I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum, where the forgotten Williamsburg Murals are on display in the building cafe. Jazz-like rhythms echoed through the hallway as I shared an intimate moment focusing on the details of each painting. The most interesting thing about them is their historical context. They’ve been through a lot.
These abstract murals were originally installed in low income housing and are believed to be the first of their kind in a public setting. They helped expose abstract art to the public during a time when it wasn’t as accepted as it is today. What makes them so interesting is that their original home at the Williamsburg Houses eventually led to their disappearance due to years of neglect.
In 1936, the United States was picking up from the Great Depression and with that came the New Deal, giving rise to the Federal Art Project (F.A.P). Burgoyne Diller, the head of the Murals Division of F.A.P was an abstract artist. He took time off from making art to focus on plans to decorate the social rooms in the Williamsburg Houses located among other places in Brooklyn, on Leonard Street, Humboldt Street and Manhattan Avenue.
Burgoyne Diller’s aim was to make non-objective modernistic art more accessible to the public. Diller was tired of seeing the same narrative paintings and social realistic art that often decorated American homes. Commissioning abstract paintings to “provide a place of relaxation and entertainment for the tenants” was a radical move.
However as time passed residents lost interest in them and eventually they were painted over. In 1975 Nancy Troy, a graduate student at Yale University searched for the Williamsburg murals. She eventually discovered two Paul Kelpe panels located in the basement.
By 1984, New York City Housing Authority employees found more murals, either painted over with layers upon layers of paint, or covered in rubber cement to be used as a bulletin board. The Housing Authority was awarded a $300,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to conserve the murals. Using electric chisels, technicians sliced the canvas backed murals off the walls. They also used various chemical solvents to separate the grime and layers of paint off the original surface. The process was very hard because each color demanded unique treatment including the use of heat or dry ice. In the end the effort paid off and the murals were ready for the opening reception at their new home at the Brooklyn Museum.
Today the murals still serve their purpose of relaxation amid the clanging of dishes in the café and murmurs from visitors. If you have lived in North Brooklyn this is probably something you want to check out. Some current residents are proud that this was a part of their neighborhood’s rich history.