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It was a decade bristling with initials: AAA, CCC, NRA, TVA, PWA. Critics might make fun of the resulting "alphabet soup" but in fact the initials stood for agencies and programs that were at the heart of something new in America. Its leader called it a New Deal - and he was something new in American political life as well. For Franklin Roosevelt (he immediately became part of the alphabet game as FDR) took the crisis of the Depression to be a domestic equivalent to the crisis of war and he organized a government accordingly. He taught a new three R's: Relief, Rehabilitation, Reform. In the process the government undertook new functions and assumed new responsibilities. There were no clearly charted paths for this new way and FDR and the Congress were frankly willing to experiment as they searched for the right answers to questions never asked of government before. When they were done they had created a Welfare State. For, as the President himself insisted in 1935, the complexities of modern industrial society created new and unheard-of problems. In less complex circumstances people might more easily take care of themselves and their neighbors. But now, the President said, "we are compelled to employ the active interest of the nation as a whole through government in order to encourage a greater security of each individual who composes it." FDR's priorities seemed clear: "I place the security of the men, women and children of the nation first . . ." And that security was no longer to be defined in strictly military or police ways; it meant as well economic security, social security. 

It was a decade still demonstrating a remarkable faith in progress: the decade began with a World's Far in Chicago celebrating a Century of Progress and ended with another in New York dedicated to the fantastic promise of a World of Tomorrow. European observers visiting the 1939 Fair in New York were often amazed and even angry that Americans continued to delight in futuristic visions of a world improved by the wonders of modern technology while Europe and (they right believed) the whole world was erupting in a cataclysmic war that might leave us with no tomorrow at all. But all though the dire days of economic crisis, through tragic Depression days and the difficulties of social rehabilitation, Americans persisted in responding with enthusiasm to the achievements of science and technology. "Can science save us?" a distinguished scholar asked. The answer was a vigorous "Yes!" Among the key icons of the period are machines and machine forms. It was the decade when "streamlining" became a vogue and great industrial designers came into prominence as they reshaped the objects in our everyday environment to give us a world of beautiful machine forms. In 1934 the Museum of Modern Art staged a huge Machine Art show in which beautifully designed everyday machines (vacuum cleaners, toasters, and the like) were featured. When that great venture in photo-journalism, Life, began its career in November, 1936, its cover featured no great personality in the news, no scene of home life, no traditional landscape. Rather, there was photographer Margaret Bourke-White's brilliant study of gigantic, fortress-like, concrete piers of a great dam project in Montana. America proved to be fascinated with such machine forms that represented the power and possibilities of modern technology. 

[[image]] Employment & Activities Federal Art Project Works Progress Administration

Activities on the Field (left) and rescued Mechanics of Flying (right) in Northeast corner of second floor foyer. Photograph taken on April 17, 1940. 

East wall, second floor foyer, where murals were located and stairwell (office space on right was added in 1964). Small holes in plaster walls indicate areas of search for the lost murals. 

Photo source (Waco F) for right-hand panel of Modern Aviation, South wall, 1935-36. 

Lost gouache study for Modern Aviation, 1935-36. 

South wall of lost model, 1936. 

View of lost model without South wall, 1936. 

Nothing is so characteristic of the basic nature of the decade as one of the New Deal's most important alphabetical arrangements: WPA. The Works Progress Administration in its very title epitomizes these aspects of the 1930's. Called the "social conscience of the New Deal," WPA signified federal government's concern for the suffering millions as well as for the organized interests. It was the largest welfare program of the New Deal. Created by executive order in 1935, it was developed out of an Emergency Relief Appropriation of almost five billion dollars - the largest single federal appropriation to that time - that the Congress granted to the President to spend as he saw fit. Through 1941 WPA spent more than eleven billion dollars on some 250,000 small-scale construction projects, building or improving more than 2,500 hospitals, 5,900 school buildings, 1,000 air fields, and nearly 13,000 playgrounds. It also supported major building projects; the dam that was photographed for the cover of Life was part of a series of dams begun under PWA but continued under WPA. WPA money was also invested in the transformation of rural life through a program of rural electrification. But perhaps the most daring of WPA's activities were a series of white, not blue collar, programs. For the first time in American history the federal government gave a vast subsidy to some of the fine arts and to scholarship. The Federal Theater Project supported drama companies throughout the nation. The Federal Writers Project created about 1,000 publications and stimulated important local historical projects. Artists were employed by the Federal Art Project to launch teaching programs in painting and crafts and to decorate the interiors of hundreds of public buildings with murals and other art works. It is obvious what the value of such programs was for those employed; it enabled them to sustain themselves and do the work they generally wanted to do. Less obvious but perhaps equally important, the programs developed a high degree of participation. Music, painting, theater now became part of the daily lives of millions of Americans. Much of the art, of course, reflected the social concerns of the period. But some of it moved in other directions - even in directions showing the period's general fascination with machine forms. The President was perhaps no art critic. But he did say of the work of the Federal Arts Project: "some of it is good; some of it not so good, but all of it is native, human, eager, and alive." That is not an unacceptable conclusion.

