Walter Quirt Retrospective 1980 Foreword
The Stock Market crash of 1929 ushered in a decade of worldwide economic, political, and social crisis.American art of the 1930s was profoundly affected by these circumstances ' however, aside from this, there were indications that American art was entering a new phase. Even during the twenties there was already a discernible nationalistic tendency among American artists of varying persuasions, perhaps as a defensive reaction against the increasing dominance in the art world of what was thought of as ''European modernism." A growth of interest in American subject and experience is evident as are efforts to define an American style from among such varied sources as the older ''modernists" and the Regionalists. This self consciousness concerning the role of art in modern society and, especially, in American life, went beyond the rote of producing works in the standard mode. It may have been a hangover from or a belated recognition of the Ashcan School at the beginning of the century, but it emerges now in a more general and inclusive context. Along with this search for an indigenous art expressive of the American character went a search, as part of a democratization of culture, for a new and wider audience,
It seems a curious historic accident that the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Siqueiros, who had helped create a revolutionary public art in Mexico in the early 1920s, should be active in the United States in the late twenties and early thirties, feeding an already incipient tendency toward mural painting in this country. Their presence and example increased the status and appeal of a communicative public art.
With the deepening depression, which brought with it increased unemployment, social dislocation, and poverty, the American artist, like his compatriots, was forced to reexamine the very fundamentals of existence, as well as his own role in this fabric. The growing threat of fascism on the international scene heightened the sense of crisis and urgency. The choice among fascism, communism, or capitalism seemed imminent. "Which side are you on?" asked a radical song of those days, and many artists chose sides. Walter Quirt chose the radical side. Coming from the agricultural and rural West, Quirt brought with him, as did Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood earlier, and Jackson Pollock and Joe Jones later, a native and populist element that changed the profile of American art. There was a new awareness of American themes, a need to confront fundamental issues, a desire to speak a common language.
The United States government's support of the arts, at first as a purely welfare measure beginning in 1933, did much to foster these new tendencies through the Public Works of Art Project and then the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, The very nature of the projects predicated a public, communicative, and nationalistic art, On the other hand, the employment of the artist offered many the kind of security and freedom for self ‑development they had never had before. Regular employment within a bureaucratic structure led to the union organization of artists as workers for the first time.
Thus the politicizing of the American artists on domestic as well as foreign issues increased in intensity. Artists were forced willy‑nilly into political situations and activities‑some, like Stuart Davis, into the Artists Union and others, like his friend Walter Quirt, into the John Reed Club. All of them had to reconcile their attitudes with their art, theory with practice. It was not easy to reconcile political activism with painting nudes or abstractions, nor was it any easier to find adequate aesthetic expression for social themes. This was the dilemma of the artist of that time, and it is within the context of these political, social, and aesthetic pressures that Walter Quirt's evolution as an artist is to be seen. This is equally true of his contemporaries, each of whom, in his own way, sought a personal resolution, and the sum of those solutions became the basis for the art of the forties and fifties.
The details of Quirt's artistic development from social realism to surrealism and beyond are treated extensively in the catalogue essay, but I cannot leave him here without some comment on his historical position. Quirt belongs to a small group of artists who are doubtless worthy of recall, rediscovery, and study in their own right‑artists of talent, intellect, and even aesthetic acumen who nonetheless seem somehow to fall short of important historical achievement and significance. In Quirt's case it is clear that he was a figure of some stature, both politically and artistically, in the New York art world of the thirties. He assumed intellectual leadership in the John Reed Club, was active in the formulation of social realism as a weapon in the class struggle, and was a social‑realist painter of undeniable talent. He was one of the early American converts to surrealism, and his pioneering effort to transform it into social surrealism seemed a daring and original conception at the time. Because of his status among radical artists, Quirt's conversion to surrealism created a temporary disturbance on the artistic left, but it eventually had a more profoundly unsettling effect upon his own art. Seen in retrospect, it is obvious that Quirt never fulfilled himself as a social‑realist and that, furthermore, he never managed to reconcile his social theories with surrealist aesthetics. All of his subsequent theoretical disquisitions were attempts at rationalizing the irreconcilable, Quirt's original social commitment kept him from finding that personal liberation in surrealism that later led Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock into a new artistic realm. However, the fact that he missed his historic connections should not blind us to the vital and creative part he played in the drama of his time,
Milton W. Brown Resident Professor, Graduate School City University of New York August 1979