An International Movement: Social Realism and its Beginnings at ACA

By May 15, 2018 May 22nd, 2018 News

Charles White, Ye Shall Inherit the Earth, 1953

Social Realism, the art of political outrage and social justice, has been at the heart of ACA Galleries’ program since first opening their doors in 1932. In fact, the term “Social Realism” was coined by ACA’s earliest group of artists and the gallery’s founder, Herman Baron. Forged by the economic and social cruelties of the Great Depression, ACA and its artists were at the forefront of a movement to bring the struggles and dignity of the working class and other marginalized communities into the conscience of 1930s America. Today, in the current political climate and its intractable economic inequality, and with the American social compact again under attack, ACA believes that the art of Social Realism is as relevant as ever.

Having survived accusations of disloyalty by the era’s entrenched powers, Social Realism’s foundational artists have since become seminal figures in the canon of American art. Their works are now integral to university Art History curricula and are represented nationally and globally in major museums and collections. The courage of those artists to withstand political pressure earned them their rightful place in American culture. Their resulting prominence makes Social Realist works of increasing interest to both seasoned collectors and those new to the field.

John Mellencamp, Working Man Blues, 2013

ACA’s roster of Social Realist artists is unequalled among major New York galleries. Having been part of the movement’s birth, ACA’s Social Realist holdings read like a Who’s Who of important Twentieth century art. Among them: Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, William Gropper, Jacob Lawrence, Moses and Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh, Jack Levine, Charles White, Robert Gwathmey, and others whose works challenged hidebound attitudes and—in the current parlance—have “spoken truth to power.” The imagery of these artists ranges across the emotional spectrum, from heartbreak to anger to humor, but always underpinned by integrity. This tradition continues today through the work of socially concerned artists such as John Mellencamp, Faith Ringgold and Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson among others.

Though realism is the substructure, Social Realist artists have never been constrained by a rigid definition of objective figuration. The movement’s founders felt free to use Modernism’s expansive and rule-breaking vocabulary, incorporating Modernist elements to provide their images with an additional jolt of power. This tension between the traditional and the Modernist gives Social Realism its startling visual force, adding an appropriately vigorous note to its social and political intentions.

From the very beginning, Social Realism’s political core, and ACA’s commitment to exhibiting works by artists who might otherwise be stifled, provided a platform for women and artists of color. It was in this more accepting environment that African American artists such as Charles White, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, and female artists such as Isabel Bishop, were brought to public attention.

The breadth of Social Realist works explains not only the cultural politics of America, both then and now, but helps us understand America itself. While Social Realism uses its sharp eye to investigate the plight of struggling workers, it also has its lighter moments, depicting the everyday activities and entertainments of working class America.

Reginald Marsh, Burlesque Scene, 1946

Isabel Bishop and Reginald Marsh excelled at revealing the intimacies and rhythms of everyday American life. Bishop, originally from Cincinnati, was accepted into the New York School of Applied Design for Women when she was just sixteen years old. Eventually taking a studio at Union Square, she became part of the lively group of Fourteenth Street artists who turned their eye to the goings-on along the neighborhood streets. From the 1930s to the 1980s, Bishop concentrated on the women of the Union Square area, revealing their independence and energies on their way to and from work, navigating the subways, and generally finding their niche in the life of the city. Bishop’s work remains timely, illuminating issues relevant to today’s reexamination of women in American society. As a result, acquisitional interest for her work is on the rise.

Like Bishop, Reginald Marsh was also a member of the Fourteenth Street school but his oeuvre expanded to the wilder reaches of the city, i.e., the Bowery and Coney Island. With an unmistakable curvilinear style, exuberant color, and an eye for the telling physical and psychological detail, Marsh chronicled the city’s working classes and their pleasures, both pleasant and profane. From the family-friendly beaches and boardwalk of Coney Island to the boom-boom rhythms of the city’s burlesque houses, Marsh’s paintings, drawings and works on paper depict the irrepressible energy, dignity, and hope of working class New Yorkers, even during their hardest times. As a major art historical figure, Marsh’s work has always been considered essential to any serious collection of American and Social Realist Art.

The same could be said of Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera; world renowned artists whose images of heartland (Benton) and homeland (Rivera) portray the dignity and efforts of people bound to the land or to industrial work. Benton’s rural and industrial Americans and Rivera’s Mexican farmers and industrial laborers are revealed as quietly heroic in their often uncomplaining struggles to survive hard times or political oppression. Though visually different in style, both artists render their figures as people of physical and therefore cultural strength: Benton’s Americans as paragons of heartland grit and fundamental virtues, Rivera’s Mexicans as not only determined to survive backbreaking labor and political oppression but to rise against them. ACA Galleries continues to accommodate the ongoing demand for works by these two towering figures of American and Social Realist art.

William Gropper, Hirohito

Anger at injustice is often the animating core of Social Realism, but anger with an edge of humor is the domain of William Gropper. During the Depression years and again through the boomtime of prosperous post-World War Two America, Gropper’s scathing visual wit punctured the complacency of the comfortable, the indifference of the powerful, and the corruption of  hot-air-spewing politicians. His sharp graphic style, honed during his years as an illustrator for progressive publications, is well suited to his humorous assaults on those who oppress America’s working classes or ignore their struggles. Gropper’s work has long been a staple of ACA’s Social Realist program. His unique dark comedy remains relevant to today’s political and social culture.

Social Realism’s traditional concerns—the anger, compassion, pride and humor—continue in the work of contemporary artists exhibited by ACA. Painter John Mellencamp, for example, recognizes that the struggles of today’s working class Americans are strikingly similar to the struggles of Depression era workers. Thus, his painterly style, influenced by 1930s German Expressionism combined with Modernist energy, successfully relates Americans’ current struggles to its past ones, uniting the two into a powerful argument for social justice. Known primarily as a wildly popular musician, Mellencamp is as trained and disciplined as a painter as he is a composer and performer. As a multi-disciplinary artist and longtime social activist, John Mellencamp’s imagery is firmly established in America’s Social Realist opus.

Faith Ringgold, Early Works #16: A Man Kissing His Wife, 1964

ACA Galleries’ continuing program of exhibiting work by women addresses Social Realism’s demand for cultural justice. Artists Faith Ringgold and Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson are mainstays of ACA’s exhibitions. And as women of color, Ringgold and Robinson add an additional perspective to Social Realism’s aspirations for justice. Though their experiences as females in a male dominated art world is naturally shared with white female artists, their need to persevere over misogyny as well as racism made their quest for respect and visibility that much more challenging. ACA was among the first major New York galleries to recognize the power of Ringgold’s narratives of theAfrican-American female experience and the depth of Robinson’s greathearted humanism.

The artists mentioned in these writings are but a few of ACA Galleries’ deep Social Realist inventory. True to its mission of exhibiting and representing work by a broad scope of artists from the full cultural tapestry of America, the gallery’s inventory includes work by artists across America’s racial, ethnic and gender spectrum. Artists of established significance and emerging artists are included in ACA’s Social Realist holdings, and this breadth of inventory creates acquisition opportunities at every level. ACA Galleries is happy to advise the seasoned collector as well as those new to the market. 

To learn more about our inventory of Social Realist art and to set up a viewing, contact us here.

Courtesy Ann Aptaker, ACA Galleries


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