Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 23, 2009 with permission of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Corcoran Gallery directly through this phone number or Web address:
Francis Criss in the 1930s: A Rare Synthesis of Realism and Abstraction
by Gail Stavitsky
In 1937 Francis Criss was characterized as "another precisionist who thrusts a quirk" into his painting when he exhibited Why the Line? (1934; Fig. 1) in the Whitney Museum of American Art's annual exhibition. This appraisal alludes to the artist's distinctive blend of Precisionism and Social Surrealism in his cityscapes and portraits of the 1930s. Constituting what is regarded as his best work, Criss's paintings of this period were critically acclaimed at the time and largely overlooked thereafter. His provocative cityscapes and portraits are the subject of the current exhibition, which provides the first opportunity for an introductory, in-depth assessment of his oeuvre.
Francis Criss began exhibiting his work in 1931 -- the year that he completed his studies with Jan Matulka at the Art Students League. Criss received his first significant critical attention when the Whitney Museum of American Art featured his Astor Place (1932; Fig. 2) in its First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting in 1932. Based on a view of the historic neighborhood near Criss's residence on East 9th Street, this work was acquired by the Whitney Museum in 1933 and included in an exhibition of recent acquisitions. Critics targeted the aspects of this painting that seemed to defy categorization, finding it to be among the "borderline cases" that are "not...actually surréaliste." Astor Place was characterized as "an excellent piece of work of such clarity and decisiveness as almost to preclude any emotional content and bordering on surrealism in its translation of the objective world into [the] abstract through intelligible and sharply accented designs." Criss was placed by another critic "among those who find in our mechanical age an ultra-neat geometric classicism -- such painters bring to the interpretation of the American City much the same austerity of vision that prompted the ancient Greeks in their handling of the human form." Indeed, Criss's work was featured in the first gallery of the biennial exhibition, which was dominated by the precisionists George Ault, Charles Demuth, Stefan Hirsch, Earl Horter, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, Niles Spencer, and Arnold Wiltz.
The origins of the term precisionist date to the previous decade, when Alfred H. Barr, Jr., future director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, used this nomenclature to describe the work of Sheeler and Demuth in his lectures given in 1927 and 1929 on major tendencies in modern American painting. By establishing links between America's past and present, the precisionists affirmed the country's pervasive quest for national identity. Not only were they among the first to adapt their selectively realist styles to the precise geometry of the burgeoning urban-industrial environment, but they also spearheaded the revival of interest in America's fine art, folk art, and applied art traditions. At the core of the precisionists' classic, objectivist aesthetic was an exacting synthesis of realism and abstract design. Static, sharply defined, simplified, smoothly brushed forms in unmodulated colors were disengaged from transitory aspects of painterly process, time, atmosphere, and sentiment.
The New York cityscape of Astor Place shares the crisp lines, austere geometry, and pure, flat colors of the work of such fellow precisionists as Sheeler, Ault, and, to a lesser extent, Spencer. Ault's Hudson Street (Fig. 3), also exhibited in the 1932 biennial and acquired by the Whitney Museum, is especially comparable in this regard. Nevertheless, Ault's typically unpopulated precisionist streetscape differs notably from Astor Place with its black-clad nuns who are almost surreal in their classic severity. This prominent compositional accent suggests that Criss, like his contemporary Peter Blume, was taking the precisionist movement in another direction during the 1930s, namely that of Surrealism. As one critic observed in his review of the biennial, Criss's Astor Place was among the "evidences of the Surrealist invasion," and "Blume's Light of the World [was] the best example we have of a Surrealist influence upon contemporary American painting."
Astor Place was also featured on the cover of the small catalogue that accompanied Criss's first solo show at New York's Contemporary Arts Gallery, in which he was praised for having developed "a new clear convention for looking at American scenery." Finding their "expression in extreme clarity and simplicity of statement," as well as "formal and precise patterns," Criss's works, based primarily on New York scenes, were praised as "meticulously drawn and carried to a neatly ordered conclusion,...suggestively abstract in character though predicated upon a basis in fact."
