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Bolotowsky mural as currently installed at Brooklyn Museum. (Photo by Diane Chehab)
Forgotten Murals Gain New Life in Brooklyn Museum

In the 1930s, when the United States was still reeling from the Great Depression, a series of murals was commissioned by the Federal Art Project (FAP), to be painted in the community rooms at the Williamsburg Public Housing development in Brooklyn, NY. This development was built in 1936-37, designed by the chief architect William Lescaze.

The head of the New York Murals of the FAP division in 1937 was Burgoyne Diller. It was a brave move to commission a series of abstract murals from avant-garde, relatively unknown artists. At the time, most murals (perhaps all) were figurative.

Panels paintings found in the mid-1980s. (Photo courtesy of LaGuardia and Wagner Archives)


The artists whose murals were found in the Williamsburg Housing Development were Paul Kelpe (1902-85), Ilya Bolotowsky (1907-81), Balcomb Greene (1904-90), and Albert Swinden (1901-61). Diller, an abstract artist himself, put his own art on hold in order to promote “abstract art in murals before abstract art was accepted in the United States” (Ilya Bolotowsky, quoted in Arts Magazine, June 1982: Abstractions for Public Spaces, 1935-1943 by Greta Berman); he had to justify every abstract mural he placed.

Throughout the years, the murals were neglected and forgotten. In the mid-seventies, as an undergraduate student in art history, Nancy Troy learned of the Williamsburg Murals while interning at the Guggenheim Museum with Louise Svendsen, who was curating a Bolotowsky exhibition. Ms. Troy researched the artist’s files and clippings to create the chronology for the catalog. 

Later, as a graduate student at Yale University, she found additional information about the murals, in the archives of the American Art, and at the Museum of National Art in Washington D.C. She wrote her Master's thesis on the Williamsburg Murals. Searching for them, she serendipitously discovered two Paul Kelpe panels in a basement room at Williamsburg Houses. Hardly anyone remembered the paintings. Some murals had been painted over, others had just fallen into neglect, such as the Kelpe Murals, next to which she is seen in a photograph, along with NYCHA employees.

Reception at the Brooklyn Museum, March 29, 1990, for the unveiling of the restored 1937 wall panels from the community rooms in the basement of Williamsburg Houses. The show was called: "Williamsburg: The Lost Murals." These murals are by Paul Kelpe (1902-85). (Photo courtesy LaGuardia and Wagner Archives)Possibly some murals were not found, or they were destroyed; however, there is no proof that more than five murals were installed at the Williamsburg Housing Project, although maquettes for twelve were created*. 

Nancy Troy is currently a Professor, and Chair of the Art & Art History Department at Stanford University, in California, and is currently writing a book, “Mondrian’s Legacy after his Death.”*** Mondrian’s work was an influence for Bolotowsky. In the 1980s, the New York City Housing Authority went to great lengths to have the murals restored, after a fundraising effort to finance the restoration.**

Kelpe mural as currently installed at Brooklyn Museum. (Photo by Diane Chehab)

After their restoration, the murals were loaned to the Brooklyn Museum, and in March 1990, they were once more on public view. The opening exhibition was called "Williamsburg: The Lost Murals;" the NY Times listed the show in its arts calendar on March 29, 1990.

Former head of Community Operations, Hugh Spence, was Chief for Tenant Programs at the time the murals were re-discovered. He says: "It is my hope that the resurgence of interest in the Williamsburg Murals will serve as a catalyst to explore the many fine works of art known and unknown in and around our NYCHA developments."

By Diane Chehab
April 25, 2011

*Source: The Journal of Art, June/July 1989, “Lost WPA Murals rediscovered”
**The installation of the Williamsburg Murals received generous support from the J. M. Kaplan Fund, Republic National Bank of New York, and the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. The restoration of the murals was made possible through funding from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, The Bay Foundation, and The Cowles Charitable Trust. (Source: The Brooklyn Museum)
***Source: telephone conversation with Pr. Troy (April 2011)

Other sources used for this article:

  • Articles about the WPA:
    - The Journal of Art, June/July 1989, Lost WPA Murals rediscovered
    - Arts Magazine, June 1982: Abstractions for Public Spaces, 1935-1943 by Greta Berman
    - NY Times, A Guide to the City’s Murals from the Depression, January 7, 1994
    - New York Magazine, In Living-Room Color, by Kay Larson, May 28, 1990
    - Art History, January 2010: The Art of Swinging Left in the 1930s: Modernism, Realism, and the Politics of the Left in the Murals of Stuart Davis, by Jody Patterson

    Additional information: