the artist’s willful determination to save his work, and the idealism and optimism driving that determination, that stand out to me today.

For this project, I created paintings based on photographs taken at the 2013 VMAs, the installation of the Pacific Park murals, and our own neighborhood block party. My painting is an opportunity to work outside the imperatives of my activism, as well as any need to achieve tangible outcomes. I respond to the beauty I see in my community as it works to maintain its identity, especially in a context where change has knocked it out of balance.

As an artist, I mark the processes that can frustrate us, and I try to celebrate what deserves to be perpetuated. For me, the act of painting a clown on a kid’s arm, or another kid dancing the electric slide on the street, has little to do with government processes, or the way decision-making occurs. Corporate money accrues influence and control. It feels empowering to create art that lies beyond its values and outside its interests.

Peter Krashes lives and works in Brooklyn. He has shown his work in solo exhibitions at the James Gallery, the Graduate Center at CUNY, Derek Eller Gallery, Momenta Art, Theodore:Art, and White Columns, all in New York.

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