A few weeks ago I spoke to a class of 12th-graders in a Brooklyn public school about what it’s like to be a journalist. The students were curious about whether my life had ever been endangered while reporting a story (no), whether anyone had ever gotten angry with me for asking unwelcome questions (yes), and whether any journalists have become rich and famous (yes, but not often those who ask unwelcome questions). They were especially interested in the idea of telling stories with images, not words. One, an adept at Instagram, had never heard of photojournalism, and was intrigued. Two other students said they were into painting and drawing, but I somehow didn’t think to tell them that some of the most exciting and subversive American journalism has taken the form of illustration. Had I visited the Queens Museum’s current exhibit of drawings by William Gropper before my classroom talk, I wouldn’t have made that mistake.
Once renowned and now largely forgotten, Gropper’s work offers a lasting lesson in how useful pencils and paintbrushes can be in the fight against the exploitation of the many for the profit and amusement of the few. The first career-spanning exhibit on Gropper since the early 1980s, “Bearing Witness: Drawings of William Gropper” (through July 31) presents 70 drawings and two paintings from a private collection, together comprising a considerable, if by no means exhaustive, survey of his half-century-long career. Staking a claim to contemporary relevance, an introductory panel promises visitors that Gropper’s work “addresses issues of political hypocrisy, surveillance and censorship, genocide and immigration that resonate with the current sociopolitical climate.”
And it does. But the presentation of that work is not as useful as it might have been. The exhibit would not be possible, the introductory panel says, without “the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.” That serves, in effect, as a trigger warning: The reputation of a radical and prophetic artist, once hounded out of work by the forces of reaction, is being restored at just the moment when the political faith he subscribed to has come back into vogue. Here, and not only here, it is watered down in the process. “Human rights” appears several times, while “socialism,” a word and philosophy that Gropper was proud of, is nowhere to be found. One panel refers without elaboration to his “lifelong interest in the failure of democracy.” Asked how she went about presenting Gropper’s radical politics in a way that would be accessible for a general audience, the exhibit’s curator told me it required “walking a fine line in terms of celebrating somebody who did cross all of the lines.”
* * *
Gropper was born to a pair of immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side in 1897. His father, Harry, had studied in several European universities and learned eight languages before immigrating to New York and finding little to do with his learning. He finally got work in a garment factory, where he met Jenny Nidel, also a new arrival. “The sweatshop gave us our livelihood but robbed us of our mother,” Gropper later recalled. (He once said that unlike Whistler, who famously depicted his mother as a solemn and dignified stoic, he would have painted his own as bending over a bathtub or a sewing machine.) Gropper spent his childhood getting pummeled by various gangs and drawing sidewalk pictures of cowboys and Indians that wrapped around the block. In 1911, a favorite aunt perished along with 145 other workers, most of them young Jewish women, in the devastating fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village. To say, as the museum does, that Gropper “was exposed to the rigors of the working class at a young age,” severely understates the point.