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American Printmakers and the Federal Art Project

by Mary Francey



Throughout the nineteenth century, printmaking in the United States was largely limited to commercial illustration and mass produced reproductions of paintings. Americans were avid consumers of the popular lithographs distributed by Currier and Ives, known as "printmakers to the American people," and reproductions of John James Audubon's studies of animals and birds were equally popular. However, printmaking became a vital form of artistic expression during the years of the government sponsored Federal Art Project (FAP) a unit within the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was established in 1935 as a coordinating agency for projects designed to assure employment in as many fields of work as possible, including the arts. Because artists, like other unemployed workers, could apply for WPA programs, art was recognized as an occupation important to society and, for printmakers, Project support included access to government sponsored workshops equipped with presses, materials and, when needed, instruction.

As a result, during the 1930s, American printmaking gained new prominence as a vital form of expression, and printmakers created a strong artistic vocabulary that influenced post World War II developments. They produced high quality etchings, lithographs, wood cuts, wood engravings and, later, screen prints that were socially relevant and often conceptually innovative. All FAP sponsored works were intended for distribution to public buildings, including schools, libraries, and hospitals. In contrast to easel paintings, sculptures, and permanently installed murals that were one-time, unique events, each print image was replicated in editions of at least 25 (or more) impressions. Prints, therefore, were a practical and inexpensive means of complying with the Project's defined mission to make original works of art accessible to the general public. Artists responded directly to the troubled conditions that were experienced to some extent by the country's entire population, but most profoundly by the middle class majority, and prints could effectively communicate the Depression experience, in visual terms, to a large and artistically unsophisticated viewing public. Because painting and sculpture could achieve only limited exposure while prints had a large and diverse audience, many Project administrators supported printmaking as the logical process for creating art for the people.

Establishment of Graphic Arts Divisions within the Project also gave printmakers opportunities previously reserved for painters and sculptors. Few (if any) prints were produced by the preceding relief programs for artists, including the Public Works of Art Project, followed by the Treasury Department Art Projects and the Treasury Relief Project. Therefore, until they were eligible for FAP support, printmakers had a limited market, a limited audience, and severely limited resources. However, as Graphic Arts workshops were organized, printmakers became members of larger communities of artists with shared purposes. In addition, FAP workshops made it possible to explore techniques that were previously difficult or impossible because of equipment costs and lack of adequate facilities. Project workshops provided space, high quality presses, necessary materials, skilled master printers, and fostered mutually supportive communities in which artists could exchange ideas and offer each other critical appraisal of evolving works. The workshop system also nurtured the embryonic individual styles and experimental processes that contributed to the influence of print techniques on the work of Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and other major late-modern figures of the 1950s and 1960s. If the silk screen workshop had not been a part of the Graphic Arts Division of New York City's Project, it is unlikely that screen printing would have been so quickly accepted as the equal of etching, wood cut, and lithography.

Incorporating color in woodcuts and lithographs was another experimental process for American printmakers, many of whom had traveled and studied in Europe and had seen the vibrant, often discordant, colors of German Expressionist woodcuts. Some, including Benton Spruance, Louis Lozowick and Reginald Marsh had worked at the Atelier Desjobert in Paris where they learned the intricacies of the two-color lithograph. The Project made it possible to explore such unfamiliar directions by allowing artists the freedom to work without the need to market their efforts. However, government commissions, obligated them to explore independent directions within the context of a socially conscious art.

Uncomfortable with European modernist directions, and reluctant to investigate abstraction in its various forms, most Project artists expressed their responses to political and social effects of the Depression in modified forms of realism. Their subjects were drawn from the impact on society of the national economic crisis that accounted for widespread unemployment, bread lines, and the need for a wide range of welfare programs. Many emphasized the individual in contrast to group experience, calling attention to the identity of each human being engaged in productive labor, social protest, or standing in a food line. By affirming the worth and contribution of the individual worker, artists found validation of their own efforts. This was particularly true of printmakers who were assigned to government sponsored workshops in which they had the freedom to explore technical innovations as well as individual directions of professional development within a community of other artists with like intentions.

In 1938, Holger Cahill, the Project's national director, said that it would be possible to reconstruct a visual history of the period of the Depression from prints created by artists on the Project.[1] Inasmuch as the history of the Depression is closely associated with the history of labor in the United States, and labor is a prevalent theme in Project prints, Cahill's statement is justified. Because they developed a strong interest in the perspective of the laborer, both employed and unemployed, printmakers created the strongest and most eloquent visual statements of the Depression's effects on rural and urban working Americans. Furthermore, because Project administrators classified artists as unemployed workers in need of federal assistance, their identities became so closely associated with the workers they portrayed that many of the anonymous laborers in their prints may be interpreted as self portraits.

