The Graphic Arts division of the California Works Progress Administration-Federal Art Project (WPA-FAP) opened in 1936. It was the second largest project after New York, producing about thirteen hundred prints, and was organized in a less structured manner. It appears that the artists worked in segments, often working six weeks for the WPA and six weeks for themselves. Ray Bertrand, the lead printer for the project, developed a special lithographic paper transfer paper so the artists from around the state of California could send their work through the mail for proving and printing, thereby eliminating the need to “report in” and making it possible for more artists to participate. The California WPA-FAP prints were usually not stamped, though some were embossed with the California Federal Art Project blindstamp in the margin. Virtually all the Northern California prints are printed on ivory Warren’s Oldestyle wove paper that was provided by the government. After the project ended in the early 1940s the unused paper was sold to the students at the San Francisco Art Institute who were studying under the G.I. Bill.
In the late 1930s the Berkeley Public Library began a lending program so that patrons with a library card could check out their WPA prints. The program was successful, with little theft or damage, and other libraries became interested. The program was shut down by the Federal Government since it opposed the directives of the WPA-FAP, which stated that the art be used only for “public” display.
The works by California printmakers, although under no restrictions regarding content, tended to be “American Scene,” rural and landscape in subject and “Modernist” in approach, often using San Francisco as a subject.
There were twenty California printmakers who were part of a unique experiment in distribution. In 1940, as the WPA-FAP began to wind down and Americans were wondering if or when the country might be embroiled in another World War, the San Francisco Chronicle launched a project aimed at continuing the work began by the WPA-FAP. Under the direction of Arthur C. Painter (1911-1980), the Director of Information for the Federal Art Project in San Francisco, the Chronicle Contemporary Graphics was founded as “a plan to bring western art to the western public.” This effort was based on the successful subscription print publishing groups of the 1930s, such as Associated American Artists (AAA) and the American Artists Group.
The concept of Contemporary Graphics was to offer original prints to the general public for a modest price, in this case $2.00 apiece. The San Francisco Chronicle promoted twenty signed original prints, which could be purchased throughout San Francisco at the Chronicle‘s first floor offices, City of Paris, O’Connor-Moffatt, Paul Elder, Schwabacher-Frey, and Gumps. These works of art were offered in groups of five on Sundays throughout March 1940. The Sunday promotions offered biographies on the artists, as well as a discussion on each original print.
On Sunday, March 10, 1940, the first series of Contemporary Graphics was offered by the San Francisco Chronicle in a full-page spread. The first five prints were lithographs by Herman Volz, George Gaethke, Ray Bertrand, Reuben Kadish, and Arthur Murphy.
The promotion continued the following Sunday, March 17, 1940, offering lithographs by Glenn Wessels, Sargent Johnson, A. Ray Burrell, Beckford Young, and Theodore Polos. The article included this paragraph:
The Chronicle believes that the average Western home would contain examples of the work of contemporary artists were it possible for the average man to buy works of art. Many homes contain reproductions of one kind or another, but reproductions are not as satisfactory as originals, and neither do they as a rule supply the artist with money for rent and groceries.
The third series of Contemporary Graphics was offered on Sunday, March 24, 1940. Presented were lithographs by artists Dong Kingman, Shirley Staschen, Clay Spohn, Edgar Dorsey Taylor, and George Harris. The article included these words:
The Chronicle is making these hand-pulled, signed prints available to the public at $2 each because we believe that the average Western home will contain original works of art if originals are brought within the price range of the general public. It is the aim of Contemporary Graphics, through the co-operative efforts of a group of Western artists, to bring the artist and the general public together to their mutual advantage.
On Sunday, March 31, 1940, the fourth series, which included four lithographs and a linocut was presented to the public. Artists in what proved to be the final series were Otis Oldfield, Benjamin Cunningham, Mallette Dean, John Haley, and Erle Loran. The promotion included this paragraph:
Another outstanding feature about Contemporary Graphics prints is that they are handpulled, and are limited to editions of 150, of which but 140 are offered for sale. Ordinarily such editions are available only to museums and to collectors of more than average means, at prices ranging from $15. to $35.
Despite the fact that the project was incredibly well advertised, the project was a total failure with only a few prints sold. Promotions for the series of graphics continued in the Chronicle on April 2 and April 3 but the project was abandoned. Many of these artists had influential roles in the Abstract Expressionist, Formalist Abstraction, and Bay Area Figurative schools of the post war 1940s and 1950s. All of these works are valued at substantially more than $35. in today’s art market.
Our next post will feature prints from the Northern California WPA.