Labor of LOVE

While union organizer Ralph Fasanella's art struck a chord with common folk, he would never have called himself a folk artist.

March 21, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

"I'm committed to life. But I can't shut myself off from the past. I don't forget yesterday, so I know who I am today. I hang on to what I was yesterday, so I know what I'm going to do tomorrow." - Ralph Fasanella, as quoted by Paul S. D'Ambrosio in his book, Ralph Fasanella's America.

Ralph Fasanella wanted his paintings to speak to people - plain people, working people.

And they do. They all but grab you by the lapels and demand attention. They teem with people and seethe with ideas, restless as the man himself.

He was a city guy, a working man who grew up on the sidewalks of New York, in the Bronx, where he was born, in Little Italy and in Greenwich Village. He drew on his working-class roots throughout his life as an artist.

"Fasanella's art became the visual equivalent of street talk - direct, opinionated, improvisational and passionate," Paul D'Ambrosio says in his introduction to an exhibit of Fasanella's works now at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington.

Fasanella wanted his art to preach social justice and worker solidarity in terms anyone could understand. He struggled to the end of his life to keep his art clear and simple.

"How do I get this all down in a painting for the guy on the street to understand?" he asked, while talking to D'Ambrosio about Ron's Rollin', a painting in the AFL-CIO show that's an acid commentary on the Reagan years. Fasanella was a self-taught painter whose style was deceptively simple. His paintings have an extraordinary depth, complexity and sophistication.

"He always tried to help people learn," D'Ambrosio says during a telephone interview. He knew Fasanella for the last 16 years of his life and recorded conversations with him on reels and reels of tape for his critical biography, Ralph Fasanella's America. D'Ambrosio, chief curator of the Fenimore Art Museum, in Cooperstown, N.Y., has curated another show of Fasanella's paintings at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan through July 14.

"He was one of the most well-read people I've ever met," D'Ambrosio says. "Self-educated. Huge library. He could absorb a book in no time flat. Here's a guy who could read an 800-page book and zero in on the crucial points without any trouble. He had a very agile mind. This is a guy with barely an eighth-grade education."

Fasanella, who died in December 1997, was 8 or 10 when he went to work with his father, Giuseppe, who delivered ice from a horse-drawn wagon, an image that remained in his paintings all his life. He saw in his father's unremitting hard work a secular crucifixion, another constant image in his art.

As an 11-year-old dead-end kid, he did a couple of stints for petty robbery in a bleak reform school called, without irony, the New York Catholic Protectory, which shows up in one of his paintings as a huge coffin. When he was 15, he worked 55-hour weeks in a garment factory for $6 to $8 a week, D'Ambrosio relates.

Fasanella joined the Young Communist League - a "premature anti-fascist," as they used to say in the old neighborhoods - when he was still in his teens. His mother, Ginerva, was even more premature as an early and ardent garment worker union member, socialist and anti-fascist opponent of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. In the 1930s, Fasanella spent 18 months in a transport unit, often under fire, on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War.

In the early 1940s, he became a highly successful organizer for the United Electrical (UE) workers, work he was clearly proud of. At least eight of his paintings depict an organizational meeting in a union hall.

The version in the AFL-CIO show was painted in 1982, 40 years after the campaign that was a lifelong inspiration for him: the unionization of the Sperry Gyroscope Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"Fasanella would often paint an organizing meeting when he needed an emotional lift," says Patricia Westwater, curator of the AFL-CIO show, in her caption to the picture.

The scene is simple: A woman behind a desk speaks to two rows of union organizers. A sign on the wall warns "No Big Shots Wanted." And a kind of frieze along the top of the picture shows workers at their apartment windows.

Fasanella, who had been painting since 1945, emerged from relative obscurity in 1977 when New York magazine called him "the greatest primitive painter since Grandma Moses."

He was thrilled to be "discovered." And he liked Grandma Moses' paintings when he finally saw them. But he really disliked the label "primitive."

"Oh, he hated it. He absolutely hated it," D'Ambrosio says. "It just did not apply, even in its most humanistic sense. He could not even be considered naive, let alone primitive."

He was even uncomfortable being called a folk artist, D'Ambrosio says.

"That may not be a term that has any meaning with regard to Ralph," he says. "Because his influences and his close friendships were in the fine art world, beginning in the '40s and continuing."

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