In 1941, entrepreneur Reeves Lewenthal told Time magazine that the highbrow gallery system in places like New York City was “doomed,” adding, “The rich collector class is dying out.” Although his prediction has proven off by untold billions and counting, spent in Chelsea and at the auction houses, the alternative business model he founded — a consortium of artists who offered limited-edition fine-art prints to America’s nascent middle class at $5 a pop (roughly $88 today) — proved a hit.
The first Associated American Artists mail-order catalogs were sent out in the mid-1930s, hawking etchings and lithographs by such celebrated American Scene artists as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry, along with lesser-known realists. Over the next six decades, the offerings expanded to include tableware, textiles, and such novelties as “Paintagraphs” — vibrant, painting-like prints created through a complicated process of colored inks on acetate that could be faithfully translated on printing presses.
The Grey Gallery exhibition includes dozens of early black-and-white AAA prints depicting rural vistas, Mexican laborers, ironworkers, and leisure-time pursuits in cities and heartland alike. The torqued bodies and tilted curves of crashing furniture in Benton’s Frankie and Johnnie (1936), based on the song about a murderous love triangle, reveal the influence of such melodramatic masters as the sixteenth-century Italian Tintoretto, a role model Benton impressed upon his most famous pupil, Jackson Pollock.
Because Benton had depicted such subjects as lynching, speakeasies, and corrupt political bosses in murals he painted for Missouri’s state capitol, AAA brochures proudly touted him as a “child of controversy.” The AAA had little interest in true controversy, however, and patriotic scenes were a big seller throughout the war years. The Abbott drug company subsidized travel to the front for some AAA artists, including Joseph Hirsch, whose painting After the Fascist Fair depicts a makeshift hospital for American soldiers set up in one of Mussolini’s former palaces, adorned with crumbling murals of Blackshirts wielding rifles and pitchforks. Hirsch wittily exposed the fact that any aesthetic appeal in the losing side’s propaganda was undermined by ham-fisted exhortations. Not that the victors’ agitprop always transcended its own moment, either: If the slogan “Our Good Earth…Keep It Ours” in Curry’s 1942 U.S. war bond poster were written in German, it would be easy to mistake the image of a muscular farmer and fair-haired moppets surrounded by wheat as the brainchild of Dr. Goebbels.
AAA artworks were sometimes co-opted for advertising, and in one instance the poobahs at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco chastised Benton for depicting black sharecroppers, stating that they didn’t want “Negroes doing what looked like old-time slave work.” Benton groused, “Every time a patron dictates to an artist what is to be done, he doesn’t get any art, he just gets a poor commercial job.” Such adulterated agendas added to the gulf between the pre-war realists and the postwar abstractionists, who sought a purity of content expressed through inner emotions and visceral gestures. Not for nothing did Pollock, in 1950, fall violently off the wagon after he was filmed flinging paint in his signature style, claiming the movie made him feel like a “phony” who was now performing for mass consumption rather than spontaneously creating art for the ages.
The 1950s was the age of American graphic design’s ascendance, and the patterned fabrics, decorative abstractions, and dynamic magazine layouts in the exhibit offer rich comfort food for today’s eyes.
In the ’60s, as in other arenas of society, the AAA imagery got wiggy, notably in Warrington Colescott’s 1965 print depicting an unsuccessful FBI raid on the Dillinger gang, a fractured composition that careens from the gangster shootout to an elegiac negative image of John F. Kennedy. Later in the decade, Robert Broner hit on the meta idea of rolling ink onto found electronic components to pull striking relief prints from surfaces that were already “printed” circuits.
Ironically, as the decades passed, Associated American Artists came to rely more on selling contemporary prints out of gallery spaces in Philadelphia and New York, and the concept of mail-order art has now shifted into the eBay and Etsy realms of Everyman capitalism. This latest cohort of intrepid entrepreneurs hasn’t exactly crushed the gallery-industrial complex, but, as in the heyday of the AAA, it’s a living.