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Still Life

Roy Kadowaki, "Still Life" (1937)

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Under the Federal Arts program, the main goal was not only to fund artists creating paintings but also to allocate that art to public places such as government buildings, schools, or hospitals. The Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Mt. Morris was one such location where paintings from a variety of locations were allocated--to the best of our knowledge, New York City and Woodstock, NY. This exhibit takes the additional step of looking at these paintings in terms of where they originated, and the importance of that social space during the 1930s.

Location plays an important role in Roy Kadowaki's 1937 painting "Still Life," pictured at left. At first glance we see an attractive plant on a table with various objects scattered around it. When examining these objects more closely, however, we notice an envelope upon which is Kadowaki's name and a New York City address written across it: 453 W 45th St. The painting now is located in a particular time and place, seemingly autobiographical and meaningful to the artist. What do should we do with this information? Is the letter within the envelope important, or just the address? Should we draw connections between this "dead letter" and a dead leaf upon the table? Such questions of meaning proper to a place, within a time frame, is a driving force in this project.

Allocations poster

Ben Nason, WPA Allocations poster (1938)

When looking at paintings from the New Deal Gallery that evoke this sense of place many of them—not surprisingly—were landscapes. We suggest they were not painted for beauty alone, but also for some deeper meaning the land had to so many American during the Great Depression. Michael Steiner, in his article "Regionalism in the Great Depression", argues that amidst widespread crisis and an ominous future the land was something constant, even comforting. He writes, "When the present is charged with turbulent change and uncertainty, and the future looks bleak and capricious, the past can beckon as a refuge of security and stability...sense of place offered an immediate feeling of stability in a transitory world" (434-435). We approach the scenes painted here as both personal and articulating the feelings of other Americans.

The New Deal Gallery paintings evoke stability and nostalgia (if only for a moment) but also a sometimes-ecological recognition of the land that America has to offer. That couldn't be taken for granted during the 1930s, and it's hard to see how that could be the case today. Therefore we also look at the paintings through a modern lens of the Green New Deal, which encourages people to consider the lasting impact of an unchecked industrial society and reconnect to the ground under their feet.

Works Consulted

—Steiner, Michael C. “Regionalism in the Great Depression.” Geographical Review 73.4 (1983): 430–446. JSTOR stable link here.

Credits: Justin Anderson, Jessica Apthorpe, Kristopher Bangsil, Elizabeth Ramsay, John Serbalik.