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Mike Alewitz, Labor Muralist

PAUL BUHLE teaches history at Brown University and is guest editor of this issue. His most recent titles published by Monthly Review Press are Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz, co-authored with Mike Alewitz, and Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor.

The reappearance of the mural marks the return of painting from the museum to its public role in the human community. The work of muralist Mike Alewitz and the collective character of his projects draw upon centuries or eons of collaborative activity, from cave paintings to Michelangelo, the Dada and Surrealist movements to political graffiti. Alewitz’s approach is ideally suited to the postmodern and post-state socialist era when everything rebellious must be created anew and when “culture” along with “labor” is urgently needed to salvage a world from eco-disaster, perpetual war, and the plundering of human possibility. The art of Alewitz and Co. (with the Co. constantly changing) has already been part of labor’s recovery from decades of poor leadership, part of the struggle for democratic unions in a changing global marketplace and with a rapidly changing workforce.

The murals in the following pages stand broadly in the tradition of the three great Mexican muralists: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. Their murals had a strong impact on the United States during the 1930s, not only because of the artists’ own travels and work in what Frida Kahlo called “Gringolandia,” but also because, with the development of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal, American artists were able to create their own counterparts to such work. Stepchildren of the best WPA–funded efforts, Alewitz’s murals reflect the traditions of agitational and political public art in every medium, from the nineteenth century to the present. The depiction of the class enemy and the class struggle by the cartoonists and assorted graphic designers of the IWW and the politically influenced urban murals of the 1960s through the 1980s in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York feed directly into his work. Following no particular school, but instead seeking his own genius of particulars, Alewitz is unique even among these highly varied and admirable efforts.

Alewitz’s murals have been particularly marked by a vernacular quality—their humor, their historical references, their accessibility—with origins in the history of the American class struggle. Nearly every wall landscape, most of them commissioned or at least supported by working-class institutions, documents specific events, definitely local but with transcendent schemes. No less important, in subthemes often little observed even by Alewitz’s admirers, each mural draws upon the many neglected traditions of anonymous radical working-class artists, forgotten proletarians armed with paint brushes or quill pens, whose traditions are close to Alewitz’s own heart.

Today’s art historians remember the Ashcan school, or the remarkable muralists and painters of the depression era such as Ben Shahn, perhaps even a handful of poster makers for the vibrant protest theater of the 1930s. But the beloved Wobbly cartoonist who called himself “Dust,” to take but a single example, is all but forgotten; the lithographers, cartoonists, and assorted illustrators of the radical press from the 1890s to the present, radical drama set designers, Bread and Puppet Theater operators, and a host of others have rarely had their work anthologized, let alone recognized for its personal stamp subtly individual to each artist. The importance of Alewitz’s work can be measured in the diverse strains of influence that make up his murals, but also in the conscious restoration of the collectivity that belongs to the ages—and to our age as well.

Rivera and the Mexican Muralists

“Today,” Diego Rivera writes in the introduction to his Portrait of America by Diego Rivera (1934), “mural painting must help in man’s struggle to become a human being, and for that purpose it must live wherever it can.” As if in sympathy for the walls as well as the artist, he adds, “no place is bad for it, so long as it is there permitted to fulfill its primary functions of nutrition and enlightenment.” Rivera stood firmly in the centuries-old, great tradition of public art, often explicitly religious in nature. Occasionally attached to the name of the designer and leading painter, public art was more often anonymously created, the mason and bricklayer working alongside the painter. According to an apocryphal tale, one day Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros sat around a table discussing murals and they happened to observe a pulqueria painter, that is, an artisan who painted the popular wall paintings in pulquerias or “taverns” where pulque was served; they drew their inspiration for the work to come, it is said, from his grasp of Mexican traditions. This anecdote probably merges many real-life experiences of observing folk and commercial artistry. But the emerging giants also looked to European masters for guidance, and not only to the muralists. Unlike the creators of the great frescoes, the artists of the European medieval and Renaissance revolt, such as Albrecht Dürer, showed the horrors of social oppression in exacting detail and visual metaphor. It remained for artists of the modern era to develop the styles and techniques suitable for restoring public art to its communal status and lifting revolutionary art to its potential.

