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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Louis Schanker

Study, WPA Mural at WNYC, 1937, Louis Schanker
Newness creates problems. It entails a struggle on the part of the creators for acceptance among traditionalists. Likewise, for those traditionalists, newness creates problems in that it is often seen as a threat to their previous ways of thinking, perhaps their lifestyle, their economic level, ideals, and standards of excellence. As an example (unrelated to art), we're seeing this in today's grudging acceptance of, or outright hostility toward, same-sex marriage. Newness comes most easily to the young, those without a strong urge to keep things "the way they've always been," despite what is often an indifference to, or ignorance of, the facts as applied to the definition of "always." Always is a very long time and covers a very broad swath of human differences. Newness is especially problematic in the area of art in that it's difficult to form a valid definition of art that doesn't embrace newness. It's the key element in creativity which, in turn, is the foundation of all art. I've always used my own "nutshell" definition of art as "creative communication." If it's not creative, (new) or does not communicate an artist's thoughts and ideals, then it's NOT art. It's broad, yes, but not so broad as to be virtually meaningless.

Louis Schanker, ca. 1930s
The art world last encountered this confrontation with newness during the 1930s up through the early 1950s as Abstract Expression raised it's impudent head in the U.S. (elsewhere too, but lets limit this to a manageable group). Is it art, or isn't it art? Ironically, even some of the artists creating such works weren't entirely sure. Beyond that, they suffered the same verbal deficiency as did the critics who castigated their efforts--a pronounced lack of an accurate technical and aesthetic vocabulary with which to even discuss such art. Add to that an uncertainty on both sides as to whether such art was even worth discussing. No one doubted that abstraction was creative...creative to the point such creativity became the crux of the problem. But, did such non-representational (or barely representational) work meet the criteria of communication? It was as if artists were making up a new language with dozens of different dialects and expecting everyone else to instantly understand it (or try to). One of these artists attempting to communicate creatively in a new language (top), was the Bronx-born, Jewish artist, Louis Schanker.
Sketch for WPA Mural (Neponsit Beach Children's Hospital), ca. 1937, Louis Schanker.
We often think of Abstract Expressionism as being the proprietary miscreant of the post-war New York School. Actually, many involved in this historic movement were relative latecomers to such "newness." Louis Schanker, along with such later known and unknown names as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Milton Avery, the Soyer brothers, Chaim Gross, and Adolph Gottlieb were the real pioneer artists of the 1920s and 30s struggling to just "plant the seeds," literally living out the starving artist stereotype, sharing cold water, walk-up flats (who could afford a loft back then?). Barely surviving in the cheapest artists' ghettos New York City had to offer, some were formally educated at art schools such as the Cooper Union, the Art Students League, even the ultra-conservative American Academy of Design. Others, such as Schanker, for example, had studied at some of these institutions of art orthodoxy, but he was also a graduate of the Barnum and Bailey Circus and the wheat fields of the Great Plains. His Sketch for WPA Mural, Neponsit Beach Children's Hospital, (above) from around 1937 reveals some of these past experiences.

Still-life, 1932, Louis Schanker
Abstraction with Musical Instruments,
1932, Louis Schanker
Louis Schanker was born in 1903. His parents were Romanian Orthodox Jews living in the Bronx. While still a teenager with barely a "smidgen" of art training, the happy-go-lucky Schanker fled both his Jewishness, and the rigor of art schools for the exciting life of the circus, and later, the much less exciting life of a migrant farm worker. In effect, he became a teenaged hobo. Perhaps having "grown up" a bit, Schanker returned home to New York in 1924 where he leased a studio, trying to earn a living as an artist, however meager. Speaking of meager, Schanker began to realize how meager his art training had been. During the early 1930s, the would-be artist somehow scraped together financing allowing him to follow the well-worn art student's path to Paris where he studied at the cut-rate Académie de la Grande Chaumière (a model and heat in the winter). Later he toured Italy and Spain. And, as seen in his 1932 Still-life (above), at some point along the way, Schanker became a Cubist. His Abstraction with Musical Instruments (above, right), also from 1932, would seem to indicate that the "Picasso bug" had bitten him rather severely.

1939 World's Fair Mural, Louis Schanker
During the 1930s depression there were no jobs available, especially for Cubist artists. However, artists were included in the Public Works of Art Project and then the WPA Federal Art Project. Schanker participated in both beginning in 1933 as an artist and supervisor in the mural and graphic arts departments. In the New York City division he worked with many old friends and future painting icons including Jackson Pollock, his wife, Lee Krasner, Burgoyne Diller, Byron Browne, Milton Avery, and Stuart Davis. These were controversial times in the arts community. This was public art these future Abstract Expressionists were creating at public expense, yet most of those paying the tab had little understanding of what was being produced. Schanker's Study, WPA Mural at WNYC (top), from 1937 was typical of his work and that of others under his direction. As seen in his 1939 World's Fair Mural (above), Louis Schanker was seldom completely non-representational during the 30s, yet this made his work all the more difficult to discuss rationally, in that the critic was never sure whether the distortions of recognizable shapes were accidental or intentional.

Untitled, 1933 watercolor, Louis Schanker
In 1935 Schanker and others such as Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Joseph Solman, Tschacbasov, Lou Harris, Ralph Rosenborg and four other even lesser-known abstract painters formed a group called The Ten protesting the lack of support for American abstract artists by the Whitney Museum, which at the time concentrated on representational art. Ironically, Schanker was in the awkward position of having his works being shown in the museum's 1936 Annual exhibit at the same time he was protesting. The same year, Schanker was among those founding another group, the American Abstract Artists (AAA), not as a protest, but in a positive effort to promote and foster public understanding of abstract art. He and the others had a long way to go. Schanker's work in particular was probably the most radical. In 1935, one critic wrote: "[His] conglomerations of color-patches...are bound to alienate no small part of the gallery-going public."

Acrobats, 1939, Louis Schanker
However, by 1937, in the high-altitude thin air of the New York art scene, Schanker was gaining some degree of acceptance. The often-hostile New York Times art critic, Edward Alden Jewell, softened his criticism. When speaking of Schanker's major WPA mural at the municipal building studios of WNYC in New York, he noted that Schanker had "a touch of lyric feeling." In 1938, writing for Art News, Jewel went on to say that "Louis Schanker's delightful Street Scene From My Window (no image available) calls forth admiration for its delicacy of color and kaleidoscopic forms in plane geometry." It took a while, and even by the start of the war, the new language of Abstract Expressionism wasn't fully understood; but at least the critics had picked up enough of the vocabulary to at least write intelligently about it.


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