Ralph Fasanella

 

FASANELLA, RALPH
(1914–1997)
was a self-taught painter whose body of work is one of the most compelling artistic critiques of post-World War II America. His paintings—bold, colorful, and loadedwith detail yet unified in composition—speak powerfully of a distinct working-class identity and culture, and of the dignity of labor. They capture the past and expresshope for the future.Fasanella had an artistic vision inspired by a working life. A child of Italian immigrants, he was born in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and spent his youth deliveringice with his father while enduring the harsh regimen of a Catholic reform school. During the Great Depression, Fasanella worked in garment factories and as a truck driver. From his mother—a literate, sensitive, and progressive woman—Fasanella acquired a social conscience. Through her influence he became active in antifascistand trade union causes. Fasanella’s political beliefs were radicalized by the Depression. His antifascist zeal led him to volunteer for duty in the International Brigadesfighting fascism in Spain, where he served from 1937 to 1938. Upon his return to New York City, Fasanella became an organizer for various unions, particularly theUnited Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, with whom he achieved some major organizing successes.In 1945, disillusioned by the labor movement and plagued by a painful sensation in his fingers, Fasanella started to draw; the result was an immediate outpouring of creative energy. Fasanella left organizing and began to paint full-time. He painted obsessively, capturing the vibrant moods of the city and the tumult of American politics. For a brief time he received some critical notice for his work, and had shows of his work in galleries as well as union halls. Soon after he began to paint,Fasanella mastered a style that allowed him to communicate visually with workers. He captured a profusion of familiar details, boldly showed interiors and exteriorssimultaneously, and combined past and future. Fasanella’s art became the visual equivalent of street talk: direct, opinionated, improvisational, and passionate. The wayFasanella painted, with bright colors and bold, sweeping compositions, appeals to viewers ordinarily unaccustomed to looking at art. In his work, they see their ownlives. Fasanella’s method of populating his paintings with likenesses of family and friends gives the work real familiarity and affection, and captures a universality of experience.In 1950 Fasanella married Eva Lazorek, a school-teacher, who supported the couple through more than two decades of artistic obscurity and blacklisting by theFBI. In the 1950s Fasanella retreated from political content in his works out of fear of reprisals. With the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s, however, his works became large, sharply focused political essays using images from the popular media. In 1972 Fasanella was featured in
New York Magazine
and in an illustrated book,
Fasanella’s City
. His large-scale, intricate paintings of urban life and American politics were then introduced to art critics and the public.In the late 1970s Fasanella spent two years in Lawrence, Massachusetts, researching the 1912 Bread and Roses strike. The result was a series of eighteen paintingsdepicting the life of the mill town’s diverse immigrant population as well as the events of the strike. The Lawrence series represents one of the largest and mostsignificant bodies of historical painting by any American self-taught artist. In the 1980s and 1990s Fasanella mostly painted scenes that refined familiar subjects, such asurban neighborhoods, baseball, and labor strikes. He also worked with Ron Carver, a labor organizer, to place his works on public view through the Public DomainProject, which was initiated in 1987 to purchase works from private collections and donate them to institutions or municipalities. In 2001 Fasanella was the subject of acomprehensive book and retrospective exhibition, “Ralph Fasanella’s America,” at the New York State Historical Association.Fasanella died on December 16, 1997. His epitaph reads simply: “Remember who you are. Remember where you came from. Change the world.”
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Carroll, Peter. “Ralph Fasanella Limns the Story of the Workingman.”
Smithsonian,
vol. 24 (August 1993): 58–69.D’Ambrosio, Paul S.
Ralph Fasanella’s America.
Cooperstown, N.Y., 2001. ——. “Ralph Fasanella: The Making of a Working-Class Artist.”
Folk Art,
vol. 20 (summer 1995): 26–33.Watson, Patrick.
Fasanella’s City.
New York, 1972