Rivera’s renown prompted such commissions in the United States as the Pacific Stock Exchange’s Luncheon Club in San Francisco, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and the Rockefeller Center in New York. Never one to shirk controversy, Rivera shocked his patrons time and again with overtly revolutionary references. He landed in the middle of a storm of protest when the Rockefeller family resolved to have his work effaced from “their” Center. The mural was first covered with canvas and then destroyed, a notorious incident that remains a cause célèbre in modern art history.

Another of Rivera’s major American works suffered a similar fate. His mural of American radical history, the most sweeping single treatment of the subject ever made, was dismantled when the sponsoring New Workers School dissolved the institution and switched its allegiances from socialism to American intelligence operations. Rivera’s 1930s efforts that survived these assaults include mostly minor works, with one major exception. The Detroit mural, nearly destroyed during the McCarthy era, was ironically saved by members of the Ford family concerned with the value of their own collection.

Rivera’s scope and explicitly revolutionary intentions, based in the asserted dignity of labor and the indignity of exploitation, opened the door for a contemporary working-class artist like Alewitz, who chooses to emphasize minority groups and women’s labor and places internationalist themes at the center of his work. The cross-border character of many of Alewitz’s projects has developed naturally from the artist looking south toward Mexican and Latin American struggles and looking around him in the United States as Mexican and Latin American working people struggle to transplant themselves and their traditions.

Alewitz’s work also draws power from the work of Rivera’s contemporaries, the American muralists of the 1930s. Thanks to the radical mood of the depression era and the formation of the Works Progress Administration, unemployed artists of great talent were briefly invited to stake their claim upon American life and culture. Mitchell Siporin’s celebration of working people’s dignity, Anton Refregier’s honest reflection on the underlying cruelty of American life, the social and factory scenes by Reginald Marsh or William Gropper remain powerful today, and not only as examples of the period that they represent. Posters by some of the same artists advertising Federal Theater productions, notably inventive in design and color scheme, also offer social commentary. Nearly all the radical artists identified with the Popular Front, placing themselves within the political vicinity of the American Communist Party; but the then current Soviet doctrine of “socialist realism” had little effect upon their artistic individuality or the artists’ tendency toward allegorical expression.

The Resurgent Mural Movement

More than three decades later, a new movement announced itself when William Walker helped create the “Wall of Respect,” on the side of a condemned building in Chicago. Twenty-one black artists, drawn together by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., created a sensation when Ebony provided a cover story on the mural. Other walls of respect appeared within the next half-dozen years in mostly aging neighborhoods, usually displaying themes of race or ethnicity and sometimes commemorating local or historical events.

Chicago’s murals took precedence in the eyes of many observers, probably because of the involvement of the city’s leading artists: Walker, Eugene Eda, Mark Rogovin, Ray Patlan, and John Weber. Created (in contrast to the WPA murals) without government support, these murals urged rebellion. Images of resistance to urban renewal jumped off the walls at viewers, warrior-like evocations of the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and determined farm workers encouraged neighborhood struggles. Neighborhood residents were involved in planning as well as painting the murals. Indeed, collective mural teams congratulated themselves on their direct effect upon specific issues, like gang warfare or housing.

Thus began one of the great underreported social movements of the 1970s and 1980s: projects by gang members and university-trained artists to cast a different light upon their experiences, and thereby find a way out of society’s dilemmas. The determinedly non-elitist methods of working encouraged an eclecticism of theme and approach that spanned the gamut from underground comics to near modernism to socialist realism, and from deep ethnic-centrist to pan-ethnic humanism.

Ironically, as the social movements of the 1960s–1970s faded into history, arts and humanities councils reached out to embrace some of the mural projects. Federal and local dollars flowed, even occasionally from corporations, into youth employment centers and programs, establishing a community arts culture unimaginable only a few years earlier—with all the inherent contradictions of such funding. The Chicago Mural Group led by John Weber, the Public Art Workshop led by Rogovin, and Movimiento Artistico Chicano (MARCH) led by Jose Gonzales and Marcos Raya, all gained fame for demonstrably radical projects. The CityArts Workshop of New York provided a model for community participation projects while the West Coast–based Chicano projects, organized mainly around community art centers like the Social and Public Arts Resource Center (SPARC) of Los Angeles, managed funding despite militantly antiracist and strong class-conscious depictions.

