Monday, September 5, 2016
Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997) was a self-taught painter whose large, detailed works depicted urban life, critiqued post-World War II America, and examined the dignity of labor and the labor movement.
Ralph Fasanella was born to Joseph and Ginevra Fasanella in The Bronx on Labor Day in 1914. He was the third of six children. Boh parents were Italian immigrants. His father delivered ice to local homes, and his mother worked in a neighborhood dress shop drilling holes into buttons.
Fasanella spent much of his youth delivering ice with his father from a horse-driven wagon. This experience deeply impressed him. He saw his father as representative of all working men, beaten down day after day and struggling for survival.
His mother was a literate, progressive woman who instilled in Fasanella a strong sense of social justice and political awareness. As a child, Fasanella often accompanied his mother while she worked on anti-fascist and trade union causes. Fasanella also helped his mother publish and distribute a small Italian-language, anti-fascist newspaper to help support the family.
Joseph Fasanella abandoned his family and returned to Italy in the 1920s, and young Ralph was raised by his mother.
Fasanella did not handle his father's abandonment well. After running away from home, he was placed in a Catholic-run reform school. The priests in the elementary school raped him, instilling in Fasanella a deep hatred for authority and anything which broke people's spirits. Fasanella quit school after the sixth grade.
Fasanella worked as a textile worker in garment factories and as a truck driver. He became a member of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) while working as a machinist in Brooklyn. The UE was a powerful, leftist union which educated its members about the extensive economic, racial, and social injustice in the United States. This led Fasanella to join in 1937 the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an American paramilitary force fighting to support the Second Spanish Republic against the (successful) fascist rebellion led by General Francisco Franco. When the republican forces lost the Battle of Ebro in November 1938 (essentially losing the civil war), Fasanella returned to the United States.
Fasanella became a labor organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1939, and joined the UE staff in 1940. It was during a UE organizing drive in 1940 that Fasanella first began to draw. He suffered from intense finger pain caused by arthritis, and a co-worker suggested he take up painting as a way to exercise his fingers and ease the pain. In 1945, Fasanella persuaded the UE to organize painting classes for its members at a local college. (He was one of the first members to sign up for them.)
Fasanella became consumed by art, and left labor union organizing to paint full-time in the late 1940s. To pay the bills, he bought a gas station and pumped gas.
Fasanella's painting focused on city life, men and women at work, union meetings, strikes, sit-ins, and baseball games. He quickly developed a quasi-surrealist style that depicted interiors and exteriors or the past and future simultaneously. He also made extensive use of familiar details, which allowed common people and workers to become emotionally involved with his work. Fasanella's art was also highly improvisational. He never planned out works, and rarely revised them. He said of his 1948 painting May Day, it "just came out of my belly. I never planned it. I don't know how I did it." Fasanella dismissed descriptions of his work as primitive, arguing it was not possible to be primitive in a post-industrial society.
Fasanella intended for his work to be hung in public. "I didn't paint my paintings to hang in some rich guy's living room," he said, and he often refused to sell to the rich because he suspected their motives in obtaining his work. Subsequently, his canvases were as big as 10 feet across, because he envisioned his paintings hanging in large union meeting halls.
His first solo show was at the ACA Galleries in New York City in 1948. One of his first sales was to choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Fasanella married Eva Lazorek, a New York City school teacher, in 1950. They had a son, Marc, and a daughter, Gina.
Fasanella's leftist-oriented artwork caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era. For the next 20 years, he painted in relative obscurity. A self-proclaimed folk-art dealer "discovered" Fasanella in 1972. On October 30, 1972, Fasanella appeared on the cover of "New York" magazine. The cover depicted him wearing a work shirt and standing in his tiny studio. Accompanying the photo was the headline: "This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living. He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses." The magazine cover catapulted Fasanella to national fame. After a December 1972 interview on WNET's groundbreaking news program "The Fifty-First State", Robert Gottlieb, chief editor at Alfred Knopf and Company, commissioned a lavish, coffee-table sized book, "Fasanella's City", which for the first time made Fasanella's work available to the public in lavish, four-colour reproductions.
Over the next few years, Fasanella appeared on "The Dick Cavett Show", "CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt", and in several documentary films. Several large exhibits of his work traveled across the United States.
Fasanella spent three years in Massachusetts in the mid-1970s. He lived in an $18-a-week room at the YMCA while completing 18 canvases. He produced several very large paintings of New England mill towns, three of which depicted the Lawrence textile strike of 1912. He also produced a painting of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and violent, blood-red image of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Much of the public fascination for Fasanella's work relied on the political and socio-economic messages they contained rather than their artistic appeal. As these messages fell from favor in the 1970s and 1980s, Fasanella was abandoned by many of his strongest supporters.
Fasanella died of unspecified causes at St. John's Riverside Hospital in Yonkers on December 16, 1997.
Critics today praise Fasanella for utilizing bold images and strong colors, and for being able to create deeply detailed works with highly individualized parts, yet unifying these scenes into a coherent single image.