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Block Art Museum celebrates radical art

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The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade, 1929-1940 is on view at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University through June 22, 2014. The exhibition is co-curated by John Murphy and Jill Bugajski, doctoral students in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University. The Block is located on Northwestern’s main campus in Evanston at 40 Arts Circle Drive. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. till 5 p.m., with extended hours till 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. The exhibition celebrates the American progressive art movement in general and its Chicago presence in particular. The take-away for the exhibition is in the form of a tabloid-sized newspaper, creating a link back to the progressive art movement of the 1930s in general and Chicago John Reed Club’s journal The Left Front (the exhibition’s namesake) in particular. The exhibition draws predominantly on the museum’s collection, augmented with loans from private collectors as well as area museums, including the Chicago Art Institute and the Jane Adams Hull House Museum.

The take-away devotes a page to the 1932 draft manifesto of the John Reed Club of New York, explores Soviet-American relations in the visual arts, discusses the notion of “art for the masses”, examines the importance of the Biro-Bidjan portfolio, and takes a closer look at the Hull-House settlement community and the leftist artists affiliated with it. The take-away also devotes space to discussion of the importance of specific artists, including Boris Gorelick, William Gropper, Stuart Davies, Mable Dwight, and Rockwell Kent.

While the exhibition is impressive and affords a nice look at the progressive art movement of the 1930’s, the narrow focus on the John Reed Club (JRC) and its successor the American Artist’s Congress (AAC) without fully exploring the link between these progressive artist groups and the art projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in general and the WPA Graphic Section in particular represents a missed opportunity, especially in light of the fact that many of the artists who were members of JRC and AAC were also WPA Graphic Section artists, and thus on the federal payroll.

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