Paul Kelpe, Man and Machines (Abstraction #5), 1934. Oil, canvas. Commissioned through the New Deal art projects 1943-4-209

By Jon L. Seydl, Museum Director


You may not know that as Director, I can have works of art from the collection in my office at Krannert Art Museum. For the last few years, I’ve been grateful to have Paul Kelpe’s Man and Machines (Abstraction #5). And I wasn’t surprised when one of our curators, Katie Koca Polite, whisked it away for her new long-term installation, Modernist Strategies: Highlights from the WPA. Now everyone can behold this incredible painting, right when they enter KAM from Sixth Street.

Modernist Strategies builds on Koca Polite’s exhibition last year on social justice printmaking in the 1930s. It shows another side of the story of American art during the Depression—artists deploying abstraction, elements of Cubism, and expressionist color as they created art through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which supported the lives of over 10,000 artists during the New Deal. It was a time the federal government paved the way to economic recovery by commissioning and purchasing art for public institutions. After the WPA ended in 1943, many works were sent to public universities, including U of I, and they formed an American art collection here before KAM opened in 1961.

The meaning of Man and Machines is more personal for me—it brings back one of my best childhood memories. My father was a sheet metal worker at Bethlehem Steel, and I remember when a new, huge blast furnace opened in the early 80s, all the employees and their families were invited to see it. The scale and heat were awesome (only later did I learn the word sublime), and it was also the first time I understood what my dad actually did for work. I saw and felt the pride he had in his labor.

Another thing I love about this work is its ambiguity. One the one hand, pristine shapes and forms convey an awesome beauty, but the smokeless chimney and immaculate surfaces are pure fantasy, and the lone worker, whose face is featureless, moves effortlessly to move just on switch, improbably clad in light grey and white. It’s a painting that erases hard work and pollution, and along with them, workers and their unions. But it seems to me that Kelpe acknowledges the disconnect with reality, especially with the strange, flat, off-white machine he creates that rises above the man, crisscrossed with pipes that leave no shadows.

Of course in 2021, it’s impossible to think about the WPA without thinking of our own recovery from economic crisis, which has had such a devastating impact on the arts and arts workers. It puts me in mind of the urgent need for new forms of federal and state support for the arts, some of which are currently under consideration by Congress and our state legislators. It makes you wonder, how can we support art and artists as we build our own recovery?