“Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget” is an ideal show for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s a survey of the work of Fasanella, a Bronx-born labor leader-turned-painter polemicist, the kind of exhibit that only the Smithsonian American Art Museum ever tackles. In D.C., it is alone among museums that affords serious attention to self-taught or outsider artists, unless you count the occasional one-off at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden or the craft-oriented work at the Renwick Gallery (which is an adjunct of the American Art Museum).
Fasanella’s paintings serve as an urbanist diary of the momentous events of his day, among them the JFK assassination, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the death of his father, Giuseppe (“Joe the Iceman”), a working-class, Italian-born immigrant who looked on as the icebox gave way to the refrigerator. Fasanella tells these stories through architectural morality plays: The brownstones and high-rises of Ralph’s New York pay witness to the values that shaped (and were shaped by) the city.
“New York City” (1957) is Fasanella’s greatest accomplishment, a roughly 4-by-9-foot oil painting depicting Long Island and Queens as they frame the Queensboro Bridge as well as a (greatly condensed) foreground spanning much of uptown Manhattan. Never mind that no such urban vista exists, particularly not as seen from an elevated-train platform, a perspective Fasanella favored much in the way that Charles Sheeler did. It is an artist’s duty to remake the city as he or she knows it.
As in many of the paintings on view, the walkups in “New York City” reveal their residents through clever cut-outs. The cross-section at the top of one building in the painting could be mistaken for a contemporary penthouse suite with floor-to-ceiling windows. Le Corbusier, who called the house a machine for living, might have appreciated the way that Fasanella depicted the city’s complex gears, always in motion. In “Modern Times,” (1966) this urban sight-into-site is almost dystopian, granting a vision of his future—our present—no doubt fueled by labor anxiety over the means and ends of production.
“Lest We Forget” is also ideal in the sense that it showcases all of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s particular shortcomings in a single exhibit. Inspirational quotes from Fasanella, applied to the walls of the exhibit in overlarge font, stand in for historical evaluation. A short biographical video blaring in the center of the galleries cannot be escaped. The exhibit is even located in the dismal north wing of the museum’s third floor, beyond the visually dazzling Lincoln Gallery, where the story of American art peters out with the thin contemporary collection.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum rarely registers among the D.C. museums fighting to project their brands, in part because it has already been overpowered. (Here I must disclose that I wrote several posts for the museum’s blog on a contract basis in 2007.) It cannot compete with even the fairly limited American art holdings at the National Gallery of Art. Nor can it muster as much modern muscle as the Hirshhorn. It is eclipsed daily by its roommate at the Old Patent Office Building: Ask any Washingtonian what goes on in there, and they’ll tell you that’s where the National Portrait Gallery lives.
This is despite the fact that Smithsonian American Art Museum does so much so well (and so much better than the ultraconservative Portrait Gallery). James Hampton’s divine garbage installation, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millenium General Assembly,” is the standout in the building, a folk-art masterpiece. George Catlin’s noble portraits of Native Americans from the 1830s represent a contrary document from a time when President Andrew Jackson was embarking on the ethnic-cleansing policy known as Indian Removal. Curator Eleanor Harvey’s “The Civil War and American Art” survey from late 2012 was the most important exhibition mounted by any Smithsonian museum in recent memory.
The great strength of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, demonstrated time and time again (and here in “Lest We Forget”), is its folk-art collection and historical thrust. Even the television artist Nam June Paik, whose estate archive the museum maintains, seems to fit the visionary-art mold, or at least a certain vision of art as proxy for history. Through lectures and a major 2013 survey, John Hanhardt, the museum’s senior curator for media arts, has made the case for Paik as a particularly and peculiarly American modern master, the greatest of a series of artists who considered the television conceptually, and even sculpturally.
The defining drawback of the museum, on the other hand, is its cynicism. That takes physical form in the simpering inspirational quotes splattered throughout the American Experience galleries (and in “Lest We Forget”). But it’s even more manifest in the procession of pandering special exhibitions: “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas” (an uncurated giveaway from 2010); “The Art of Video Games” (government-subsidized babysitting back in 2012), and “The Western Frontier” (a planned exhibit of Old West memorabilia owned by William Koch that has yet to materialize).
While it is one of the most overlooked museums in the Smithsonian system (sometimes for good reason), the Smithsonian American Art Museum is the most fascinating. For good and bad, it is devoted to art’s—and America’s—99 percent. The museum relentlessly perceives its audience as the dullest, most easily offended visitors from middle America: the “family of four from Idaho,” in Smithsonian parlance.
Yet it’s also this America to whom the museum gives voice when few other museums will. As contemporary visual art heads over the precipice—increasingly, art is a commodity that is the sole province of Wall Street hedge-fund investors and BRIC-nation new money—an exhibition on the cardboard faux vinyl records of D.C.’s own Mingering Mike (planned for next year) offers some balance. Some hope that art can still reflect the America that yearns to breathe free.
As it stands, it’s good Fasanella both gets his due and doesn’t. This is the only museum that could mount an outsider show such as his, but still, it’s not a museum that’s up to the task of laying out, in real-talk terms, what it meant to be blacklisted by art dealers during the McCarthy era. Which is too bad, given the enormous gulf today between art that is sold as contemporary fine art and art that is passed off under other labels (craft, illustration, design, and so on) but contains broader messages.
There is no real daylight between Fasanella and the art darling of the Occupy movement, illustrator Molly Crabapple. He was blacklisted (in part) for his sympathy for Sacco and Vanzetti; she was arrested in Zuccotti Park. Fasanella lent his work for an album cover for piano concertos by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber (1977); Crabapple illustrated a record by Jill Sobule. He is the better conceptualist, maybe; she is the more talented drawer.
But she and similar artists working today, who are fighting Fasanella’s fight with Fasanella’s tool, would have no place in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Only when this present era of corporate culture war is as anodyne and footnoted as the Red Scare—only when the folk art that has documented soaring income inequality is beside the point—will it be safe for the Smithsonian to take notice. “I didn’t paint my paintings to hang in some rich guy’s living room,” reads one Fasanellaism painted on the wall. He sure as hell wouldn’t be happy with what the art museum means today.
And he’d have a point. One day, perhaps, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will catch up with the audience it actually serves: those Americans who are brave in the face of diverse opinions, and who are suffering broadly for the sake of the powerful. Then America will have the American Art Museum that it needs and deserves.