The Neglected Abstract Masterpieces of the Williamsburg Houses
For years brilliant avant-guarde murals lay hidden inside a local housing project, but thanks to an intrepid art history detective they were rediscovered and everyone today can enjoy their genius. It is a local story worth recounting. In 1936, America was suffering the effects of the Great Depression. No one was harder hit by the depression than artists who watched the market for their work shrivel and completely dry up, but Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal offered artists a lifeline.
Their art would be used to beautify the massive building campaign that was at the heart of Roosevelt’s recovery plan, called the Works Progress Administration or WPA. One of the buildings that artists would beautify would be the Williamsburg Houses (164 Ten Eyck St.), which contain 20 buildings in an area around Leonard and Scholes streets. The chief architect of the project was Richmond Shreve, and the design team of nine other architects was led by the pioneering Swiss-American modernist William Lescaze, whose Philadelphia Saving Fund Society building of 1928-32 was one of the first major International Style buildings in the United States.
The design of the buildings was bold, daring and futuristic for the time and the design team wanted to decorate the interior of the complex with art that was equally bold. The four-story houses Lescaze designed included basement community rooms decorated with murals in “abstract and stimulating patterns” designed to aid relaxation.
The Federal Art Project (FAP) commissioned a series of murals, to be painted in the community rooms at the Williamsburg Houses. The head of the New York Murals of the FAP division in 1937 was Burgoyne Diller, who bravely decided to commission a series of abstract murals from avant-garde, relatively unknown artists. Abstract paintings, like those in the murals, were hard for the general public to appreciate. The artists who painted murals in the Williamsburg Houses eventually won recognition as giants in the field of abstract painting. The painters were Paul Kelpe (1902-85), Ilya Bolotowsky (1907-81), Balcomb Greene (1904-90), and Albert Swinden (1901-61). Diller, an abstract artist himself, put his own art career on hold in order to promote the abstract style in murals before it was accepted in the United States. Diller faced criticism and had to justify every abstract mural he placed in the houses, but he won and the art was installed.
Over the years, the murals became neglected and forgotten. In the mid-70s, as an undergraduate student in art history, Nancy Troy learned of the Williamsburg Murals while interning at the Guggenheim Museum with Louise Svendsen, who was curating a Bolotowsky exhibition. Ms. Troy researched the artist’s files and clippings to create the chronology for the catalog and her curiosity was aroused.
What had become of the Williamsburg murals? Later, as a graduate student at Yale University, she discovered more information about the murals in the archives of the American Art, and at the Museum of National Art in Washington D.C. She wrote her Master’s thesis on the Williamsburg Murals. Searching for them in the mid-1980s, she serendipitously discovered two Paul Kelpe panels in a basement room at Williamsburg Houses. Hardly anyone remembered the paintings. Some murals had been painted over; others had just fallen into neglect. Still others were found painted over and covered by layers of paint.
After a painstaking restoration, the murals were returned to public view at the Brooklyn Museum. They now hang in the museum on long-term loan from the New York City Housing Authority. Today the murals are admired by thousands of visitors and would fetch tens of thousands of dollars were they ever to be sold at auction. It is hard to imagine that such great art could be forgotten or even worse, painted over, but thanks to the detective work of a smitten graduate student, we can all enjoy these unique canvases.