New York Review of Books. 181pages. ISBN 978-1-68137-741-4

Introduction by Philip Nel


By Francis Booth

Independently published. 483 pages. ISBN 978-1-070-632698

Reviewed by Jim Burns


I’ve put these books, one new, one older, together because they both deal with aspects of American art in the interwar years. In fact, though I’ve referred to The Ruling Clawss as “new”, it’s actually a reprint of a book originally published by the Daily Worker in New York in 1935. And the name on the cover wasn’t “Hoff” but “A. Redfield”. It wasn’t unusual in those days for contributors to communist publications like the Daily Worker and New Masses to use a different name, especially if they also wrote for or illustrated well-known, non-communist magazines and newspapers. Syd Hoff’s cartoons appeared in the New Yorker and elsewhere so he had every reason to differentiate his political work, which probably didn’t pay much, from that he did for publications which could offer higher fees. Being known as a communist or communist-sympathiser would have been enough to get him “blacklisted” in certain circles. 

It’s easy to see why that would have been the case.  The cartoons are often satirical in their portrayals of the rich and powerful. But the satire isn’t subtle, on the whole. Bloated businessmen sit complacently contemplating laying off workers or evicting families. Their overdressed wives idle the time away while spoiling their sons and daughters and treating their pets better than their servants. Bosses are seen to be in league with judges and police in restricting union action. And the police, for their part, are shown as thuggish and only too happy to break up a picket line. “God, what a day,” says the policeman arriving home, “I’ve been clubbing strikers for eight hours”.

I suppose it could be said that cartoons like these were essentially aimed at the already converted. Or they were presumed to appeal to the workers who, the Communist Party hoped, would read the Daily Worker and New Masses. I wonder how many did?  I’d guess that more people were familiar with Hoff’s non-political drawings for capitalist newspapers and magazines than with those in left-wing publications. The 1935 appearance of The Ruling Clawss may have marked the high point of Hoff’s work as A. Redfield, though he did continue using the name until around 1940. It’s interesting to speculate whether the change in Party policy which led to the closure of the proletarian-angled John Reed Clubs, and a move towards a Popular Front which aimed to incorporate the middle-class and place greater emphasis on intellectual activities, might not have been the cause of the cruder class elements in Redfield’s cartoons being played down.

Hoff certainly backed away from his earlier socialist sympathies when interviewed by the FBI in 1952. He had, by that time, become widely popular with syndicated comic strips, children’s books, and other similar material published under his real name. He said: “My association with the Daily Worker and New Masses, the Young Communist League and the American League against War and Fascism was all based….on a lack of knowledge or experience as to what they actually stood for”. And he added: “I do not now or did not in the past at any time espouse the doctrine of Communism as I now know it”. It may well be true that while the Redfield cartoons lampoon the rich, criticise the police, and generally offer a bleak look at capitalist society, they rarely directly advocate communism. There is one illustration which shows two affluent women watching a demonstration with marchers holding a banner reading “Towards Soviet America”, but little else like it.

If Hoff’s activities are relatively easy to trace the same can hardly be said of many of the artists listed in Comrades in Art. This is a curious book. It was published independently in 2012, with the author, Francis Booth, presumably having a personal interest in pointing out that most of the artists he covers are now forgotten. He seems to ascribe this to the fact that abstract art, particularly in the form of abstract expressionism, took over in the post-war years, and social-realism went out of fashion: “History is written by the winners and art history is no exception. The winners in America’s history of art are the abstract painters who, subsidised by the CIA from the early 1940s, showed the world the avant-garde art American democracy and freedom could produce. The losers were the artists working in the figurative tradition, who were seen from then as old-fashioned and derivative. And the artists who had political leanings have been virtually erased from the story of American art. I would like to try to put them back”.

There are arguments that could be advanced against Booth’s version of what happened, and he’s inaccurate in saying that the CIA subsidised abstract art from the early 1940s. The CIA didn’t exist until post-1945. Perhaps he meant to write “from the early 1950s”, when the CIA certainly was active in backing publications like Encounter and Partisan Review and supporting exhibitions of abstract art. Leaving that aside, what does interest me, and where I agree with Booth, is his assertion that many artists with “political leanings have been virtually erased from the story of American art”. To my mind, his book has value for the light it throws on some obscure artists who, in the period he deals with, tried to create forms of art that could incorporate social criticism and commentary while maintaining standards of skill and creativity.  They weren’t all cartoonists producing sketches of the well-fed and the wealthy and skewering their pretensions.

