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The Art of Ralph Fasanella

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Ralph Fasanella spent much of his youth at the side of his Italian immigrant father as he navigated the streets in his horse-drawn wagon delivering ice to Greenwich Village homes in New York. They would sling a block of ice with tongs, rest it on their leather-sheathed shoulders, stride into the house and place it in the customer’s icebox. Often, they would need to remove all of the contents of the icebox to make room for the block, then neatly stack the refrigerated contents back into the box. He would say later, after he earned national fame as a painter, that the compositional density of his paintings was influenced by this work.

Fasanella’s paintings are receiving a fresh treatment in two exhibits opening May 2 in Washington, D.C. “Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, pulls together 19 of the artist’s large canvases and eight sketches. Sponsored by Union Plus, another 10 paintings, as well as three sketches, will be displayed in the lobby of the AFL-CIO through Aug. 1. The Smithsonian exhibit runs through Aug. 3 before heading up to New York City for a run at the American Folk Art Museum. Another exhibit is currently on display at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., on Labor Day in 1914 and the fourth of six children, Fasanella learned the cost and reward of hard work on his father’s route and witnessed the struggle of the worker and the necessity of subverting individual gain for the public good. His mother, who drilled holes in buttons for a neighborhood dress shop and published a small Italian-language, anti-fascist newspaper, instilled in him a strong sense of social justice. In the late 1930s, Fasanella volunteered to join an American paramilitary force to fight against Francisco Franco’s fascist rebellion in Spain.

During the Great Depression, Fasanella worked in the garment factories and as a truck driver and later became a member of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) as a machinist in Brooklyn, N.Y. When he returned from the Spanish Civil War, Fasanella began helping workers organize, and in 1945, he persuaded his union to host painting classes for its members. He was among the students.

Fasanella’s densely populated paintings are rich tapestries, often with layers upon layers of buildings and bustling streetscapes with hundreds of people gathered for events such as a May Day celebration, an Italian street festival, a baseball game, a strike or to hear the “ people’s congressman,” Vito Marcantonio, speak on a street corner. He used his brush to make social commentary on the politics and times of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s: McCarthyism, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He would be victimized by the former as he was blacklisted by art gallery owners during the McCarthy era.

He documented the joys and sorrows of workers and union life. He painted scenes from the Daily News strikes of the early 1990s and several of union halls. One of his best-known pieces shows throngs of workers at the textile strike in Lawrence, Mass. That painting, "Lawrence, 1912 – the Great Strike," hung for years in the hearing room of the House Subcommittee on Labor and Education. In 1994, the new Republican majority removed “Labor” from the subcommittee’s name and returned the painting back to the owners.

Fasanella also celebrated individual workers and workers’ families: riding the subway after a hard day’s work, paper handlers at a newspaper press, butchers, mill workers, gas station attendants and a memorial to his own father in "Iceman Crucified #4."

Fasanella liked working on large canvases, in part, because he envisioned his work hanging in the vast interiors of union halls. He would be pleased to know that one exhibit hangs in the House of Labor and another in a free-to-the-public museum. As Fasanella once said, “I didn’t paint my paintings to hang in some rich guy’s living room.”

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