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Anton Refregier

(1905-1979)

Renaissance Man of the WPA

by Michelle Sawyer

Anton Refregier was a muralist, a printmaker, sculptor, and set designer. Active in the art world as a judge of mural and sculpture competitions, as a member of various art associations, and as an art educator, Refregier led a life marked by the contrast between capitalist America’s wealth and prosperity, and its simultaneous dearth of culture and spirituality. As a result of the unique situation America found itself in during the twentieth century, Refregier wrote in a pamphlet that, “the profit system is not capable of providing the fullest cultural development of the people,” a sentiment echoed in the artist’s struggle to create meaningful work in places normally not designated for art.




Table of Contents

I. Biography

The artist was born on March 20, 1905 in Moscow, Russia. He left the country of his birth for Paris when he was fifteen. In an interview, Refregier reflected on his time in Paris as well as his apprenticeship under the sculptor Vasilief, in which he noted the man as a great influence who conditioned the rest of his life. Refregier recalls that the sculptor was “a man of the Renaissance,” a quality that Refregier admired and put to use in his own career.

At the invitation of an uncle, Refregier moved to New York in the early 1920s. He first found work as a strikebreaker in a little factory, saying in 1964 that, “Of course now I know better.” The young artist soon earned a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he lived and worked odd jobs for four years. After finishing his education, Refregier moved to New York in 1925. He wanted to be a muralist, to create a “big monumental painting” but instead worked for interior decorators, doing copies of Bouchers and Fragonards for seventy-five dollars apiece. Still in New York, Refregier answered an ad for a “modern artist” wanted by a small firm. Through this job, the artist met many of his life-long friends and fellow artists including William de Kooning, Tully Filmus, and Lou Jacobs. Refregier continued his travels and briefly returned to Europe in 1927, studying in Munich under Hans Hofmann, who was an enormous influence on artists participating in abstract expressionism.

By this time, America experienced the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, taking the entire country and, indeed, the rest of the world with it. In his 1964 interview, Refregier said nothing of the early 1930s. Little is known of his career between 1929 and the formation of the Works Progress Administration in 1935. The artist was living in a New York artists’ colony, in Croton-on-Hudson’s Mount Airy section, which was an area known to have housed many artists and noted members of the American Communist Party. Refregier sought the community as a haven from the reaction against American radicalism that had followed World War I.

Refregier stated that mural painting was virtually impossible before 1934 because of the popularity of the cheap interior decorations he had previously produced. He claimed that architects were very reluctant to give artists a wall, but miraculously he had been able to survive as a muralist until the 1936 government sponsorship of the arts. Artists became inspired by what was happening with public art in Mexico (the murals created by Diego Rivera, among others). The WPA fulfilled many of the wishes of these truly starving artists. Refregier, as an artist currently on relief, was eligible to receive $23.86 a week on the WPA rolls. He was given his choice of assignments for his first project: a courthouse or the children’s ward of a hospital. Not wanting to have to deal with making a revolutionary statement through his work on the courthouse, the artist chose to paint for the hospital. In 1964, Refregier remarked that he wished he had taken on the courthouse, while still maintaining that he hadn’t “chickened out.” Refregier was made the leader of a team of five artists who would work on Brooklyn’s Green Point Hospital. Refregier felt embarrassed at the idea of being a master artist for his peers, artists roughly his age whose work he had never even seen, so Refregier proposed they create the mural cooperatively. It took about a year to complete the project, which worked out well, with the different artists contributing to different sections of the wall.

Refregier’s work then mainly constituted of work sponsored by the government: for the World’s Fair Federal Works Buildings in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and then for the Section of Fine Arts of the Public Building Administration inside of the Treasury Department. He worked as a teacher, supervising artist and mural supervisor. Refregier competed and won many mural competitions, earning a formidable reputation as a “big name” in art during this part of the century. He denied ever having stood out among the WPA artists, asserting that “while on WPA we had complete democracy, no name stood out, every man had an equal chance.”