To assume, however, that the work produced under FAP sponsorship was primarily democratic in nature and purpose is to limit the presence and purposes of the artists, especially printmakers, who thought of themselves as workers. The familiar laborer who appears often in paintings and prints of the 1930s is a muscular figure pictured either integrating with, or exerting human intellectual control over, the machines and tools with which he works. In addition, many FAP artists had a particular interest in representing the viewpoint of people to whom work was a fundamental objective in itself. All workers wanted, and deserved, fair compensation for their efforts, but just as important were the rewards intrinsic to their chosen vocations. Because it demanded an integration of artist and craftsperson, and involved the public with both process and product, printmaking was arguably the most democratic of the creative arts supported by the Project.

Although the nation's consciousness had not yet been raised about race and gender issues, women as well as racial and ethnic minorities were prominent participants in Project workshops. For example, a large number of women are listed in Graphic Arts Division records, and printmaking was included in the Harlem Community Art Center programs. It is of particular interest that 40% of artists who received FAP commissions between 1936 and 1940 were women. Project committees did not demonstrate discernible gender bias when reviewing applicants, and many Project administrators were women. Although women who worked in offices and factories were often, during the Depression years, required to yield their jobs to unemployed men, there is no evidence that women associated with the FAP experienced similar exclusion from assignments or commissions.

Government sponsorship of the arts gave American artists an unprecedented sense of identity and self esteem. Most Americans regarded the visual arts as elitist, creating an estrangement between artist and public. Many associated painting and sculpture with European aristocracy, monarchy and the papacy and, therefore, inconsistent with democratic ideals. A statement in The People's Art Guild of 1918 declared that artists and people were following divergent directions, and the resultant separation was causing both to lose. The same document noted that the aesthetic deprivation of the public was as complete as the isolation felt by artists. By including artists among the unemployed who could apply for assistance, the government assured them of a social identity in a way that the public understood and accepted. "Art is a normal social growth rooted deeply in the life of mankind and extremely sensitive to environments created by human society" wrote Cahill in his catalog introduction for the 1936 exhibition New Horizons in American Art, a visual survey of the Project's first year.[2] He went on to say that art cannot be kept alive by a few artists so committed they are willing to endure social and physical deprivation; their survival depends on patronage.[3] Cahill often invoked John Dewey's philosophy to substantiate his argument that art, as the most civilized means of communication, provides an efficient means of entering sympathetically into the most profound life experiences of all people. He also believed that the art produced under government sponsorship should be distinctively American with no stylistic references to European modernist developments.

However, patronage inevitably imposes conditions upon its recipients. Although the Project's primary mission was included within the large New Deal effort to create work relief programs designated to revive the economy, not to subsidize the arts, still it established specific criteria that artists were expected to follow. Like all unemployed workers, artists were required to make formal application for assistance. Only those whose work was judged by Project administrators to be of a high professional level were eligible for assignments to mural, easel, sculpture, photography, and graphic arts projects. Project goals included incorporation of the arts within the daily life of the immediate community when possible, a purpose that supported the larger attempts to effect integration of the fine and applied arts. The cooperative and democratic nature of prints and printmaking processes was consistent with those goals, and held out the promise that a more democratic expression would be accessible to a large viewing public. That "...would help heal the breach between artist and public that has become distressingly evident in the contemporary period."[4] Elizabeth Olds, assigned to the New York Graphic Arts workshop from 1935 until 1940, wrote that at least one purpose of New York Graphic Arts Division was to enable artists to produce prints in sufficient quantities that original works of art would available for "every man, woman, and child in America to enjoy art on a wide popular basis"[5]

The success of the New York Division was largely due to Audrey McMahon (1890-1981) who served under Cahill as regional director for New York and New Jersey from 1935 until 1939. Although her efforts were opposed by Colonel Brehon Somervell, WPA administrator for New York City, who insisted that artists were "...social parasites incapable of serious work and should not be allowed to obtain federal support,6 she succeeded in establishing the New York studio workshop on February 6, 1936. Fitted with equipment for producing etchings, lithographs, and wood engravings, the workshop also provided materials and tools for making prints and drawings.

