Ralph Fasanella (1914–1997), a self-taught artist who celebrated and fought for working people through works that also tackled complex issues of postwar America, will be the subject of an exhibition on view at the American Folk Art Museum from September 2 through November 30, 2014. Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget, organized in honor of the artist’s centenary by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, brings together 17 of his most significant large-scale paintings, six of which were donated to the American Folk Art Museum by the Estate of Ralph Fasanella. A selection of relevant drawings, sketches, photographs, and other archival material, will also be on view.
“Ralph Fasanella was a consummate New Yorker and a self-taught artist who represented the very best of American ideals in his work,” commented Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Executive Director of the American Folk Art Museum. “He cared about people who did not have a voice, so he gave them a voice through his paintings.”
Several paintings that reveal Fasanella’s abiding concern for working people and their struggles, as well as his patriotic belief in the ideals of American democratic—and diverse—society will be on view. These include: McCarthy Press (1958); American Tragedy (1963); American Heritage (1974); Watergate (1976); Iceman Crucified #4 (1958), a tribute to his father; and Modern Times (1966), a painting in which the artist champions humanistic values in an increasingly technological modern world. An elaborate, detailed panorama titled New York City (1957) is also a highlight.
The son of Italian immigrants, Ralph Fasanella was born in the Bronx in 1914 and grew up in the working class neighborhoods of New York City. He labored with his father delivering ice in the years before refrigerators were staples of American homes. His mother worked in New York’s garment industry. A strenuous and demanding form of work, delivering ice profoundly affected Fasanella’s beliefs as well as his art. In 1937, at age 23, he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War. After returning to New York he worked as a union organizer.
Fasanella later worked as a truck driver and gas station attendant (and owner), among other jobs. He began to draw and paint at home in the evenings. A self-taught artist, he was inspired by Greek sculpture and by the English visionary artist, William Blake (1757-1827). As early as 1947, his work was exhibited alongside the most important social realist painters of the day, including Philip Evergood (1901-1973) and Ben Shahn (1898-1969). By the 1970s he had gained national recognition and soon devoted all of his energies to making art. He developed a reputation for large-scale depictions of New York City’s streets, portraying baseball games, political campaigns, strikes, factories, union halls, and, occasionally, scenes of leisure. In addition to drawing and painting, the artist began his lifelong practice of carrying a sketchbook with him.
A tireless advocate for workers’ rights, Fasanella created artworks as teaching tools, rallying cries, and memorial documents. He felt so strongly about the need to remember the sacrifices of previous generations that he inscribed the phrase “Lest We Forget” on several of his paintings.
Dr. Valerie Rousseau, curator, art of the self-taught and art brut at the American Folk Art Museum, and the coordinating curator for the exhibition’s presentation in New York City, noted: “There is a deep public and social component at the origin of Fasanella’s artistic vision. He wished for his paintings to be seen by workers on the walls of large union halls and speak to the masses in community gathering places. The formulation of his ideas and his contributions recall Diego Rivera’s murals and ambitions.”