Reviews

Ralph Fasanella at Smithsonian American Art Museum

Washington, D.C.

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Ralph Fasanella, Pie in the Sky, 1947, oil on canvas, 46" x 38". GAVIN ASHWORTH/©ESTATE OF RALPH FASANELLA/AMERICAN FOLK ART MUSEUM, NEW YORK, GIFT OF EVA FASANELLA AND HER CHILDREN, GINA MOSTRANDO AND MARC FASANELLA

Ralph Fasanella, Pie in the Sky, 1947, oil on canvas, 46" x 38".

GAVIN ASHWORTH/©ESTATE OF RALPH FASANELLA/AMERICAN FOLK ART MUSEUM, NEW YORK, GIFT OF EVA FASANELLA AND HER CHILDREN, GINA MOSTRANDO AND MARC FASANELLA

his show effectively summarized the work of Ralph Fasanella (1914–1997), whose paintings trace the struggles of the American working class. In Pie in the Sky (1947), two tenement buildings, rendered in skewed perspective, flank a church spire. Through windows and cross-sections, we can see into the apartments; laundry lines decorate the rooftops, and men in the street below play stickball. The spire points to the “pie”: heaven, which is rendered as a tract house next to a graveyard. For the artist, the postwar promise of a suburban paradise represented as much of a distraction from real-life problems as did Christian eschatology.

Fasanella, who was self-taught, adopted a nonconventional mode of figuration for his fiercely political art, as in Meeting at the Commons: Lawrence 1912 (1977), from a cycle documenting the trailblazing Bread and Roses strike by Massachusetts textile workers. But if the picture has some characteristics of Art Brut, it is because he considered abstraction too sterile and social realism too literal to achieve his populist, near-cinematic storytelling ambitions. The show’s title, “Lest We Forget,” taken from a motto that appears in several paintings, urges us to remember the struggles of our forebears for justice in the workplace. It couldn’t be more relevant today as hostile courts and legislatures batter the foundations of collective bargaining.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 107.

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