The Grey Art Gallery’s latest exhibition is both art exhibit and history lesson. “Art for Every Home” tells the story of the Associated American Artists formed in 1934 by Reeves Lewenthal to bring together a group of artists to create a market for affordable prints. The collection covers the group’s origins during The Great Depression, their commissioned works for various companies, their contribution to the war effort and their post-war expansion into economic prosperity.
In most galleries, the financial side of art is lost within the wealth of culture. It is incredibly novel and fresh to see a gallery that emphasizes artists as business people, and views art as a middle class consumer good. The detailed introductions to each section and the pieces in gallery provide context and information about the circumstances that brought those commissions to life. It is a treat to witness just a small glimpse of what went into creating these pieces.
The gallery also covers a very impressive range of history. Starting with some of the earliest works of the AAA, there is a series of prints that were distributed to great success due to a lack of competition. The vast number of artists contributing provides a fascinatingly diverse collection of styles. This is evident in the black and white prints, where the minimalism allows the artist’s style to shine through. It’s impressive to see the subtle Midwestern influences in the various references to Missouri folk tales and other Midwestern subjects. The idea that there are several versions of these prints doesn’t diminish their value, but makes them more impressive in their mass production. One of my favorites is “Men of Steel,” a gorgeous visualization of skyscraper builders above the skyline.
It’s incredibly fascinating to see the various commissioned pieces for corporations and contributions to the war effort. Many of the patron corporations were tobacco companies, providing a brilliantly anachronistic look at “Golden Age of Cigarette Marketing,” with gorgeous prints glamorizing the life of tobacco farmers. Their willingness to contribute to the American World War II effort resulted in some stunning works as well. Some propaganda pieces depict a horrifying vision of the Axis conquering the world, including a stunning vision of the Axis leaders in the place of the Romans
Life post-atomic bomb witnessed a booming economy and rapid expansions in commercial goods like ceramics, fabrics and books. As previously mentioned, it’s easy to dismiss the artist as an entrepreneur, many ignoring the financial burden imposed on the creators, insisting that the reward of enjoying their craft is payment enough. “Art for Every Home” is an important and fascinating reminder that artists are humans using their individual skillsets to make a living while creating something beautiful.
“Art for Every Home” is on display at the Grey Art Gallery until July 9.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 25 print edition. Email Carter Glace at [email protected]