The artist’s most famous mural is the 27-panel work detailing the “History of San Francisco” located at the Rincon Post Office in San Francisco. Refregier won this commission from the Section of Fine Arts in 1940 and completed the work in 1948. This mural was the costliest ($26,000) and most controversial of the Public Works, sparking national debate over the inclusion of controversial events from California’s history. Shortly after the murals’ completion conservative Republican senator Hubert Scudder demanded the work be covered, insisting the work defamed the pioneers and reflected negatively on California’s past. Others, including Richard Nixon, got involved in the protest, but were defeated by a coalition of concerned artists, museum directors, and citizens. The work is still located at the Rincon Post Office and has recently been restored.

After Rincon and the subsequent conflict surrounding it, the artist continued to work, taking jobs as a professor, teacher, and judge for numerous exhibitions. Refregier was married, and had at least one child, a son who was killed in a motorcycle accident. The artist died in 1979 while working on a mural for the Moscow Medical Clinic, the same year his Rincon mural was placed under the protection of the National Registry of Historic Places.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

Refregier’s influences are as numerous as they are varied, ranging from the work he did under Vasilief and the Rococo pieces he produced to earn a living, to the work of his contemporaries such as de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Ben Shahn. A unique blend of his experience and travel, Refregier’s style has been culled and tempered into a distinct form of abstract surrealism that incorporates many other styles.

The most famous and recognized work is the WPA mural completed at the Rincon Post Office Annex in 1948. This work consists of 27 panels depicting the history of California. Many of the mural studies focused on the typical themes of European immigration and of pioneers populating the state after the mid-nineteenth century, but Refregier also painted some more controversial topics. It was due to this deviance from California’s happier moments in history that the mural was condemned by politicians and Republican officials as “Communistic” in tone, particularly during the McCarthy era.

The project was begun in 1941, but soon suspended due to the onset of World War II. Work was resumed in 1946 and completed in 1948 resulting in the largest WPA mural, covering 400 square feet of wall space. Refregier painted the mural with casein tempera on white gesso over plaster walls, rather than creating a fresco, the common method of muralists which involves using water-soluble paint on wet plaster. Over the years, the mural deteriorated and required repeated restorations. After the Rincon Annex closed its Post Office in 1978, the mural was protected as a National Historic Place, and is now part of the Rincon Center, which features restaurants, shops, a new Post Office, a full service market, and more, all topped by 320 luxury apartments.

This happy ending seemed almost impossible to the many who witnessed the conflict over Refregier’s mural. The artist himself reflected that, “The years I worked on the WPA Art project were the most meaningful and the happiest of my professional life. I felt a sense of purpose, a closeness to the people with whom we shared our economic plight, a feeling of being needed by them.” Refregier’s choice of depicting tragedy in his mural work, such as the anti-Chinese Sand Lot riots, the trade unionist Tom Mooney’s trial (based on fabricated evidence), and the 1934 San Francisco waterfront strike, was a departure from many of his earlier works. Instead of portraying a scene of hard work ending economic depression, as did many murals of the period, Refregier turned to the past, with all its mistakes and blemishes, and used the tragedy of history as inspiration.

Of the 27 panels covering the walls of Rincon, the most widely reproduced (via silkscreen) is the scene “San Francisco ’34 Waterfront Strike,” which takes on the 82-day strike that crippled the shipping industry all along the West Coast. Workers were striking against low wages caused by corruption and graft, and before the outrage and rioting died down, three men were killed, out of the 31 who were shot by police and the dozens who were beaten and assaulted with gas. Refregier did not paint violence or defeat in his mural, but instead focused on the solidarity of the union workers. The work is divided into three major sections, which create boundaries between the scenes and denote the passage of time. The composition of the panel also gives the work a look reminiscent of a triptych or altar piece. Perhaps it is these themes, of union workers displacing religion, that flamed the anti-Communist criticism of the work after it was completed.

The right side of the panel depicts a crowd of workers reaching out to the empty hand of a maritime boss, shown as stone-faced and expressionless in his black suit. The workers’ faces are not seen, only their hats and hands. A black wall separates this crowd from the next, another band of union members all dressed in white now, rallying to the cries of one of their leaders. An image of a hand dropping something into another hand is suspended along the brick wall, representing the corruption that plagued the docks and fueled the white-clad union worker’s speech to the crowd beneath him. The figure in the middle is pointing at the corrupt boss, and also functions as the next dividing element. The third section of the painting depicts a collage-type assembly of objects representing the strike, the workers’ unity, and their subsequent triumph. An image of a black man and a white man walking together in front of an American flag demonstrates the union workers’ purely democratic ideals of equality and personal freedom. Images of bread, a police club, and a striker’s picket all stand in for the tremendous chaos and violence of the strike, when violence reigned and many went hungry due to the halt of transportation and virtually all activity in the city.

