Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ralph Fasanella: Comrade in Arts

Marc's "Lucky Corner"

I may paint flat, but I don't think flat."
                        Ralph Fasanella

The Art World is capricious.

Ralph Fasanella was a painter of canvases he did not want hung in galleries or private drawing rooms, which may be why so many ended up in just such places.

What the artist wants, the artist rarely gets, although Fasanella's story had a happier ending than most.

The irony is hard to escape when Leslie Umberger, curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum writes, “Fasanella's large, colorful paintings reflect the struggles of a tumultuous era. They were not meant to be rarified works of fine art, but rather a practical means of conveying messages about right and wrong, raising consciousness, and inspiring solidarity among his working class peers.”

Umberger wrote the above in her monograph for the Smithsonian's 2014 exposition of Fasanella's work. “Rarified” air no matter how down-home the presentation.

She noted that Fasanella, “used art as a weapon in an ongoing battle for social justice.”

Gallery show or not, the painter would have been pleased his canvases had raised such a discussion in a place so removed from the source of their inspiration.

Ralph Fasanella was born in the Bronx on April 20, 1914 and raised in Manhattan's West Village. His education did not go beyond the eighth grade. He worked when possible to help his family during the Depression and did time in a juvenile detention center over a bit of petty thievery.

As Al Pacino once said, “I don't need bodyguards. I grew up in the South Bronx.”

Fasanella's immigrant parents, Ginevra – who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory – and “Joe” (Giuseppe), split over his mother's affair with an anarchist organizer or her strident radicalism generally or some combination of the two.

Young Fasanella went radical himself in the 1930s, signing on with the Young Communist League and eventually joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to fight in Spain in favor of the ill-fated Spanish Republic.

According the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, Raffaele Fasanello joined the Communist Party in 1935. He sailed for Spain on the Ile de France on Feb. 20, 1937 and arrived in Iberia 11 days later. He served in a “train regiment” and deserted on a British freighter by way of Oran, Algeria, finally getting home in July 1938 aboard The Huntress.

His union work included stints with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Bookkeepers and Stenographers Union and the militantly leftist United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America – the “UE” – among others.

As the Red scare took hold of American life in the mid-1940s, Fasanella was blacklisted and finding work became difficult. His health also took a hit. To combat a pain in his hands, Ralph began sketching.

A painter was born.

Writes Umberger: “He took to painting, believing from the time he began that art was an extension of his activism – not an activity of upper class leisure or intellectualism. As an added benefit, he could distill the memories of his life through painting and attempt to strike a balance between the dichotomies of tradition and change.”

Which is to say a dialectic between a fondness for certain old ways, and a vision of progress that might destroy them, roiled inside the artist.

Umberger observed that Fasanella was open to a diverse number of settings for his paintings. “He was more comfortable putting them on view in union halls and meeting rooms, knowing that this was where his target audience would really see them.”

In 1985, Nick Salvatore, associate professor, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, wrote an essay, “Ralph Fasanella: Worker, Activist, Artist,” in which he observed, “What structures his paintings, what connects the political and cultural images in his art, and what, not insignificantly separates Fasanella from those who would speak of the disappearance of the working class is precisely his understanding of labor as the central experience for workers and their communities.”

Which is to say he knew the fact of work was a primary feature of most people's lives.

When granted the Vito Marcantonio Award during a 1997 conference on “The Lost World of Italian Radicalism,” convened by an earlier iteration of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, Fasanella told “The New York Times” that, “You don't have the right to be neurotic if you're a worker. You got to step up to the plate every day.”

Fasanella took as long as 20 years to develop some paintings.

Before he crafted the 18 works making up his "Bread and Roses" cycle, he spent three turns of the calendar in Lawrence, Mass., walking the streets where the famed labor action unfolded, hanging around coffee shops, reading voraciously on union history.

He researched his paintings as a writer would a book, viewing them as touchstones for storytelling rather than single moments frozen in frame.

Expressions such as “primitive” or “childlike quality” have been used to describe a body of work usually quite serious in focus.