In 1933 Criss also had a one-man show at the Mellon Galleries in his American hometown of Philadelphia, where he had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1917 to 1921. Reviewing this exhibition, one critic characterized Criss as "a decorative realist" who "embellishes his compositions with such brilliant coloring as to remove them at once from the actual drabness and dreariness of what he has chosen to depict." Furthermore, Criss's approach was compared with that of his colleague Stuart Davis: "While his method of approach and attack upon sundry technical problems is different, he at once engenders memories of Stuart Davis, though what similarity exists is only on the surface. Davis nearly always suggests an advertisement; the pictures of Criss do not." Another critic described some of Criss's works on view as "highly keyed, quasi-abstractions done in a manner immediately suggestive of that master of design Stuart Davis."
Given Davis's prominence, it is natural that his work would serve as a basis for comparison and contrast. He is commonly regarded as the first among the generation of American modernists of the 1930s to transform his appreciation of the country's industrial, urban, and maritime environments into a consistent, complex synthetic cubist vocabulary of form. His logically composed work was praised in terms similar to those used to describe Criss's "cunning precision" and "severe purity." Furthermore, Davis and Criss portrayed some of the same New York City subjects. House and Street (Fig. 4) by Davis features the track of the Third Avenue Elevated, which is also visible in Criss's Third Avenue El (1932, private collection). Like Criss, Davis also painted a view of the landmark Jefferson Market Courthouse at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 10th Street (1930, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and he made a lithograph entitled Sixth Avenue El in 1931 -- later the subject of Criss's 1937 mural composition, for which he made a study and after which he made a smaller but similar work (Figs. 5, 6, 7). The calligraphic elements in Criss's Pie in the Sky (Fig. 8) and his Jefferson Market Courthouse series (Figs. 9, 10) suggest the influence of Davis, who embellished a number of his works during the early 1930s with similar linear squibs. Nevertheless, there do not seem to be many stylistic affinities during this period, beyond the superficial similarity of subject matter and linear precision of planar elements. In general, Davis's work is far more abstract than that of Criss.
Indeed, Criss's work was already recognized as a singular achievement, which nevertheless at times suggested the work of various artists. As observed by one critic in 1933, some of Criss's work such as Yaddo Farm (1933, location unknown) "wavers undecidedly between Sheeler and Davis." This comment apparently alludes to a precarious balance between realism and abstraction. In general, Criss's work, especially at this time, seems closer to that of Ault and Sheeler than to that of Davis. The purified, precisely delineated, planar forms of such urban-industrial works as Sheeler's MacDougal Alley (1922, Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.) and American Landscape (Fig. 11) seem to have served as a precisionist standard for the synthesis of realistic subject matter and abstract design evident in Criss's work. This possible mentor relationship is suggested by the fact that Sheeler supported Criss's application in 1934 for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship with a letter of recommendation.
In his report, Sheeler praised the directness and clarity of Criss's conception and execution of his work. Criss also received glowing recommendations from several critics, including the prominent Lewis Mumford, who compared Criss's oeuvre with that of Sheeler in terms of its dry accuracy, although he declared that it operated on a higher imaginative level. In his application, Criss stated his intention to study the work of the Italian primitives, the Renaissance masters, and contemporary European painters to fulfill his goal of painting in fresco, applying paint directly to wet plaster. He defined his ultimate goals as "a study of compactness of design; the wide use of landscape for basic construction; taste for architectural clarity; employment of natural light, the arrival towards simplicity and precision; a sense of grouping into space: all qualities to be assimilated into a scheme of contemporary American fresco."
Successful in his fellowship bid, Criss traveled to Europe in 1934. While abroad, he created Morning in Florence (Fig. 12), Fête Florence (Fig. 13), and Fascism (Fig. 14). Among Criss's best-known works, Fascism was his strongest political statement and one of the first surreal, antifascist paintings created by an American artist. The emptiness of the Florentine town square with its handless clock, the stark lighting, dramatic shadow, and sense of alienation are strongly evocative of Giorgio de Chirico's nostalgic Italian scenes of the early twentieth century (Fig. 15). Criss's interest in the empty city streets and deep perspectives of de Chirico was noted later by John I. H. Baur as his romantic contribution to the precisionist movement. The statue of Justice holds a sword as an allusion to the military basis of fascism's jurisprudence: the pans of the scales of justice hang free, without supporting strands. It is this painting, with its sociopolitical subject matter, irrational imagery, and hallucinatory, visionary quality, that has secured Criss's place as a tangential exponent of American Social Surrealism. Most of Criss's work, however, seems to bear little direct relation to that of others associated with this socially engaged movement, namely Peter Blume, O. Louis Guglielmi, Walter Quirt, and James Guy. Nevertheless, Criss was recognized as among those "who have painted powerful social documents."