The mural’s color scheme incorporates yellows, browns and grays punctuated by red in certain areas to evoke emotion, the palette common to Refregier’s entire portfolio. In “San Francisco ’34 Waterfront Strike,” the earthy tones and dearth of bright colors throughout lends a solemnity to the work, reminding the viewer of struggle and hardship. In addition, white is used to represent virtue in those inspired by a cause. Though the work depicts actual events, it is more figurative and represents an abstract look at historical events. Refregier’s style is very flat and one-dimensional, using solid blocks of color to denote shadows, depth and shape. Like the seemingly basic composition, the painting itself appears to be very rudimentary and simple. However, the work is quite complex, using iconography and color to evoke an emotional reaction. This poignant mural panel claimed national attention and controversy, just as the strike did, a decade earlier.

Not all of Anton Refregier’s work sparked as much debate, though it is unquestionable that his work was always executed with the same principles in mind. The artist’s early career creating reproductions of Rococo art influenced his art as well as his politics, causing him to lean toward mural painting. He worked for trade union journals as well, and it is interesting to note that “Miners Descending in Elevator” was on the cover of the July 1950 issue of Fortune magazine, a strongly capitalist periodical. In this work, which is undated, Refregier portrayed several workers, visible only from the cheekbone up, wearing mining gear in preparation for their descent into the mine. Unlike “San Francisco ’34 Waterfront Strike,” this work is a close up, composed largely of the background of the mine and the panels of the mine shaft elevator. The relatively small size of the figures in this work imbues a sense of the insignificance of the individual worker. However, this idea is countered by the extreme proximity of the workers, to each other as well as to the viewer. An earthy color palette and uniformity of the workers’ facial features add to this theme, reminding the viewer of the importance of solidarity.

Refregier’s style changed slightly over the years, representing growth on the artist’s part, rather than an evolution prompted by current styles or trends. In his many roles as teacher, activist, judge, mentor, and always as an artist, Anton Refregier stayed true to his values. From the abstract to the surreal, Refregier’s early modernist murals and paintings have always depicted common people engaged in honest, hard work, as the artist has always championed democracy and the rights of American workers.

III. WPA Artists

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) on May 6, 1935, as part of a plan to relieve the economic distress suffered by millions of Americans after the Great Depression. The artistic community, some of those hardest hit by the economic downturn, had already been inspired by the public art underway in Mexico and were more than ready to begin such a project of beautification and education in their own country. Though the artists commissioned for public works by the government were paid modestly, the real reward for their hard work was the sense of pride gained through their lasting contributions. Between the years 1935 and 1943, the Federal Arts Project, a division of the WPA, created over 5,000 jobs for struggling artists and produced over 225,000 works of art for the American public.

Because WPA artists were being paid by the government, they were to work under a timetable, and if not creating works in situ, in central workshops. Because of this access to materials and a workshop, WPA artists became highly resourceful and experimental, developing new print techniques. WPA-sponsored exhibitions showcased the work of these artists on the relief rolls, offering exposure for the artists and a chance for the public to experience art for free. The “Art Week” program of exhibitions was created to bring art to the rural public, reaching nearly 3,000 rural American communities.

The style commonly used by WPA artists mixed abstraction, realism and surrealism. Local themes were recorded in varying styles that encompassed attitudes such as nostalgia or even a journalistic rendering of the present moment. Very prevalent in many of the works by WPA artists was the theme of social realism, or social protest, that portrayed the economically and racially disadvantaged.

Refregier spoke warmly of the Depression nevertheless, saying that the realization that everyone was in the same boat made people look out for each other. In reference to the WPA, Refregier said, “The program started with great vision and quickly we had the wonderful experience of seeing some of our best artists devoting part of their time, I mean to say, for instance, like taking a year off from their painting or sculpture and becoming administrators. I remember my dear friend, Philip Evergood, doing that kind of thing, Lucille Blanch did it here in New York; and from here to San Francisco the same thing was happening. In other words, artists were willing to give up even painting for a while to help to plan for his fellow painters in order to make the greatest possible contribution.”

