Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hudson's WPA art project

It was 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression, and Hudson’s post office, located at Union Street and South Fourth Street, was expanding. It was also getting a new wall full of sculptures depicting the evolution of transportation.
Built between 1909 and 1911, the post office saw an expansion project that was first authorized in 1931 under an amendment to the federal “Public Buildings Act of 1926” that helped fund the construction of more than 100 federal buildings across the United States, including Federal Triangle in Washington D.C.
The project was reauthorized in 1934 and construction finally began in 1938 after the purchase of adjoining land.
The Hudson Daily Star of Feb. 2, 1938 makes mention of the deal struck between Catherine Tracy and the federal government for the purchase of her property for $12,500. The house was torn down in order to make room for the expansion to the east side of the post office building.
Catherine Tracy, née Cadman, was the widow of Dr. Aurelius Tracy, who had died a few years prior to the sale. He was a graduate of Cornell University and the Homeopathic Medical College in New York City. He had a practice in Hudson from 1887 until his death.
Among the 1938 additions to the post office was an art project funded by the Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. While the WPA provided the grant, the sculptures that grace the inside of the post office were actually created under the auspices of the Treasury Department Art Program. Created in 1935 through a $530,000 grant from the WPA, the project’s mission was to employ out of work artists to decorate federal buildings that had no money in their construction budget for art. The total project costs were $771,521, close to $12,000,000 in today’s dollars.
Headed by Olin Dows, himself a painter, TRAP was the smallest and most competitive of the New Deal programs, becoming known among artists as “the Ritz,” making reference to the famed New York hotel.
The program was allowed to hire 450 artists, but 75 percent were required to come from relief rolls. The requirement was initially overlooked in order to maintain the quality of the work, in the administrators’ opinions, and only 356 artists were hired during its existence.
While Dows was TRAP’s head, the program was supervised by the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, which had been established the year before, also under the auspices of the WPA. The Section, as it was known was administered by Edward Bruce, who was also an artist, but had made his name as a lawyer, newspaper owner and banker. Both Bruce and Dows were born in the Hudson Valley, Bruce in Dover Plains and Dows in Irvington-On-Hudson, in Westchester County.
It was Bruce who felt relying strictly on out of work artists would reduce the caliber of the work being made for the federal buildings and it wasn’t until several artists’ unions protested that the number of artists in the program went from around 250 to a little more than 350.
The program, which lasted until the end of 1938, helped create 85 murals, 39 sculptures and 10, 215 easel works.
Among the lucky artists to be employed by TRAP were, according to Jacob Baal-Teshuva in his 2003 book “Rothko,” a laundry list of now famous American artists, including Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, among others.
Another artist who was hired by TRAP, was the Russian-born sculptor Vincent Glinsky who, with the assistance of Leo Schulemowitz, created the Hudson Post Office piece.
The wall of sculpture, located on the north end of the building, depicts a Native American and Henry Hudson, among other figures. The piece also includes a number of smaller panels that illustrate various modes of transportation, from sailing ships to an airplane.
The sculptures were created using the cast stone process, a technique dating back to at least the 1100s, in which crushed stone or cement is poured into molds and, as the name suggests, cast. It resembles sculpted stone and is often more durable.
Glinsky was born in 1895, emigrated from Russia as a young man and attended school in Syracuse before moving to New York City where he studies at a number of institutions, including Columbia University, City College and the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935 and went abroad to Italy and France. When he came back to the United States it was the height of the Depression, but was able to get a job as a TRAP artist.
Known for his directly carved stone sculptures, mostly of the female nude, he also worked in wood, terra cotta, watercolor and lithography. After completing his piece in Hudson he began teaching at his alma mater , the Beaux Arts Institute of Design, and would become a sought after instructor, working at both Brooklyn College and in Columbia University's Adult Education Division during the summers. His work was shown at a number of prestigious galleries and museums, including the Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, all in New York. He died in 1975.
Glinsky’s work, although sometimes straying into abstraction, was of an older tradition. His assistant on the Hudson project, Schulemowitz, who was 16 years Glinsky’s junior and once remarked that “art Is the highest form Of play,” was of a more experimental vein, working in a non-objective style for much of his career. Even so, while working for TRAP and later for the WPA, he worked in a figurative style. After completing the post office commission in Hudson, Schulemowitz was given his own projects, including a piece, “Indian and Trader,”—created in 1942—that hangs in another post office, this one in Miamisburg, Ohio.