Criss's interest in painting frescoes -- the original goal of his travels abroad -- was shared by a number of artists associated during the depression with the nationwide, government-sponsored relief program known as the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project. Although he was evidently not able to fulfill his ambition of working with the fresco medium, Criss was employed as a teacher and muralist for New York City's WPA/FAP from 1935 to 1939. He was one of twelve artists chosen to design mural paintings for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, built in 1936 - 37. In his essay on this commission, Burgoyne Diller, the progressive director of the New York City mural division of the WPA/FAP, praised Criss as "being among the country's leading abstract painters." A prominent geometric abstractionist in his own right, Diller ranked Criss in the company of Davis, Matulka, and Paul Kelpe. The abstract murals by Criss and others were targeted for the social rooms of this low-income complex "because these areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment for the tenants." The use of arbitrary, nondescriptive colors and shapes "enables the artist to place an emphasis upon [their] psychological potential to stimulate relaxation." Criss's Sixth Avenue "L" (Fig. 5), however, differed completely from the other murals painted for the project in that the subject matter is immediately identifiable. With its sharply delineated, flat, pure forms, Sixth Avenue "L" has been compared with the work of the precisionists Sheeler, Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Spencer. Nevertheless, his cubist-inspired, planar treatment of vividly colored, cropped, interlocking positive and negative shapes is much more reminiscent of the earlier work of Davis, especially his House and Street (Fig. 4). Criss's Columbus Circle (Fig. 16) also strongly recalls the work of Davis from the early 1930s; critics continued, on occasion, to compare the two artists' work.
Although Criss's mural painting Sixth Avenue "L" was not as abstract as those of his colleagues, its decorative, rhythmic qualities are the salient features, thus distancing it from the dominance of illusionist subject matter in American Scene painting. Indeed, it is highly significant that Diller selected Criss for the Williamsburg Housing Project. As head of New York's mural division, Diller had made an extremely daring decision to work with abstract artists at a time when the prevailing tendencies in American art were typified by the realist, narrative scenes of such regionalist painters of American life as Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, as well as the social realist work of Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, and others. Diller's support of modernism occurred when most of the artists he had chosen were engaged in founding the American Abstract Artists. Criss did not participate in this organization formed in 1936 - 37 to provide exhibition opportunities for abstract artists who felt themselves largely neglected by curators, dealers, and critics who decried abstraction as foreign, derivative, and irrelevant. Nor had he been represented in the Whitney Museum of American Art's exhibition Abstract Painting in America in 1935 (despite the inclusion of other semiabstract precisionists and modernists such as Ault, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, O'Keeffe, and Matulka). Criss's independence from these activities suggests his possible resistance to categorization.
Nevertheless, Criss joined other organizations during the 1930s, an era known for its collective activism. In 1934 he was represented in the John Reed Club's first annual exhibition, The Social Trend in Art. He was also a charter member of the American Artists' Congress who signed the call of this leftist group led by Davis in 1936 to "ally ourselves with all groups engaged in the common struggle against war and fascism." Criss was also associated with the socially concerned artists known as An American Group, founded in 1931, frequently showing his work with them. In 1936, for example, he exhibited Americana (Fig. 17), which was praised as "an immaculate embryo metropolis" with a distinctly "American flavor...injected everywhere in the canvas, but most particularly in characterizing the business-men types in the act of passing on the day's greetings as they meet on the street." The prominent inclusion of a cigar-store Indian in Americana provided a folk art accent that most likely reinforced this interpretation. Similarly the choice of title is the same as Sheeler's painting of the early American interior of his home, featured in the 1932 Whitney biennial. Criss's participation in An American Group suggests his engagement in the era's pervasive search for national identity in the arts and culture; it is likely, however, that he shared the group's liberal mission to avoid "any narrow nationalistic attitude toward art."