IV. Collections

  • Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, photograph of mural Riker's Island, Penitentiary, Riker's Island, New York, NY. 05/10/1937 Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project Photograph Collection. Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project Photograph Collection, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.
  • Brooklyn Museum, New York, “Girl with a Bird,” 1960, casein and ink on cardboard.
  • Oakland Museum of California, “Four Freedoms (WAR),” nd., mural study in charcoal on brown paper.
  • Portland Art Museum, Oregon, “Will the Birds All Perish” 1964, oil on canvas; “Seeds and Wheat” nd., lithograph.
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, “Community Center” (study for individual panel of mural Cultural Activities of the WPA, WPA Building, New York World’s Fair, 1939); “Index of American Design” (study for individual panel of mural Cultural Activities of the WPA, WPA Building, New York World’s Fair, 1939); “Untitled” (detail of figure: historic survey panel, mural study, Cultural Activities of the WPA, WPA Building, New York World’s Fair, 1939); “Adult Education” (study for individual panel of mural Cultural Activities of the WPA, WPA Building, New York World’s Fair, 1939); “Federal Writers Project” (study for individual panel of mural Cultural Activities of the WPA, PA Building, New York World’s Fair, 1939); First Color Study, Exhibition Hall, Community Center, New York World’s Fair (perspective sketch for mural, Cultural Activities of the WPA, WPA Building, 1939); “Historical Records Survey” (study for individual panel of mural Cultural Activities of the WPA, WPA Building, New York World’s Fair, 1939).
  • University of Michigan Museum of Art, “Mine Accident” 1935, woodcut; “Head” nd., graphite on paper.
  • University of Minnesota, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, “Boy with Milkweed,” nd., color lithograph; “Boy with Mask,” nd., lithograph; “Woodstock Observation Post,” 1944, oil on composition board; “Pruning,” 1944, oil on cardboard.
  • University of Oklahoma, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, “End of the Conference” 1945, oil on canvas.
  • Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, “Two Figures” 1941, oil on canvas
  • Woodstock Artists Association, New York, “Hand with Blue Flowers” nd., color lithograph; “The Yellow Daisy” 1960, color lithograph; “Solidarity” 1935, lithograph; “Nude” 1967, charcoal; “Mexican Woman Reading” 1977, color woodcut; “Gil and Jane” 1973, acrylic on canvas; “Regrets” 1942, oil on canvas; “Kite” (made for Art Students League party) 1950s, tempera on brown Kraft paper wrapped over wood and wire frames.
  • V. Exhibitions

  • 1937 Art Institute of Chicago, Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project Exhibition, May 10, 1937
  • 1937 Society of Independent Artists 21st Annual Exhibition, April 2, 1937, New York. Whitney Museum
  • 1951 22nd Annual Corcoran Gallery Biennial
  • 1953 23rd Annual Corcoran Gallery Biennial
  • 1955 25th Annual Corcoran Gallery Biennial
  • Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
  • National Academy of Design
  • VI. Bibliography

    1. 1. The Annual Exhibition Record, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1807-1968. 3 vols. Soundview Press. 1989.
    2. 2. Falk, Peter Hastings, Ed. The Annual Exhibition Record of the National Academy of Design 1901-1950. Soundview Press. 1990.
    3. 3. Falk, Peter Hastings, Ed. Who Was Who in American Art. Soundview Press. 1999.
    4. 4. Katz, Harry L., Ed. Life of the People: Realist Prints and Drawings from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection 1912-1948. Washington: Library of Congress. 1999.
    5. 5.Rincon Center Pamphlet, no date. Accessed through http://www.verlang.com/sfbay0004ref_public_art_004.html on 7 November 2005.
    6. 6. Trovato, Joseph. Personal interview with Anton Refregier. 5 November 1964, Woodstock, New York. Accessed through Smithsonian archives of American art http://archivesofamericanart.si.edu/oralhist/refreg64.htm
    7. 7. Whiting, Cécile. Antifascism in American Art. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1989.

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