Painting overtook Ralph Fasanella like stigmata. In 1944, at the age of 30, having never given art a second thought, he felt his hands begin to “tingle.” “They were itchy,” he said. “Something was wrong with them. They ached.” Thinking it was arthritis, he went to a doctor, who gave him a shot. Six months later, this child of Italian immigrants, who grew up in a Sullivan Street tenement, worked with his father delivering ice, and spent time in reform school, where he was “used as a girl” by the priests—this machinist, truck driver, and union organizer, who would later be blacklisted during the McCarthy era—began to paint. “I always felt embarrassed by the whole goddamn thing,” he said, “but I had to do it.”
And do it he did. Over the next 27 years, with little to sustain him but the “joy energy” he said art gave him, and largely supported by his schoolteacher wife, Eva (who said, “Living with Ralph is like living with Picasso”), Fasanella painted what he knew best: scenes of city life, men and women at work, union meetings, labor strikes, sit-ins, and baseball games. He might have gone the way of so many undiscovered, self-taught talents, but a chance encounter with a “folk-art expert” changed his life overnight.
On October 30, 1972, Fasanella appeared on the cover of New York magazine. Next to a photograph of him—wearing a work shirt with his name stitched over the pocket and standing in his cramped studio—was the headline “This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living. He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”
The floodgates opened. Fasanella’s art began to sell, and he became a sensation. He appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, with Charles Kuralt on CBS Sunday Morning, in a film on Italian Americans, and in a documentary about baseball; he exhibited in union halls, community centers, libraries, and galleries. But except for a handful of art critics and dedicated dealers, Fasanella’s greatest admirers have always been folk-art aficionados, trade unionists, politicians, and the general public, not to mention sex expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Today, although he seems to be slipping back into obscurity and only one major New York museum owns one of his works (and a minor one at that), there are Fasanella paintings on permanent display in, among other places, the Fifth Avenue subway (at 53rd Street), Ellis Island, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and the House Subcommittee on Labor and Education in Washington, D.C.—or there was until Republicans removed it after regaining Congress in 1994. A 1997 obituary written by the AFL-CIO paid him the ultimate workingman’s compliment, deeming him “a true artist of the people in the tradition of Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie.”
As can be seen in a marvelous, bananas, if garishly installed exhibition of 43 of his paintings at the New-York Historical Society (where the red, yellow, and blue walls are particularly irritating), Fasanella specialized in colorful, teeming scenes of everyday American life. Typically, his paintings have hundreds, if not thousands, of individually painted people and buildings. But Fasanella’s people are never individuals. They’re always seen en masse. “Life is together,” he said. “Fighting together. Playing ball together. You can’t be some so-quiet guy in a room, jerking off by yourself.” About the lack of space in his art, he said, “I may paint flat, but I don’t think flat.” And indeed, while his portrait of America is always ebullient and nostalgic, it’s never really rosy or simplistic. Fasanella’s world is laced with anger, anxiety, and agitation.
In American Tragedy (1964) JFK is assassinated against a fiery red background of blazing oil rigs as a motorcycle cop rides over a grassy knoll pursuing a mysterious gunman. A huge figure in a white hat, part Lyndon Johnson, part Barry Goldwater, rides in on a black horse. Elsewhere, we see Martin Luther King, dogs attacking civil rights workers, laborers picketing for jobs, and a sit-in outside an all-white restaurant.
In New York City (1957), his one masterpiece still for sale (hint, hint local museums), the entire metropolis is laid out before us. From the 59th Street Bridge (whose ironwork Fasanella painted to resemble “the sexy black underwear a Madonna I knew used to wear”) to the Triborough Bridge and the Long Island suburbs, it’s all here. We see kids jumping rope, mothers pushing baby carriages, boys swimming, hot dog vendors, traffic jams, subway cars, planes, factories, and skyscrapers. As Fasanella put it, “There’s barrooms and apartments, guys flying pigeons on the roof . . . and no message, except ‘I love New York.’ ” As with many of his paintings, New York City is Ensor by way of Grandma Moses, Florine Stettheimer, Howard Finster, Red Grooms, Where’s Waldo?, and Weegee’s famous photograph of crowds at Coney Island.
In several paintings Fasanella commemorates his father (“the poor bastard”) crucified on an icebox. In Family Supper (1972), we see his mother as a beneficent saint. Lineup at the Protectory 2 (1961) is one of Fasanella’s most melancholy images, and features rows of boys standing at disciplinary attention, ominously watched over by one of “da brothas,” as he used to call the priests. In several dizzily busy works devoted to the execution of the Rosenbergs, Fasanella shows the doomed couple as a working-class king and queen strapped into electric chair thrones atop piles of books. They are surrounded on the left by their accusers and on the right by their defenders, including Fasanella.
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.
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.’ “