“Somebody once said I was primitive. How can I be primitive in an industrial society?” Fasanella said to the “Christian Science Monitor” in 1989.

After a hardscrabble existence pumping gas in the Bronx, which he ennobled through his purposeful artistic pursuit, Fasanella the painter enjoyed a breakout decade in the 1970s. A suddenly interested media got it right in presenting him as the socially engaged New York artist he was.

Fasanella's work became prized and the paintings he intended for public consumption, for imparting messages of community and solidarity among working-class people, were being absorbed into the private collections of not working-class people.

Thanks to an effort at buying them back with the union movement's help, a goodly portion of Fasanella's ouevre is available today for universal enjoyment.

The campaign was called “Public Domain” and it featured a UE official, Ron Carver, who made tracking down the paintings a personal mission.

When a “Bread and Roses” edition fetched a price Fasanella couldn't refuse, the painter gave Carver a year to match it. The project had an advisory board spangled with the likes of author Studs Terkel, former New York mayor John Lindsay, folk singer Pete Seeger, actors Ed Asner and Ruby Dee, and enough union leaders to send the Chamber of Commerce running for the hills.

Notable among the recuperations are an installment from the “Bread and Roses” series in Lawrence (Heritage Park Visitors Center) and “Subway Riders,” which is ensconced in a protective casing at the MTA Lexington Ave./53rd Street station.
From the "Bread and Roses" cycle. 

Where a painting was returned to a public space, Fasanella showed up to talk in the corresponding locale's schools and union halls about the message behind his slogan, “Lest We Forget,” a reminder of the sacrifices made by fighting workers.

Like a William Morris or a Charles Dickens lecturing to workingmen's associations in Victoria's England, Fasanella followed his art with the word it was meant to spread.

He told the “Christian Science Monitor” that the America he lived in was one where “generosity and fellow-feeling are often overshadowed by acquisitiveness and greed.”

Wrote Salvatore, “His paintings remain an eloquent testimony to the political and cultural vitality of working-class life, even in an era of homogenization.”

Art critic Alfred Frankenstein wrote in the Coe Kerr Gallery notes for a 1974 Fasanella show that, “A new master is added to the list of modern Americans. When the history of these times comes to be written, if those who write it have sense enough to search out its visual image, the paintings of Fasanella will take a major place.”

The painter considered Vito Marcantonio to be one of his personal heroes along with labor firebrand John L. Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fiorello La Guardia and Longshoremen's organizer Harry Bridges.

“These heroes,” he said, “stayed in my life because without heroes that have integrity and a pair of balls I would never have made it this far.”

Marcantonio, Fasanella told Washington University researchers, “was a fighter. A little short guy and he'd get up and talk. He had a way with working people and they loved him because he had a sense of humor. Every now and then he'd throw out a word in Italian, he'd throw out a word in Jewish. He understood the the Irish politician. If anyone was hated at that time in New York City, it was Tammany Hall.”

Fasanella produced “The Lucky Corner,” (pictured at top) capturing the street-bound nature of Marc's political life and “Death of a Hero,” which depicted the grief of East Harlem at his funeral.

A lifelong communist, he ran for the Yorkville city council seat on the American Labor Party ticket in 1949, the year Marc ran for Mayor of Gotham. He pulled in 9 percent of the vote.

He named his only son after Marcantonio.

Fasanella was a part of the life and times of Vito Marcantonio. He turned his skill to generating evocative images of the world in which the radical congressman labored; blessings to those who would care later.

A complete treatment of Fasanella's life can be found in Author Paul D'Ambrosio's "Ralph Fasanella in America."


  1. Adore Fasanella and his work--an amazing artist and person. He reminds me so much of my father Pete Pascale--the same speech pattern and manner and the same dedication to ideals--they were born on the same day Sept. 2nd and both died in 1997
    LuLu LoLo Pascale

  2. There is a definitive biography on Fasanella that I wrote in 2001. Here's the link:

  3. Thanks for reading Paul. I linked to your book in the text. Regards, Stephen Siciliano