Among the members of An American Group were William Gropper, Moses and Raphael Soyer, Isabel Bishop, and Criss's good friend, the modernist sculptor Chaim Gross. In 1938 Criss participated with Gross and Davis in the first exhibition of the liberal World Alliance for Yiddish Culture, organized to combat anti-Semitism. As Criss later observed, "Artists, being exuberant people, choose to live in the midst of life -- not apart from it." Criss incorporated a portrait of Gross in the de Chiricoesque Why the Line? which one reviewer in 1936 referred to as the artist "play[ing] with surrealism."
Criss's career in the late 1930s was crowned by his prominent inclusion in several important exhibitions at the Museum of Modem Art, including New Horizons in American Art (1936), Paintings for Paris (1937), and the large-scale Trois Siècles d'Art aux Etats-Unis, organized in collaboration with the Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris, in 1938. Criss's Americana was featured in the latter exhibition, although it was not discussed in the catalogue. Nevertheless, Alfred Barr, author of the catalogue's essay on twentieth-century art, had already included Criss's work in the landmark survey Art in America that he co-authored with Holger Cahill. In his essay for this book, first published in 1934, Cahill categorized Criss, along with Sheeler, O'Keeffe, and Spencer, as among a precisionist "group of painters which interprets the contemporary American art scene in a highly selective realism, amounting almost to a formal purism." He concluded that the work of "George Ault, Arnold Wiltz, Henry Billings, Charles Goeller, Francis Criss, and Elsie Driggs, is characterized by clarity of design and excellent feeling for architectonic arrangement."
Furthermore, Criss's Fascism was featured in the New York World's Fair exhibition American Art Today. Asserting that "realism is the dominant force behind American art today," one critic observed that Criss's work, "like many pictures by Di [sic] Chirico, seems to describe that terrific moment immediately before or after something shocking and cataclysmic takes place." Appropriate for the times, this mood of foreboding is also evident in Criss's Melancholy Interlude, Waterfront, and New York Waterfront (Figs. 18, 19, 20), which are highly original syntheses of the artist's various interests and influences during the 1930s. Based on graph paper drawings of the Burns Brothers' coal bins at Twenty-second Street and the East River in New York City, Melancholy Interlude features spare, precisely rendered architectonic forms and smooth surfaces that ally it closely with the precisionist movement. Nevertheless, the mysterious clouds, sharp perspectival recession of the building to the left, as well as the dramatic contrasts of light and dark evoke a surreal atmosphere suggestive of de Chirico's elusive dreamscapes. At the same time, other aspects, such as the cubist-inspired overlapping of flat, boldly colored, simplified forms and textured surfaces (for example, the small buildings to the right), are related to the modernist style of Davis.
Thus, it seems fitting that Criss's works of this era were described as belonging to the "semi-abstractionists, semi-unclassifiables." The challenge of classifying Criss was also suggested by Dorothy C. Miller's surprising decision not to include his work in the Museum of Modern Art's groundbreaking show of 1943, American Realists and Magic Realists. Criss's oeuvre, especially the mysterious Alma Sewing (Fig. 21), with its dramatic shadows and askew paper doll, seems as if it would have been particularly appropriate for Miller's emphasis in this show on "pictures of sharp focus and precise representation, whether the subject has been observed in the outer world -- realism, or contrived by the imagination -- magic realism." Indeed, a number of his fellow precisionists were featured, including Sheeler, Blume, and Louis Lozowick. Nevertheless, Criss received a letter from Miller informing him that his work "really do[es] not come within the meticulous realistic tradition which will be the subject of our forthcoming exhibition."
A turning point in Criss's career occurred about 1940 when he began to do more commercial work to support himself. Painting less frequently during this period, Criss eventually returned to the fine arts full time in the 1950s. He experimented with Pointillism during the 1960s and also began a series of painted collages based on prismatic juxtapositions of faces cut from photographs and bits of newspaper. During his later years, Criss gathered his thoughts on the subjects of art education and his philosophy of painting, which he referred to as "My Life's Mission." In an essay entitled "N.Y.C. Window -- as an Artist Sees it," Criss referred to "the poet-artist who restructures reality, the...forgotten window...which no one else would have...honored even with a side glance." He concluded that the artist "puts his soul into it, so that now, whoever sees the [work] will get...a glimpse of a deeper...more essential reality." In the finest of his works, Criss achieved a singular synthesis of realism and abstraction that provides a provocative glimpse into a profoundly restructured aesthetic reality.