Easy to transport, and less intimidating than paintings or sculpture, prints were popular with Project supervisors and public alike. Since etchings and wood engravings were printed in editions of 25 to 50 impressions, it was obvious that more prints than paintings were available to be seen daily by a large segment of the public. Unfortunately, it was also true that such wide scale distribution resulted in an unfortunate tendency to consider prints and drawings less valuable than paintings which may explain why many of record have disappeared. Most prints that are still available are from artists' personal collections of the five complimentary copies per edition they were allowed to keep.

To insure an acceptable image and appropriate theme, each artist was required to submit a proposal for review by a Project supervisor and a supervising artist such as Carl Zigrosser, curator of prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If approved, a preliminary proof was again evaluated by supervisor and master printer in consultation with the artist. When judged satisfactory, [6] proofs were submitted for final approval by a committee of Project supervisors. While it can be assumed that Project prints reflect critical standards of project supervisors as well as artists' intentions, there is little evidence that changes other than occasional modifications to technical processes were requested.

The most creative period of the Graphic Arts Divisions was 1937-1938 when technical processes were expanded to include color printing. Color lithography, initiated in 1937, accounted for inclusion of 23 color lithographs in the 1938 exhibition Printmaking, A New Tradition at the 57th Street Federal Gallery. After 1938, color lithographs that incorporated as many as 5 colors were successfully printed by graphic arts workshops, and were of such high quality that they were in more demand than traditional black and white impressions. Although artists were eager to explore color lithography, the process required complex and costly equipment available to only a few. Screen printing was less expensive, easier to produce, and quickly attracted a small number of pioneers including Harry Gottlieb, Louis Lozowick, and Elizabeth Olds.[7] A screen print unit, established in 1936, was headed by Anthony Velonis fresh from his work with the Project's poster division. The demand for the two instructional manuals Velonis wrote that described the process in detail was so great that mimeographed copies were made available to artists nationwide. Because it required simple, inexpensive equipment, screen printing had immediate and widespread appeal. More important, artists printed their own images, thereby re-establishing the direct relationship between idea and process that intervention by master printers in etching and lithography had altered. To distinguish it from familiar screen printing methods, Velonis and Zigrosser designated the silk screen process as serigraphy, a name derived from seri, Latin for silk, and graphein, the Greek term for writing or drawing. Pioneered by FAP artists, screen printing soon became an important part of the vocabulary of Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Frank Stella among others.[8]

Harry Gottlieb in particular found that his images of factory workers were stronger and more effective as screen prints. Still working when the first version of this essay was in progress, Gottlieb recalled, in an interview with this author, how artists responded to the stimulus of the Depression and the sense of community fostered by the Project workshops.[9] A member of a small pilot project, Gottlieb enthusiastically worked with Velonis to explore the medium's expressive potential, and held the first solo exhibition of screen prints in 1940. [10]

Although strong individual styles developed within this period, and a sense of community emerged from the need to organize and speak as one political voice, there is little evidence of egocentrism among graphic arts division artists. Nourished by government support, Project artists acquired a collective identity, but more significantly, began to discover individual identities, intentions, and styles. Printmakers especially realized a sense of self worth that was derived directly from their unique charge to create visual images that could be produced in editions of multiple impressions and that were seen by the general public, a challenging and untried viewing audience. Inasmuch as most of this audience were members of the work force, the dentity of printmakers inevitably aligned with that of the country's working class. While it is true that the nation's unemployed were measured in record numbers, they were in fact the minority and, because the cost of living was lower during the 1930s, those people who had jobs were better off than before.[11] In addition, the standard of living in the United States was high compared with that of Europe and England, with an annual wage of more than $1500 for industrial workers. Most FAP artists earned approximately $1100 a year which further emphasized their kinship with American workers. Because their government recognized their worth as contributing members of society, and as an important part of the work force, printmakers developed a sense of self confidence that is immediately apparent in their mastery of new materials and processes.