Stuart Davis is an example of a painter who allied himself with the Left, but who never reduced his work to slogans. His “In a Florida Auto Camp” from a 1926 issue of New Masses has social content but is not propaganda. And other illustrations are near-Cubist, something that might not have found favour with a dogmatic Party man like Mike Gold had it not been for Davis left-leaning politically.  Artists had to be careful if they wanted Party approval. Otto Soglow, for example, was “a clear example of how the revolutionary artist who has not yet reached a sufficiently high ideological political level proves incapable of embodying in his creation the dialectical unity of the part with the whole, how he concentrates the whole fire of his critique on isolated phenomena of the capitalist system without showing their connection with the system as a whole”. Booth says that those comments by a Russian critic caused Mike Gold to drop Soglow from the pages of New Masses. It perhaps didn’t bother Soglow too much. He had a successful career as a cartoonist for large-circulation newspapers.

An artist whose work I like very much is Reginald Marsh whose 1932 “Bread Line – No-One Has Starved” is a classic work from the period. Marsh was not overtly political in his art, and much of it is a form of idiosyncratic social comment. In some ways he’s descended from the Ashcan School of artists (John Sloan, William Glackens, and others), with a focus on recording the everyday urban lives of ordinary people.  He’s certainly not forgotten. A large book, Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York (New York Historical Society, New York, 2012) published to accompany an exhibition of the same name, is a wonderful evocation of bars, cinemas, theatres, street corners, shops, subways, and much else that made up city life at that time.

William Gropper was one of the most active artists in the left-wing press, and his “Graduation Day” from New Masses is worth noting. It focuses on white collar workers waiting gloomily in an employment agency, presumably knowing that there will be few, if any, job vacancies available. And if there are they will be low-grade and poorly paid. I was reminded of a poem from 1934 published in the first issue of Partisan Review. Alfred Hayes’ “In a Coffee Pot” is about the plight of the unemployed who are over-educated for the jobs they may get : “The bright boys, where are they now?/Fernando, handsome wop who led us all/The orator in the assembly hall/Arista man the school’s big brain/He’s bus boy in an eat quick joint/At seven per week twelve hours a day/ His eyes are filled with my own pain/His life like mine is thrown away”. Hayes also wrote the poem “ I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” which was set to music and recorded by Paul Robeson and other singers with left-wing affiliations. Later, after the Second World War, he was better known as a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter and seemed to have left his radical past behind him. As he said in a poem: “But who remembers now/The volunteers to Spain?/Or how the miners stood/Sullen and angry men/In Lawrenceville in the rain?” 

There are a few other artists who, if named, could evoke a response. Rockwell Kent and Art Young might be among them, though in Young’s case it could be that only  left-wingers would be likely to know his work. But what of Fred Ellis, Mabel Dwight (her lithographs have power), Louis Lozowick – a superb illustrator of industrial scenes, the samples of his work are especially impressive – Joe Jones (a muralist), Peggy Bacon, Jacob Burck, who did striking covers for New Masses, and Dan Rico with what look like well-made, eye-catching wood engravings?  I’ve pulled just a few names from a list of around forty that Booth provides. It's sometimes possible to find out a little more about a few of the artists, what happened to them when the Left collapsed in America, and so on. How many of them were, like Syd Hoff, visited by the FBI and asked about their earlier involvements?  But essentially they’re now mostly forgotten.

As I said earlier, Comrades in Art is something of a curiosity in terms of its publication history. As well as discussing individual artists it has information about the debates within communist circles in both America and Russia concerning the nature and requirements of proletarian art, social or socialist realism, and similar matters. Information is given about the critics, again both American (Malcolm Cowley, James T. Farrell, Waldo Frank, Joseph Freeman) and Russian, who might be said to have set the pace for approaches to art by artists and their potential audiences. There is a lengthy bibliography.

While writing this review, and I admit that it was largely done to draw attention to Booth’s book, as well as to highlight the appearance of a new edition of The Ruling Clawss, I had occasion to consult several other publications:

Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926-1956 by Andrew Hemingway. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002.

American Expressionism : Art and Social Change 1920-1950 by Bram Dijkstra. Harris & Abrams, New York, 2003.

Radical Art: Printmaking and the Left in 1930s New York by Helen Langa. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004.

Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left by Alan M. Wald. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2002.