1 Margaret Breuning, "Art Comment -- Whitney Museum Goes to Town with Americans," New York Post, November 27, 1937, Francis Criss Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (hereafter AAA), roll N70-34, frame 750.
2 Francis Criss, undated autobiographical statement, AAA, roll N70-34, frames 007, 816.
3 Criss's address is listed in First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1932), p. 76. For a history of Astor Place, see Kenneth Jackson, Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 64.
4 Edward Alden Jewell, "Art in Review: Whitney Museum Announces List of Biennial Exhibition Paintings It Has Purchased," New York Times, January 15, 1933.
5 "Whitney Museum Opens Show of 1932 Acquisitions," New York World Telegram, January 14, 1933, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 813.
6 Dorothy Grafly, "The Whitney Museum's Biennial," American Magazine of Art 26 (January 1933): 5.
7 First Biennial, p. 7. This comparison was reinforced by the illustration of Criss's painting in the company of works by Sheeler, O'Keeffe, Wiltz, and Horter in the catalogue.
8 See Gail Stavitsky et al., Precisionism in America, 1915 - 1941: Reordering Reality (New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with The Montclair Art Museum, 1994).
9 Spencer's precisionist works of the early 1930s contain forms that are more cubic and abstract; the surfaces are rougher, with more painterly textures. See Stavitsky, Precisionism in America, pp. 109, 130, 139, and Karal Ann Marling and Wendy Jeffers, Niles Spencer (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art at Equitable, 1990), ills. of Near Avenue A (1933) and Across the Tracks (1934).
10 On Ault and comparable works, see Susan Lubowsky, George Ault (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1988), pp. 12 - 28.
11 Horace Gregory, "An American Show," New Republic, January 11, 1933, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 804. For Blume as a precisionist in the late 1920s, see Stavitsky, Precisionism in America, pp. 16, 21, 24 - 27, 30, 107, 112, 140.
12 Foreword, Francis Criss (New York: Contemporary Arts Gallery, 1933), n.p.
13 "Criss at Contemporary Arts," New York Sun, January 12, 1933, and Thomas C. Linn, "One Man Exhibition by Criss," New York Post, undated clippings, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 802; Carlyle Burrows, "A First One-Man Show by Francis Criss," New York Herald Tribune, January 15, 1933, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 795.
14 "In Gallery and Studio," Philadelphia Inquirer, April 16, 1933, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 795.
16 Weldon Bailey, "At the Art Shows," Philadelphia Record, April 16, 1933, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 796.
17 Stavitsky, Precisionism in America, p. 25. It is not known whether Criss and Davis were well acquainted. According to Mark Rutkoski, co-author of the forthcoming Davis catalogue raisonné, and the artist's son Earl Davis, there is no correspondence between Davis and Criss and there are no mentions of Criss in Davis's appointment books, with the exception of a 1940 visit that the two made to Yasuo Kuniyoshi's studio. Phone conversation with Mark Rutkoski, December 8, 2000. Criss included Davis on his address list for his Art Alliance show of 1953 in Philadelphia. See AAA, roll N70-34, frame 439.
18 See Bruce Weber, Stuart Davis' New York (West Palm Beach, Fla.: The Norton Gallery and School of Art, 1985), and Lowery Sims et al., Stuart Davis: American Painter (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991), pp. 192 - 232, passim.
19 Weldon Bailey, "Younger American Artists Represented at Mellon Gallery," Philadelphia Record, October 14, 1933, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 798. See frame 538 for a picture of Yaddo Farm.
20 See Stavitsky, Precisionism in America, pp. 19 - 30, 81, 110, and Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), pp. 115 - 27, passim.
21 Francis Criss, application for Guggenheim Fellowship, October 26, 1933, copy courtesy of Linda Lichtenberg Kaplan. See also clippings, AAA, roll N70-34, frames 779, 780.
