Working-Class Hero

All of these paintings have a manic beauty. They're big pictures with little people. I love poring over details, and rarely look at the whole. Fasanella's style is touchingly awkward, his space convoluted, his narrative sense rudimentary but resourceful, his vision unrelenting—sometimes too unrelenting. Ever the zealot, he never lets up or expresses doubt in his work; everything happens at the same visual and opinionated pitch.

His last large painting is a blunt essay in anachronism. Farewell Comrade—The End of the Cold War (1992-97) pictures Lenin lying in state within a huge stadium emblazoned with the names of Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Gandhi, James Hoffa, Mother Jones, and Cesar Chavez. The pope blesses Gorbachev and Reagan, and thousands gather in tribute to Communism. To say the painting is dogmatic is an understatement.

"I may paint flat, but I don't think flat": a large detail of American Tragedy (1964).
photo: Robin Holland
"I may paint flat, but I don't think flat": a large detail of American Tragedy (1964).

Details

Ralph Fasanella's America
The New-York Historical Society
2 West 77th Street
Through July 14

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By the end of his life (he died in 1997), many of the causes Fasanella fought for were lost or on the back burner. "It's over," he said. "What I wanted to do was to paint great big canvases about the spirit we used to have in the movement and then go around the country showing them in union halls. When I started these paintings I had no idea that when they were all finished there wouldn't be any union halls in which to show them." One September, as another Labor Day approached, he lamented, "The other day, I called an old lefty pal at 1199 (the drug and hospital workers' union) and offered them my stuff. 'Forget it Ralph,' he said to me. 'We don't want your stuff.' "

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