Although more relevant to the 1930s, work and worker themes were integral ingredients of American print vocabulary during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, industrial images were central to Joseph Pennell's 1912 etchings of the construction of the Panama Canal. As on-site artist, Pennell moved freely through the area observing industry on a colossal scale. His preliminary drawings of the locks were so startlingly accurate that one of the construction men commented that the drawings "would work." Following completion of the Canal series, Pennell turned his attention to the machinery of the fist World War, making meticulous studies in munitions factories in England, France, and Germany. He contrasted gun pits, furnaces, and forges with sketchy, transient small figures moving through and around overpowering machinery, unidentifiable and dwarfed by cranes and steam shovels and forges. Whether his subjects were the Canal's locks, the Brooklyn Bridge, or the factories that turned out weapons, Pennell was completely absorbed in the "wonder of work" and declared: "Work is the greatest thing in the world."[12]

Placed in charge of the etching program at the Art Student's League in 1922, Pennell was an inspiring teacher who encouraged each student to search for an original, individual statement and, above all, to develop good work habits. He led lively in-class critiques, accompanied students on visits to museums, and cautioned them to forego their persistent tendencies to imitate, reminding them that to copy is to invite comparison.[13] By demanding bold, original work, and to refuse to supply the market with the conventionalized art labeled "what people want when in reality it was all they could get,"[14] Pennell's teaching helped create a solid foundation for a new generation of printmakers who did not want to be viewed as illustrators but as artists who explored the full expressive potential of printmaking methods.

The origins of Pennell's ineffectual little figures are found in the landscapes of the 19th century Hudson River School, many of which include human figures as inconsequential elements all but invisible in an overpowering wilderness. These tiny figures, still in harmony with an unspoiled nature, predict the destructive effect humanity will have upon the environment as the luminous serenity of the unexplored landscape will soon be obscured by steam, smoke, and the bustle of heavily populated, industrialized modern spaces. Humans, who intruded tentatively on nature in the 19th century, are the ancestors of Pennell's agitated little people who are bewildered by the scale of surrounding derricks, forges, and locks which they have created but which possess a power they still do not comprehend. Human figures evolved from small people dwarfed by nature into the sturdy, confident the workers in FAP prints.

Pennell's preoccupation with work as a theme was logically echoed in Project prints in part because many of the artists assigned to the New York graphics workshop had been students in his popular, heavily enrolled classes at the League. However, in the hands of this new generation, machines do not dominate, instead they are controlled by authoritative human figures. Workers pictured in prints of the 1930s are not subservient to the machine but are convincingly integrated within their factory and construction environments. Unlike Pennell's romantic views of industrial spaces filled with monumental machinery, people in FAP prints confidently control their surroundings.

Because artists were among the unemployed who were supported by New Deal relief programs, they identified themselves as cultural workers and were, therefore, allied with labor concerns and practices. This included organizing into unions to protect themselves against unfair hiring and firing practices by WPA committees. Like many labor groups, artists formed militant unions to protect themselves against unfair hiring and firing practices by WPA committees.

The reason for this unprecedented militancy by artists was that, as a social class, they were grouped with the large numbers of unemployed who were dependent on government relief. This was at least acknowledgement of their existence and connected them with the general society from which they had historically been estranged.

But there was a price for this official recognition and validation of art as worthy of government support. Artists faced the open hostility of critics who were politically opposed to cultural projects and who accused them, and the agencies that assisted them, of wasting precious tax dollars on frivolities that could demonstrate no practical result. Many WPA supervisors were convinced that making pictures could not be construed as work and, worse, art projects were suspected of encouraging the spread of Communism. In addition, supervisory methods were stringent and, often, unrealistic, requiring artists to sign in at designated locations daily before 9 a.m., then return home or to work, if they had an assignment, for the rest of the day. They were obliged to remain at home or their specified place of work where they were checked on periodically, unannounced, by timekeepers. An artist who didn't answer the door when a timekeeper came by (relief recipients were not permitted telephones) was recorded as absent without permission. This posed a hardship for anyone who needed to leave occasionally even for work-related reasons such as procuring materials. Anyone wishing to sketch away from home had to notify the administration as to exact time and place so a timekeeper could be sent to the site.[15] These tactics were degrading, unrealistic, and was evidence that WPA supervisors had no understanding of, or patience with, the nature of artistic activity.

Because of such demeaning stipulations many artists with meager means chose not to apply for relief. Others, including Jackson Pollock, were almost entirely dependent on the FAP for their livelihood and dutifully appeared at their assigned locations each morning. Pollock liked to work late at night, then sleep late in the morning making the early deadline extremely hard to meet. He was often observed racing frantically through the streets in pajamas to the time clock at his designated center to sign in with only seconds to spare.[16] Failure to meet the daily deadline meant that week's paycheck was withheld but in spite of these regulations, Pollock along with most FAP artists met the Project's rigid requirements and were grateful for the aid they received. Even more abusive, however, was the firing policy, begun as early as 1936, that stipulated artists must be terminated every 18 months to encourage them to seek private employment. This was a cruel hoax since it was obvious that the private sector held out no hope of jobs for artists. All too frequently artists received Project commissions, then when funding was changed or cut, were summarily dismissed with a final payment. There were no criteria for identifying those to be fired; the process was entirely random and artists were discharged without notice, simply by a pink slip included with their paycheck. In the summer of 1937 a total of 600,000 people were eliminated from WPA rolls and, in 1939, 40% of the artists assigned to the New York City Project received pink slips.