22 John I. H. Baur, Revolution and Tradition in Modern American Art (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1951), p. 61. See also "Gallery Gazer," Phildelphia Record, March 14, 1937, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 742: "Francis Criss, in 'Fete, Florence' turns himself into a gay di [sic] Chirico."
23 See Ilene Susan Fort, "American Social Surrealism," Archives of American Art Journal 22, no. 3 (1982): 15. On de Chirico's influence, see Robert Rosenblum, "De Chirico's Long American Shadow," Art in America 84 (July 1996): 46 - 55. See also Akademie der Kunst, Berlin, Amerika: Traum und Depression, 1920 - 1940 (Berlin: Akademie der Kunst, 1980), p. 283 (Astor Place is reproduced in section on Magic Realism and Social Surrealism).
24 See John Baker, O. Louis Guglielmi: A Retrospective Exhibition (New Brunswick, N.J.: Zimmerli Museum, Rutgers University, 1980), pp. 35, 71 n. 94, for a brief comparison of Criss's and Guglielmi's work as "an amalgamation of precisionism with de Chirico's poetry." Criss's Astor Place is illustrated on p. 35. Nevertheless, Criss is only mentioned in a discussion of Precisionism in Gerrit L. Lansing's dissertation on Guglielmi, "A Neurotic Mirror: The Painting of O. Louis Guglielmi, 1932 - 1943," Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1999, p. 57.
25 Peyton Boswell, Modern American Painting (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1940), p. 62.
26 See Greta Berman, The Lost Years: Mural Painting in New York City under the WPA Federal Art Project, 1935 - 1943 (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1978), pp. 45 - 50.
27 Burgoyne Diller, "Abstract Murals," in Francis V. O'Connor, Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artist and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973), p. 69. For Criss's years of WPA service, see p. 273.
30 Berman, The Lost Years, pp. 161 - 62. See also Greta Berman, "Abstractions for Public Spaces, 1935 - 1943," Arts 56 (June 1982): 83 - 84.
31 See Edward Alden Jewell, "US Painters Open Annual Exhibition. Contemporary Show of 1938 Is Put on Display at the Whitney Museum," New York Times, November 5, 1938, AAA, roll N7-34, frame 736: "Francis Criss sent in an abstract 'City Landscape' that looks oddly like the old Stuart Davis." For a reproduction of this work, which seems to be another version of City Landscape (1934) in the current exhibition, see Martha Davidson, "The Whitney Hardy Perennial," Art News 37 (November 5, 1938): 13. For more on Criss and the Williamsburg project, see "Architectural Painting," Time, June 6, 1938, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 732, also frames 476 - 77. For Criss's notes on City Landscape, painted in 1934 as a WPA easel painting, see the Records of the PWAP, Record Group 121, National Archives, AAA, roll DC112, frame 764: "Bank structure focal point of canvas -- flanked on one side by buildings under construction with garage yard -- on other side by conventionalized pattern of automobiles at curb and tall electrical light pole."
32 Berman, The Lost Years, pp. 161 - 62.
33 See John R. Lane and Susan C. Larsen, Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America, 1927 - 1944 (Pittsburgh: Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1983), pp. 70 - 72 and passim; Barbara Haskell, Burgoyne Diller (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1990), pp. 62 - 65, 68 - 70, 76 - 78; Erika Doss, Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 1 and passim.
34 See "John Reed Club," Philadelphia Ledger, April 15, 1934, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 781. For more on the John Reed Club, see Doss, Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism, p. 113, and David Shapiro, Social Realism: Art as a Weapon (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1973) pp. 18 - 22, 51 - 53, 66 - 67.
35 "Call for the American Artists' Congress," quoted in Matthew Baigell, Artists against War and Fascism: Papers of the First American Artists' Congress (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986), p. 48. For more information, see Susan Noyes Platt, Art and Politics in the 1930s: Modernism, Marxism, Americanism (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1999), pp. 72, 153ff.