National muralists’ conferences blossomed from 1976; newsletters, magazines, and books appeared. The incoming Reagan administration clamped down on much of the funding. But the outrages perpetrated by the Reaganauts at home and abroad also inspired new themes and protests, from the mural and allied art work around the great “Freeze” antinuclear marches of 1982 to the support movements around Central American issues in the following few years. Mammoth projects sprouted—like the World War III project in New York and several dozen murals in San Francisco’s Mission District—many of them with Central American themes and indigenist motifs.

The Pathfinder Mural

One of the movement’s recording angels, Eva Cockcroft, coauthor of the totemic Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement, ended a 1990 report by hailing the most explicit political mural thus far created in the Marxist tradition. At Mike Alewitz’s suggestion, Pathfinder Press, the publishers for the Socialist Workers Party, had commissioned a wall of the party’s West Street headquarters, with Alewitz and others devising and completing a revolutionary saga equal to the narrative composed by Diego Rivera at the New Workers School forty-some years earlier. Donors in the United States and elsewhere contributed $100,000 to this new effort, and even the New York State Council on the Arts kicked in $500.

The immediate result was perfectly amazing, not only to see but to experience in process. As a New York Times arts reporter observed in September of 1988, Alewitz (“a sturdy-looking man of thirty-seven wearing cut-off jeans and a single earring”) stood confidently in charge of a crew both eclectic and international, neighborhood members as well as European and Latin American artists. Despite some protest from neighborhood right-wingers, and more than a touch of police harassment, the project was carried on to a successful conclusion. As planned, a red printing press stood at the center, with posters of assorted revolutionary heroes above, oceans and crowds on the sides and below. Even an attack by Patrick Buchanan in the Washington Times (“a six-story shrine to communism, a Marxist Mount Rushmore in Greenwich Village”) could be seen as evidence of the anxiety a mural could provoke.

Alewitz intended the mural to be a celebration of an envisioned convergence of world revolutionary forces. The (temporary) victory of the Nicaraguan and Grenadan revolutions, Cuban resistance to U.S. domination, the freedom struggle in South Africa, and other important struggles provided a moment of radical optimism. Artists around the world were invited to work on the mural. Two groups of Canadians participated, including Armand Vaillancourt, a leading Québécois sculptor who had earned his place in agitprop history by spray-painting a high-profile piece with a pro-independence slogan on San Francisco’s Embarcadero during the War Measures Act imposed upon Quebec. Dumile Feni, exiled sculptor from South Africa, participated as the representative of the African National Congress, contributing a portrait of Nelson Mandela. The ANC sent a representative throughout the United States on behalf of the project. The FSLN of Nicaragua sent two representatives, artists Arnoldo Guillien and Carlos Montenegro. Other artists famous and unknown contributed to the grand mosaic. Octogenarian Abe Graber, a member of the 1930s John Reed Clubs, climbed the scaffolding to create a portrait of the great revolutionary journalist. Maureen McCann, a working nurse and amateur artist, came after her shift day after day and lovingly brought to life the image of John Brown. May Stevens, physically unable to paint her mural portrait of Rosa Luxemburg, handed a drawing to Alewitz, who reproduced it to scale on the wall.

But ultimately, there were problems, and the story has several unhappy endings, typical of the political difficulties of the era and of Marxist dogmatism going far back in radical history. The artist’s vision ultimately received party criticism precisely because he had in mind a light-hearted exercise in community participation along with a serious presentation of events and personalities. Alewitz saw the mural as a way to make the revolutionary heroes of the past into human beings who would march and dance with the crowd in the streets. But he declined to lend sufficient homage to the party saints, and gave too much space to the artists’ own ideas of interesting faces and scenes. The passages from Eugene Debs’s famed 1917 Canton, Ohio, antiwar speech (which landed him in prison), intended to be placed at the center of the mural, were eliminated, a party mantra inserted in the space. All visual references to Alewitz, who had emerged as a student militant at Kent State, shortly before the infamous massacre of 1970, were also removed, including depictions of two martyred Kent State students (Allison Krause, a supporter of the Student Mobilization Committee, and Sandy Scheur, who had been a close friend of Alewitz’s). Alewitz found himself expelled from the organization that he had called home for twenty years, and naturally excluded from the mural’s opening ceremonies. He had always intended the mural to be repainted intermittently to reflect new realities, but a few years later the mural was entirely effaced. These were surely bad developments for American murals (still worse for Alewitz, because a self-described revolutionary movement had done them). But they had one major liberating consequence: he was now on his own.