Anneli Arms - President

Vincent Pinto - Vice-President

Jon Rettich - Treasurer

Vincent Pinto - Secretary

Jacqueline Rada - Exhibition Co-ordinator

Advisory Board: Edward Eichel, Myron Heise, Patricia Melvin, Jacqueline Rada, John Servetas, Philip Sherrod
Honorary Board: Will Barnet, Ahmet Gursoy, Haim Mendelson, Joseph Solman

The Federation had political aims when it was founded in New York by many of this country's leading modernists.

"The Federation in Retrospect" - by Dore Ashton

Early in April, 1940, a New York Times headline announced: "17 Members Bolt Artists' Congress." Behind the headline lay a complex history of artistic, social and political upheavals rarely matched in the century. The imbroglios that led to the dramatic disruption of the Artists' Congress also led, during the late Spring of 1940, to the establishment of a new group, The Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, Inc., which would attempt to evade the debilitating conflicts inherent in the activities of the 1930's.

During the few hectic years-roughly from 1934 to 1940-that artists' groups had flourished, the world had visited upon them a series of hideous tremors that presaged the Second World War. Artists, like everyone else, responded strongly. The adjustments that external circumstances demanded in their lives counted for much in their groupings. With 1940 and the War, radically different adjustments needed to be made. According to one of the oldest living members of The Federation, George Constant, the largest purpose was, in its foundation, and is still, to keep artists together. "Other professions have their professional organizations," he says, "so we should also. It's a professional obligation." Constant's view of the enduring purpose of The Federation was certainly one of the factors in its founding. But it has evolved in its more than three decades of existence.Circumstance has shaped and modeled its destiny. In its origin, it was the identifiable offspring of the spirited controversies of the 1930s.

The economic debacle of the early 1930's encouraged collective defense. Artists were not immune to the sweeping discontent that resulted, for instance, in the foundation of powerful labor unions. They fought for the right to benefit from New Deal relief programs. When the Federal Art Project's WPA was well underway in 1935, artists flocked to its rolls. At the same time, they organized themselves professionally into groups such as the Artists' Union, in 1935, whose purpose was "to unite artists in the struggle for economic security, and to encourage wider distribution and understanding of art." Other grouping also appeared including the Artists Committee of Action. When the government seemed to be pulling away from its WPA commitments, these groups went on strike, held mass meetings and generally intervened in their society with tremendous energy. (In 1937, the Artists' Union actually joined the CIO as Local 60, and the old urge for solidarity seemed at last to be satisfied.) These formations within American society were not to develop slowly and organically. The world was too much in disarray. Each dramatic event in Europe shook the foundations of American spiritual life, as World War II proved. In 1935 there was Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia; in 1936 the outbreak of the Spanish CivilWar and Hitler's arming the Rhineland; in 1937 the Moscow Trials; in 1938, Hitler annexed Austria; in 1939 he occupied Czechoslovakia and then signed a pact with Stalin; in 1940 Stalin invaded Finland. Each of these events evoked nervous responses in the United States. In February, 1936, at the American Artists' Congress three-day meeting, hundreds of listeners heard Lewis Mumford exhort artists everywhere to form a united front against Fascist forces; the eminent painter Stuart Davis attack War, Fascism and Reaction. Artists increasingly felt the weight of the political disasters, and saw themselves in protagonists' roles. Interpretations varied widely. There were passionate battles in various meetings. What can be said generally is that artists organized for the first time in the United States to experience professional solidarity and influence the events that impinged on their lives. In the particulars, there were numerous fundamental conflicts. To name only a few: a national urge for identity, answered by some artists in terms of what came to be called American Scene Painting, Social Realism, and Regionalism; and a concurrent desire on the part of other American artists to participate in the international modern movement, and to eschew chauvinist stances. On the ethical side, there were those whose belief in social revolution led them to subordinate their artistic independence, and there were those whose artistic ideals forbade political intrusions in the realm of art. The turmoil during the late 1930's was immense. But somehow, the Artists' Union and the American Artists' Congress survived their internal griefs for several years.