The WPA was designed first to provide relief; it did so by organizing the possibilities for work. That decision was of enormous cultural significance. No dole in the United States. Further, the nature of that work was designed to improve the conditions of life in America for all its citizens. Thus attention must be paid to the kind of work; for it, too, transformed the culture. And finally, we must see what the very nature of the project itself and its administration means for the function and responsibility of government; a redefinition of the relationship between government and the people.


Arshile Gorky began his aviation mural project as a study for Floyd Bennett Field and developed it into a photo-montage wall with the photographic assistance of Wyatt Davis. At the time the first study was shown at the opening of the new WPA/FAP gallery in New York City, negotiations were already under way to transfer Gorky's labors to the new, as-yet-unoccupied Administration Building at Newark Airport. The ten panels, first created in model form (now lost, but recreated for this exhibition in black-and-white), were painted from the summer of 1936 through the spring of 1937 and were installed in the second floor foyer by the end of June. The cost to the City of Newark for the 1530 square feet of oil painting on canvas was $.60 per square foot, a total of under $1,000 for all expenses other than the federal relief payments to the artist.

North entrance, Administration Building, Newark Airport, May, 1935.

Aerial view of Administration Building, Newark Airport, 1935; Port of Newark and railroad visible at top.


In his designs for the Newark Airport, Gorky has concerned himself with forms derived from aviation and from the airplane. But since scientific invention is ever changing, he does not wish to use these forms in a literal spirit, because the airplanes of today will be obsolete in a few years, but a mural should certainly be able to speak to people of the future in a language above the purely topical idiom. So it is the forms of an airplane in an abstract and essential mood which Gorky has utilized in his designs, wings seen as almost straight lines, as they actually look when viewed in profile, a rudder, an aileron, an instrument board, a wheel, a lamp, a cylinder, insignia from the underwings and from the fuselage, all distilled to their ultimate expression.

With these forms he seeks to occupy the space given him, the walls allocated to the mural. These spaces are rectangular, they are two-dimensional, they are solid constructions of masonry, and the artist must not violate their essential function, which is a supporting and protecting one. Therefore his design must not seem to break through the wall or to shatter the wall; his design must really occupy the space it is intended for and not seek to move outward in a three-dimensional disruptive way.

From unpublished brochure, 1937


In the spring of 1940, Gorky's Aviation mural panels were photographed on the walls of the second floor of the Newark Airport Administration Building, still in good condition and securely in place after some early problems with adhesives. However, after the War was over, they were nowhere to be seen by the many Gorky admirers who came to search.

In 1972 a serious search was again sparked by the fact that a painting in the New York University art collection was noticed to be similar to a portion of a Gorky WPA mural study in the Museum of Modern Art. The University curator, conservator Lawrence Majewsky and Saul Wenegrat of the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey began the search. An Authority employee located the first thread and Majewsky's tests concluded that indeed two panels remained on the east wall.

Research revealed that wartime installation of radiators had caused the canvas to be removed. For some reason, no radiator was installed on the left east wall; the panel on the right was shorter than the rest and did not interfere with the new heater. In 1964, further alterations to accommodate FAA offices appear to have caused removal of the four painted-over panels on the south wall.

The National Endowment for the Arts made a substantial matching grant to the Port Authority for removal of the two heavily paint-laden (14 layers) panels by conservators Carroll Wales and Constantine Tsaousis. Two layers of adhesive, white-lead and then glue, were removed from the back before the carefully tested face was cleaned of its burden of interior enamel. The canvases were then lined and put on sturdy giant stretchers, a step documented in a film by Richard Leacock and Rachel Strickland. Since 1975, The Newark Museum has been involved in planning an exhibition of these murals and related works and of material documenting the unusual rescue, a project initially supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and now funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.