36 For the group's goals, see "Our Country's Worth Fighting For," Twelfth Annual Exhibition, An American Group, Inc., January 11 - 30, 1943, n.p., AAA, roll N70-34, frame 379, and foreword, Second Annual Guest Exhibition, 1932, frame 807: "The Second Annual...demonstrates the main principle for which An American Group stands -- the recognition of a distinctive American art and the endeavor to arouse a wider interest in the consciousness of the American public." For reviews of shows in which Criss exhibited, see frames 379, 743, 749, 753, 762, 777, 800, 806, 807.
37 Untitled clipping, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April 12, 1936, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 753.
38 Foreword, Second Annual Guest Exhibition, 1932, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 807. Criss evidently took pride in his American citizenship. Among his papers are a letter from the Passport Division affirming his American citizenship (frame 13) and notes from 1960 - 65 in which he quotes himself: "Be American." For more on Sheeler, his American Interior scenes, and other artists' pervasive quest for national identity, often rooted in a conflation of the modern and the historical or vernacular, see Wanda M. Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915 - 1935 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), pp. 302 - 8.
38 Quoted in One Hundred Contemporary American Jewish Painters and Sculptors, with essay by Louis Lozowick (New York: YKUF Art Section, 1947), p. 42. For more on Criss and the YKUF, see Norman L. Kleeblatt and Susan Chevlowe, eds., Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York 1900 - 1945 (New York: The Jewish Museum, published in cooperation with Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1991) pp. 135 - 42, 165 - 66.
40 Emily Genauer, untitled clipping, World Telegram, April 1936, AAA, roll ND70-34, frame 755. See also "The Art Galleries," New Yorker, November 27, 1937, AAA, roll ND70-34, frame 745, identifying Criss as a surrealist.
41 Holger Cahill, "American Painting, 1865 - 1934," Art in America: A Complete Survey, ed. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and Holger Cahill (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1935), p. 95.
42 Ibid., p. 98.
43 "American Art Today," Art Digest 13 (June 1, 1939): 24.
44 See "Esquire's Art Institute," unidentified clipping, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 704, and Charles Brock's entry on this work in Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1999), pp. 67 - 70. For information on another work from 1939 in the current show, Rhapsody in Steel, see the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Papers, AAA, roll P73, frame 637; Criss identifies the subject as "Museum of Natural History in construction, 77 St., N.Y.C."
45 "The Art Galleries," New Yorker, November 5, 1938, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 732.
46 Dorothy Miller, foreword and acknowledgments, American Realists and Magic Realists (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1943), p. 5. For a discussion of this show in the context of Precisionism, see Stavitsky, Precisionism in America, pp. 30 - 31. It is interesting to note that Criss's Alma Sewing was recently included in a show inspired by Miller's landmark exhibition, Magic Realism: A Selection of Paintings, 1925 - 1998, at the Beth Urdang Gallery, Boston. See Cate McQuaid, "The Magic That Lies beyond Reality," Boston Globe, February 18, 1999, pp. E1, E4.
47 Dorothy C. Miller to Francis Criss, December 18, 1942, AAA, roll N70-34, frame 164.
48 Ibid., frame 45. See also frames 7 - 123.
49 "N.Y.C. Window -- as an Artist Sees It," AAA, roll N70-34, frame 48.
About the Author
Gail Stavitsky is chief curator of the Montclair Art Museum, where, among other exhibitions, she has curated and written catalogue essays on Reordering Reality: Precisionism in America 1915 - 1941 (1994), Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America (1999), and Will Barnet: A Timeless World (2000). She co-curated Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray (2003) and Roy Lichtenstein: American Indian Encounters (2005). Her current project is serving as primary curator for the traveling exhibition and catalogue Cezanne and American Modernism (2009 - 2010).
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 23, 2009, with the permission of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which was granted to TFAO on June 11, 2009.
This essay appeared in the catalogue to the exhibition Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss, which appeared at The Corcoran Gallery of Art August 4 - October 14, 2001; the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville November 8, 2001 - January 27, 2002; and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts February 2 - April 14, 2002. An adaptation of this essay appeared in the March - April 2002 issue of American Art Review.
There are two no. 38 notes (essay text contains one note reference) which appeared in the catalogue.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to the author, Gail Stavitsky; David Brigham of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Sarah Cash and Margaret Morrison of the Corcoran Gallery of Art; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
Other articles and essays by Gail Stavitsky published in Resource Library:
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For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists
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