Among artists of differing character and artistic conviction, there was considerable mutual respect, so that a political radical who was also an artistic radical such as Stuart Davis could easily function, for instance, on the Artists' Union's magazine Art Front for quite a while. When the balance tipped in favor of the more tendentious positions of the Communist members of the group, emphatic protests tended to end in workable compromise. For example, in the fall of 1935, an informal group within the Artists' Union protested its sectarianism, and demanded a more diverse and modern editorial policy. Some of the leaders of this- one of many such rebellions- were to be, only five years later, founding members of The Federation: lIya Bolotowsky, Mark Rothko, Byron Browne, Balcomb Greene, and Adolph Gottlieb. These artists, and many others, used the rhetoric of the period. They saw themselves as "progressives," by which they meant-at least during the late 1930's-politically radical as well as artistically modern. A militant position was honorable. As Dorothy Dehner, a long standing member of The Federation, points out, "we all had to have a strong political involvement in the days of the WPA. Artists had to fight very hard to keep the WPA going. Our militancy came from our own political struggle as artists." But when the political struggle in terms of ideologies became a maelstrom of bitter recriminations, the time of "solidarity" seemed over.

On April 4, 1940 the American Artists' Congress held a fateful meeting during which they passed a resolution which, to many of its dissenting members, appeared to sanction the Russian invasion of Finland. Among others, Meyer Schapiro, Lewis Mumford, Adolph Gottlieb, Stuart Davis and Balcomb Greene resigned immediately. Within days a statement was issued explaining the move, and calling for a new organization: The American Artists' Congress, which was founded to oppose war and fascism and to advance the professional interests of artists, at its last membership meeting on April 4, endorsed the Russian invasion of Finland and implicitly defended Hitler's position by assigning the responsibility for the war to England and France. The Congress has also revised its policy of boycotting Fascist and Nazi exhibitions (e.g. Venice and Berlin, 1936), It has failed to react to the Moscow meeting of Soviet and Nazi art officials and official artists, which inaugurated the new esthetic policy of cementing totalitarian relations through exchange exhibitions. Moreover, congress officials have informed members that participation in a projected fascist show at Venice is a matter of individual taste. The Congress no longer deserves the support of free artists. We, therefore, declare our secession from the congress and call on fellow-artists to join us in considering ways and means of furthering mutual interests which the congress can only damage. Among the signers of this statement- Milton Avery, Peggy Bacon, lIya Bolotowsky, Morris Davidson, Dorothy Eisner, Paula Eliasoph, Ernest Fiene, Hans Foy, Adolph Gottlieb, Louis Harris, M. Rothkowitz (Rothko), Manfred Schwartz, Jose De Creeft-a large portion were to be founding members of The Federation. "We thought we ought to have an artists' organization not hostile to cultural freedom," Meyer Schapiro recalls, "and we had many meetings to define the organization." Bolotowsky thinks of the beginnings as decidedly "anti-authoritarian and anti-Stalinist."

The first formative meetings eventuated in a vision of an organization which would or should successfully avoid any restrictions artistically, but which still maintained the old ethical positions of the 1930's which demanded of artists that they attend to social and political questions conscientiously. The certificate of incorporation of June 14, 1940 stated that the organization was to: promote the welfare of free progressive artists working in America; to strive to protect the artist's general and cultural interests and to facilitate the showing of his work; and to take all legitimate action in furtherance of such purpose. As broad and generally innocuous as this statement was, the constitution itself was specific, and held the germs of continuing controversy. Its preamble stated: We recognize the dangers of growing reactionary movements in the United States and condemn every effort to curtail the freedom and the cultural and economic opportunities of artists in the name of race or nation, or in the interests of special groups in the community. We condemn artistic nationalism which negates the world traditions of art at the base of modern art movements. We affirm our faith in the democratic way of life and its principle of freedom of artistic expression, and therefore, oppose totalitarianism of thought and action, as practiced in the present day dictatorships of Germany, Russia,Italy, Spain and Japan, believing it to be the enemy of the artist, interested in him only as a craftsman who may be exploited. ... And, in a wary tone, the organization affirmed its will to "guard itself from patent or concealed political control." The explosion that destroyed the Artists' Congress had also destroyed the faith in political action which had once motivated artists' groupings.

From the beginning, The Federation continued the old Artists' Union practice of having a "cultural committee" to keep abreast of political and cultural events; to bring in discussants and inspire forums, and to be on the lookout for worthy causes to which the organization should lend its collective force. Both Rothko and Gottlieb were extremely active during the early years on the cultural committee. But just as important as cultural alertness was the intention of exposing the work, and stimulating interest in modern art, regardless of its character (this in contrast to the other active progressive group, The American Abstract Artists, whose membership was limited stylistically). Bolotowsky points out that at the time there were few galleries, few friendly critics, and a general ignorance about modern art. The educational role of The Federation was stressed, and in fact, during the 1940's, The Federation kept up a lively dialogue on the merits of modern art through the epistolary and public efforts of the cultural committee. If there were political issues, henceforth they would be art world issues.

