Populist Printmaking: Works from the WPA Graphic Arts Division

Louis Lozowick. Fruit from the Tropics, 1938. Lithograph. Federal Art Project, W.P.A. Loan. (x1941-34).

This resource explores themes that emerge from across the Museum’s collection of works from the era of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) (1935-43). Drawing predominantly on our holdings of prints from the New York City Graphic Arts Division of the WPA Federal Art Project, this tool considers the subject matter, materiality, and societal concerns with which artists employed by the Works Progress Administration grappled in their work.

The WPA Federal Art Project (FAP), a program of the New Deal, was established in 1935 to create employment for artists during the Great Depression. The Graphic Arts Division of the program, which emphasized block printing, lithography, and, later, serigraphy, employed around 790 artists across 36 American cities at its height in 1938. Employing a cohort of artists dedicated to the democratization of art, the New York City workshop was the largest subsidiary and was prolific, producing 75,000 prints during its existence.

 Dorothea Lange. J.R. Butler, President of the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union, Memphis, Tennessee, 1938. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Ruth Bernhard. (x1991-338). The printmaking workshop was a true artistic incubator, a space that encouraged camaraderie and collaboration among artists. The program provided materials to artists at no cost, and a professional printmaker worked closely with individual artists throughout the printmaking process.

When the project was disbanded in 1943, much of the work produced through the program was disseminated to public institutions and museums across the country. Forty-nine prints were lent to the Museum and are supplemented here with photographs from the WPA Farm Security Administration (FSA) and with paintings and other prints by WPA artists, all of which demonstrate the same concerns and themes as the New York printmakers’ works and highlight the breadth of the FAP’s initiatives. These artists used art in the service of democracy and stretched the boundaries and materiality of fine art. Their works are divided into ten themes:   

See all of the works from the Museum's holdings of prints from the New York Graphics Art Division here

Margot E. Yale, Class of 2017
Joseph F. McCrindle Intern