The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940

Main Gallery

Mitchell Siporin, Workers Family, from the portfolio A Gift to Biro Bidjan, 1937, woodcut. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1997.30.15.

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The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940 revisits a moment in U.S. cultural history when visual artists joined forces to form a “left front” to make socially conscious art. In the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and at the start of the Great Depression, artists and writers founded the John Reed Club (JRC), which spread to more than thirty chapters nationwide. Named after the journalist who witnessed the 1917 Russian Revolution, the JRC brought together such artists as Isabel Bishop, Stuart Davis, William Gropper, Rockwell Kent, and Chicagoan Morris Topchevsky—embraced the motto “art as a social weapon” and rejected the idea that “the artist can remain remote from the historic conflicts in which all men must take side.” They took their message to the streets—marching, boycotting, picketing, and teaching—while also organizing exhibitions and publishing their artworks.

The Left Front explores the context and legacies of the JRC and its successor organization, the American Artists’ Congress (AAC) in the 1930s. The exhibition also considers the industrial conditions, immigration, labor unrest, and anarchism historically associated with Chicago, as well as its commitment to social reform through such institutions as Hull House.

Support for The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929−1940 is provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art, as well as the Terra Foundation on behalf of William Osborn and David Kabiller, and the Myers Foundations. Additional funding comes from the Carlyle Anderson Endowment, the Louise E. Drangsholt Fund, the Kessel Fund at the Block Museum, and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.


An Artists' Congress: What is Revolutionary Art Today? 
May 17, 1:00 PM-5:00 PM with social to follow

On May 17 from 1:00 to 5:00pm, The Block Museum of Art and Northwestern University will host An Artists’ Congress, an interdisciplinary public forum bringing together artists, activists, scholars, students and the public to address contemporary issues of art and social change. 

Organized in conjunction with the Bock Museum’s current exhibition The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade” (1929-1940), this gathering is inspired by meetings of the American Artists’ Congress in the 1930s and motivated by Left Front member Louis Lozowick’s question, “What should revolutionary artists do today?” Over eighty years later, we continue to grapple with how art can effect social and political change. The Congress will consider how contemporary sociopolitical, artistic, and media contexts provide possibilities and impediments for artists concerned with social change. Bringing together a range of voices through presentations and performance, the Congress will also feature an open forum for dialogue and debate. for details about the day's program and to get involved visit:

Past Programming

Opening Program
January 18, 2:00 PM-4:00 PM
Featuring opening remarks by Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro, presentation by scholar and theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, and interviews with Left Front and Steichen | Warhol curators. Pop-up performances, in collaboration with Northwestern University Professor D. Soyini Madison, will animate the galleries.

Art Theory and Practice Visiting Artist Talk: Brian Holmes Cross the Threshold: Art into Precarious
January 31, 6:00 PM - 7:00 PM
Chicago-based cultural critic Brian Holmes asks, if “relational aesthetics” was a password to the exhibition circuit in the boom economy, how can the bust generation respond to the avant-garde call for the overcoming of art?


February 05, 5:00 PM - 7:00 PM
In partnership with Northwestern’s American Cultures Colloquium, Julia Bryan-Wilson, associate professor of art history at UC Berkeley, will examine contemporary figuration as politics.

Poetry Reading: Working Poems: An Evening with Mark Nowak
February 26, 6:00 PM - 7:30 PM
Mark Nowak— 2010 Guggenheim Fellow, poet, playwright, essayist and cultural critic—responds to The Left Front in this reading of his own poems.

Film Screening and Discussion: Body and Soul with J. Hoberman
March 08, 2:00 PM - 4:00 PM
Film critic and New York Times columnist J. Hoberman will be in attendance and will give a post-screening talk entitled “Enterprise Studios: Communist Conspiracy or Jewish Plot?” about John Garfield's short-lived production company which produced Body and Soul and Force of Evil.

Guest Lecture: Vasif Kortun of SALT, Istanbul
March 15, 2:00 PM - 4:00 PM
Vasif Kortun, curator and director of research and programs at SALT, Istanbul, will address questions of art and social change as he considers Istanbul’s public spaces and architecture.

Gallery Performance: Jackalope Theatre, Living Newspaper, Edition 2014
April 03, 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM
AJ Ware will direct Northwestern students in short plays based on current newspaper headlines reflecting themes of The Left Front. Reservations required. Please fill out a reservation form. 

Lecture: Andrew Hemingway, Style of the New Era
April 16, 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM
An emeritus professor in art history at University College London, Hemingway is a preeminent scholar on American artists and the communist movement. He will speak on the culture of the John Reed Clubs and proletariat art.

Press Release  ]

[Winter 2014 Exhibition Poster  ]