For example, it was decided in February, 1941 not to protest the conductor Stokowski's training of a large military band, removing all "foreign matter" to make band music 100% American. But in February of 1942, The Federation was quoted in The New York Times as protesting at The Museum of Modern Art over its policies. "To the art lover,"

The Federation's statement read, "it is distressing to see the museum, which from its inception showed the finest in modern art, reducing American art to a demonstration of geography." This protest of the museum's continuing interest in regionalism was widespread. Dehner quotes David Smith's reminiscence of Stuart Davis on the picket line. As one of the few American progressives to have been exhibited in the museum he quipped: "I don't know how they let a foreigner like me in there." The Federations's quarrel with The Museum of Modern Art lasted for several years, with much enthusiastic partisanship on the part of its more voluble members. On the whole, the first years were devoted to impressing the public and press with the seriousness and diversity of nonacademic American art.

Critical response reflected The Federation's success in its educational endeavors. In a review of its First Annual Exhibition at The Riverside Museum, a reviewer noted "the rather unusual terms" of its program pointing to works by Feininger, Tomlin and Dickinson as outstanding examples, and its hope "to develop the growth of a natural and non-restricted art." The respected Henry McBride wrote on May 22, 1942 in The New York Sun: "The requirements for joining the society apparently are merely just not to be academic." He singled out Joseph Stella, Zadkine, Gottlieb and Dickinson for praise. Since most of the active members were primarily interested in developing a respectful public for their art, it was natural that they would try to engage press critics in public dialogue. Edward Alden Jewell, a shrewd journalist who understood the value of controversy, and who gladly played the game for the sake of lively copy, opened the columns of The New York Times to his redoubtable antagonists, thus endowing The Federation with the means to make its positions widely known. On the occasion of The Federation's Third Annual Exhibition in 1943, in which, the organizers had stated: "We are now being forced to outgrow our narrow political isolationism" and that they had to recognize "cultural values on a truly global plane." Jewell wrote a long review, in which he expressed "befuddlement" over Gottlieb's painting "Rape of Persephone" and Rothko's "Syrian Bul!." A few days later, he reviewed his review and announced to his readers that The Federation would reply to his "befuddlement." And, on June 6, 1943, he returned (with a journalist's relish, it must be said) to The Federation's Annual and the "enigmas" of Rothko and Gottlieb, reproducing both paintings (Gottlieb's, a flat, free-form painting like an ancient stone inscription, and Rothko's an ambiguous abstraction with symbolic suggestions). He then quotes extensively from the letter of Rothko and Gottlieb-a letter which was to become celebrated as a manifesto of Abstract Expressionist ideals during the later 1940's. The satisfaction of the cultural committee of The Federation must have been even more pronounced when Jewell himself suggested that The Federation might be spawning a new movement called "globalism". Such gratifying responses to The Federation's educational sallies did not lessen internal pressures, always deriving from the world situation. When The Federation was founded, Russia had invaded Finland and was patently reprehensible.

But by early 1942, the Soviet Union was our esteemed ally, and during a troubled meeting the problem of the Soviet Union as a fighter for Democracy was raised. The old specter of Communist interference in organizations continued to haunt the founders, and when the blanket organization" Artists for Victory," a coalition of artists' groups enlisted in the war effort was established, there was continuous discussion (until 1945) as to whether The Federation ought to collaborate with artists' groups they considered to be dominated by Communist sympathizers. In 1945 when The Federation finally withdrew from "Artists for Victory," the subject of The Federation's becoming "only an exhibiting group" came up at meetings increasingly, remaining unresolved until circumstances in the 1950's warranted its adoption. All during the early and middle 1940's The Federation carried on a vigorous exhibition schedule. Its vow to have travelling exhibitions was realized, and by 1947 the San Francisco critic Alfred Frankenstein could write about "first-rate works by very familiar painters and sculptors- Mark Rothko, Karl Knaths, Louis Schanker, George L. K. Morris, Jose de Creeft, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and above all John D. Graham."

In New York, the critics continued to be friendly, frequently writing about Federation activities. The group was so successful in establishing itself as one of the important organs of modern art thought that it now sought to give others a chance, and in 1947 staged its Seventh Annual, showing only the work of guests chosen by Federation artists and characterized as "little known or unknown." The sharp eyes of Federation members succeeded in presenting works by many artists who were soon to become well known and highly respected, among them Perle Fine, Lee Gatch, Earl Kerkam, Attilio Salemme, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Seymour Lipton, Louise Bourgeois, James Brooks and Conrad Marca- Relli. In addition to introducing new artists, The Federation developed a unique scheme to force lethargic American museums to include contemporary modern work in their collec- tions. Guided largely by Harold Weston in the early 1950's, The Federation devised the Museum Gift Plan, in which The Federation members found donors, The Federation officers approached museums, and works were placed all over the United States. Louise Nevelson's first work to be accepted by a museum went to The Birmingham Museum in Alabama through the Museum Gift Plan. A by-product of the Plan was an emergency fund for members in trouble, derived from Gift Plan proceeds.

