Modernist Strategies: Highlights of the WPA

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A giant hand emerges from the center of a crowded cityscape, palm upturned. A train on elevated tracks runs along the palm where life lines and love lines would be, disappearing into a tunnel on the other side.
Claire Mahl Moore, Transportation, 1935–1943. Lithograph. Allocated by the U.S. Government, Commissioned through the New Deal art projects 1943-4-278

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

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

Modernist Strategies features American art created during the New Deal era, with ongoing rotations of artwork in the Kinkead Gallery.

From 1935 to 1943, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sponsored the Federal Art Project, which employed as many as 10,000 artists during the Great Depression. In exchange for a modest weekly wage, artists produced paintings, sculptures, prints, and other works to be distributed to federal buildings and other public institutions. The University of Illinois received an extensive cache of works, which were transferred to Krannert Art Museum upon its founding in 1961.

Many works produced under the WPA portrayed scenes of everyday life—images of urban and rural landscapes, leisure activities, and industrial growth—as well as depictions conveying the grief, anxiety, and hardship brought on by economic inequity and other social injustices, typically rendered in realist, representational styles.

However, as this installation highlights, artists also explored these themes through modernist visual strategies, including abstraction, expressive color, compressed or flattened space, and a reduction of detail. Artists used these strategies to visually communicate the heightened psychological tension and anguish experienced by many during this time. Modernist Strategies: Highlights from the WPA includes prints and paintings that navigate a fractured world, convey the struggles of ordinary people, and explore the complex relationship between workers and the industries that employed them.

Curated by Kathryn Koca Polite, Assistant Curator