The Color Red: 1929 – 1940

Before Hippies. Before Punk. Before apathy became a style. The Left in the United States was a major movement for change in the world and a threat to the establishment. The artists of communist and socialist leaning were idealists who believed, however misguidedly, that the Soviet model would free the world from capitalist oppression and exploitative oligarchy. The outcome, of course, never lived up to the dream, but the relics of Left beliefs are not insignificant nor irrelevant today.

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The design historian Victor Margolin told me “Left-wing American painters and print makers of the 1930s depicted the ills of capitalism in a way that is more often seen in other media today.” To underscore his comment, he sent me the newspaper catalog for what appears to be an important documentary exhibit, “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929 – 1940,” which features some illuminating essays on the artists and ideologies of the period.

The curators of this splendid exhibit are seeking to find the relationship between activism and art and determine what revolutionary art practices are happening now in Chicago, the United States and worldwide.

The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940 revisits a moment in American cultural history when visual artists joined forces to form a “left front” to make socially conscious art. In the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and at the start of the Great Depression, artists and writers founded the John Reed Club (JRC), which spread to more than thirty chapters nationwide. Named after the journalist who witnessed the 1917 Russian Revolution, the JRC brought together such artists as Isabel Bishop, Stuart Davis, William Gropper, Rockwell Kent, and Chicagoan Morris Topchevsky—embraced the motto “art as a social weapon” and rejected the idea that “the artist can remain remote from the historic conflicts in which all men must take side.” They took their message to the streets—marching, boycotting, picketing, and teaching—while also organizing exhibitions and publishing their artworks.

The exhibition will be on view at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art / Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, Ilinois (and is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art, among others).

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Print’s February Issue
Don’t miss the newest issue of Print, the Sex & Design issue, which takes a tasteful look at issues surrounding sex and design. Read even more by Steven Heller, such as his feature article that explores the relationship between sex and advertising through the years, as well as his Dialogue and Evolution columns.

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