Toward the end of the 1940's the political climate in the United States changed, and with it, the climate in most of its cultural organizations. Once again the question of political engagement arose in heated Federation meetings. Members who had long felt The Federation should be an exhibiting group only were all the more insistent, while founding members tended to hold to the old principles. By 1953, when the group was meeting mostly at Louise Nevelson's studio, the debate had come to a head. It must be assumed that the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism; by exhaustive FBI inquiries amongst cultural 'members of American society, and the generally reactionary situation in America (in January of 1953 the Republicans assumed complete control of the Congress, and little, if anything, was left of the New Deal liberalism) hastened the events in Federation meetings. The decision to revise the Constitution, largely in order to expunge specific political references, (to totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union) was made in the Spring of 1953, over the bitter objections of old members, a few of whom, including Adolph Gottlieb and Herbert Ferber resigned. The new statement of principles, passed April 20, 1953 read in part: "The corporation shall concern itself only with aesthetic matters, such as exhibitions, forums and lectures connected with the fine arts. Economic or political activities or objectives shall be of no concern to The Federation as a whole and The Federation shall give its support to no organization or group whose concern is political or economic. .. ." On the acrimoniously contested question of naming totalitarian enemies, there was only an affirmation of "our faith in the democratic way of life and its principle of human freedoms including that of artistic expression and we oppose totalitarianism or dictatorial control of thought or of action wherever such may exist or arise." True to its new constitution, The Federation thereafter concentrated on exploring exhibition opportunities for its membership; placing their works in museums (by 1957 Weston could boast of 27 works placed in museums all over the country); and sponsoring forums in which critics, artists and educators debated the finer points of art world life. New members, including Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Josef Albers, and others added new luster to the membership, while certain older members had become widely celebrated as leaders in the new American art.

From the late 1950's to the present, The Federation has continued to function as a widely diverse, generally progressive organization, in which sentiment (a residue of the old ideal of solidarity, spiritual and otherwise), conviction (that there is still much to be said for the independent development of modern art's principles) and true need (there are still many decent artists who cannot penetrate the commercial art world) hold it together. Many of the prominent early members have died, among them Avery, Baziotes, Browne, Feininger, Gottlieb, Gatch, Knaths, G.L.K. Morris, Ozenfant, Rothko, Stella, Tomlin, Weston, Xceron, Nathaniel Pousette-Dart, Alice Trumbull Mason, and John D. Graham. But many hardy survivors continue to participate in each show, among them George Constant, Joseph Solman, Will Barnet, lIya Bolotowsky, Louise Nevelson, Henry Botkin, Harold Baumbach, Louis Schanker, Esphyr Slobodkina, Vaclav Vytlacil, Maurice Sievan, Sigmund Menkes and Chaim Gross.

If one asks old Federation members what the raison d'etre is now for an organization that originated in a period when modern art was still considered alien to American culture, they have various answers. Joseph Solman feels there is still a need "for a fraternal organization, a sympathetic banding of many artists." Bolotowsky points out that "styles come and go, but this federation is called a federation because it is a federation of many styles," adding: "I think the group still plays a role, in spite of art markets today. We're still a rather special group that represents many different styles. The WPA started the Renaissance and we carry it on in our own little way." Will Barnet maintains that The Federation once served to protect artistic modes that were out of fashion (as in the 1950's when Albers and Bolotowsky for example were all but eclipsed by the emphasis on Abstract Expressionism), and still serves this way. Others uphold the principle of artistic diversity which has suffered greatly during the 1950's and 1960's, and the notion of artistic community. There is certainly a need for "fraternal" organizations such as The Federation. Where else could an eighty-four-year-old exhibitor such as George Constant meet and encourage a young artist just embarking on his exhibiting career? The generational spread alone is a value in a society that has generally compartmented its population into convenient bureaucratic categories (from teen-agers to senior citizens, all neatly labelled and isolated). Moreover, the existence of old loyalties side by side with new enthusiasms is a definite value in a society in which values have met almost insuperable challenges, and need constant support.

  » Dec 15, 2018  


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