Leon Bibel: Art, Activism, and the WPA

Thursday, September 19 to Monday, November 11, 2013,
Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature

Leon Bibel: Art, and Activism and the WPA will be on view from September 19 through November 11, 2013, in the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature, University of Richmond Museums. American artist Leon Bibel (1913-1995) created a prolific body of work during the Great Depression era. The exhibition, featuring paintings, prints, and drawings, makes apparent the principal themes of Bibel’s work: the social ills of racism, poverty, unemployment, and war; the necessity of protest; and the shared humanity of the common worker.

Bibel emigrated with his family from Poland to America as a child, settling in California. He studied art at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, and worked as an assistant to Bernard Zakheim, a student of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Bibel moved to New York in 1936 to participate in the Federal Art Project (FAP), a program of the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Artists involved in the FAP were paid to create posters, murals, and paintings for non-federal government buildings such as schools, hospitals, and libraries.

Featured in the exhibition is Bibel’s 1937 painting The Lynching which confronts issues of racism and violence. The painting’s composition is divided by a massive central tree, separating the two horrified witnesses from the harsh, angular figures of the KKK and the limp victim.  This work exemplifies Bibel’s sensitive and robust observations of humanity and inhumanity, as well as justice and injustice. The lithograph Unemployed Marchers (1938), depicts widespread suffering from persistent unemployment. In this work Bibel used compositional rhythms to intensify emotional power, building the curves of the marchers’ backs into the larger curve of the massed group. In addition to artworks, the exhibition includes original supporting materials from the Leon Bibel archive including several printing plates, original materials relating to his participation in various WPA projects, source photographs for his paintings and prints, and catalogues from several exhibitions. 

The Federal Art project was discontinued in 1942 and Bibel moved his family to a farm in New Jersey, taking a 17-year hiatus from making art. He returned to art in 1960 experimenting in abstract painting and working in wood. He continues to be best known for the vigorous and passionate WPA work, defining an age of protest art.

Bibel’s work is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the British Museum; Zimmerli Art Museum of Rutgers, The State University, New Brunswick, New Jersey; and the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, among many others.

Presented as part of a year-long focus on “Arts and Activism” at the University of Richmond, the exhibition offers perspective on the capacity of activist art to challenge the doctrines of exploitation and to focus awareness on social injustice. The exhibition was organized by the University of Richmond Museums and curated by Phyllis Wrynn, Director, Park Slope Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, and independent scholar.

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The Art and Activism of Leo Bibel
Programming

Wednesday, September 18, 2013, 7 to 9 p.m.
7 p.m., Lecture, Whitehurst Living Room, Whitehurst Hall
“The Art and Activism of Leon Bibel”, Phyllis Wrynn, Director, Park Slope Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, independent scholar, and curator of the exhibition, and Keith Sheridan, Director, Keith Sheridan LLC, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and independent fine print scholar
8 to 9 p.m., Reception and viewing of the exhibition, Leon Bibel: Art, Activism, and the WPA
Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature, University Museums

Thursday, September 19, 2013, 2 to 2:45 p.m.
Curator’s Talk, Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature, University Museums
“Looking at the Art of Leon Bibel”, Phyllis Wrynn, Director, Park Slope Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, independent scholar, and curator of the exhibition Leon Bibel: Art, Activism, and the WPA