Once dismissed it was possible to request re-instatement to the Project, but to do so artists had to declare themselves paupers to qualify for relief. Furthermore, they had to submit to an investigation of ato determine if the applicant had property or possible means of support, however minimal, including savings or insurance, that might be converted into money. Those who qualified had to wait in relief centers every day, along with other unemployed workers, for a job opening to be listed on the center's blackboard. When a listing, such as "graphic artist, WPA" appeared, which was seldom at best, each artist there would rush for the first street car going to the job's address. The first to arrive was usually hired on presentation of a relief voucher. Possession of the voucher implied that the applicant was unable to manage funds responsibly and was desperate enough to accept any job, however humiliating, for meager pay. Waiting in relief centers required untold patience and tenacity as well as the ability to resist the temptations of other job opportunities listed. These could include dishwasher, porter, general handy-man, and similar jobs for anyone with no special skills, but an artist who accepted one of these was summarily dropped from FAP rolls.

On the other hand, artists who received graphic arts assignments were grateful for federal assistance that provided both income and opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in a workshop environment. For those who could proof their blocks and stones in the company of such recognized professionals as Stuart Davis, Raphael Soyer, Adolph Dehn, and Louis Lozowick the workshop experience invaluable. Although most of the more than 200,000 prints produced during the Project years have been lost, those that are left are an important pictorial record of how the country's economic crisis affected its work force. By identifying with the working class subjects they depicted, FAP printmakers made exceptionally relevant visual responses to the social and political environment in which they worked.


1 William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969, p. 435

2 Holger Cahill, New Horizons in American Art (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1936), p. 9

3 Cahill, p. 10

4 Cahill, p. 21

5 Elizabeth Olds, "Prints for Mass Production" in Art for the Millions, ed. Francis V. O'Connor (Washington, D.C., New York Graphic Society, Ltd. 1973), p. 142

6 Audrey McMahon, "A General View of the WPA Federal Art Project in New York City and State," in The New Deal for Arts Projects - An Anthology of Memoirs, ed. Francis V. O'Connor (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987), p, 63

7 Adele Lozowick, widow of Louis Lozowick, during an interview with the author, recalled the effort required for him to carry a heavy lithographic stone from his studio on which he had created an image, to the workshop where the presses were located. In contrast, he appreciated the lighter, more portable screens which which also made it possible to print larger editions. Lozowick, however, is still better known for his lithographs of New York's skyscrapers and bridges in his crisp, constructivist style.

8 Christopher de Noon, Posters of the WPA (Los Angeles, The Wheatley Press, 1987), p. 21

9 The opportunity to have a conversation with Harry Gottlieb on January 29, 1988 was both informative and rerwarding. He reiterated the views of most Project printmakers that, although poverty and hunger were obvious social concerns, still the Depression years were a period of unusual creativity and productivity for artists. The benefits of working in groups in workshops, and the exchange of ideas was unprecedented and stimulating.

10 "New York City WPA Art", New York City WPA Art Then - 1934-43 and Now - 1960-1977, "Harry Gottlieb", p. 36

11 John Garraty, The Great Depression (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986), p 86-87

12 Elizabeth Robins Pennell, The Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell (Boston: Little, Brown and co., 1929) p. 116

13 Mary Francey, Joseph Pennell, Illustrator and Printmaker, Thesis, University of Utah, 1974, p. 68

14 Francey, p. 69

15 Jacob Kainen, The Graphic Arts Division of the Federal Art Project," in New Deal Art Projects -- An Anthology of Memoirs. p.170

16 Kainen, p. 163


About the Author

Mary Francey, Ph.D, is Professor Emerita of Art and Art History, University of Utah, and retired Curator of American Art, Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Artist Essays: FAP Printmakers

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Prints in the Collection

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Editor's note:

This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 18. 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the author granted to TFAO on October 8, 2008. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the author at:

Telephone: 949-481-7553

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