Abstract Murals of the WPA

Abstraction (1942) by Ilya Bolotowsky after conservation.
Abstraction (1942) by Joseph Rugolo, after conservation. Photo courtesy of EverGreene Architectural Arts.
Employment and Activities poster for the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1936
Employment and Activities poster for the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1936. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, circa 1920-1965, bulk 1935-1942. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal to stimulate the economy and create jobs during the Great Depression, employed thousands of artists between 1935 and 1943 to create artworks for public spaces. This groundbreaking democratic experiment celebrated and supported American art and artists by providing a source of income, enhancing public buildings, and enriching the lives of Americans in the throes of the Great Depression.

While most federally-sponsored artwork featured Social Realism or Regionalism—with depictions of American history, industry, and progress meant to inspire a troubled nation—the New York region of the Federal Art Project was unique in its support of abstract artwork. Burgoyne Diller (1906-1965), an abstract painter and founding member of American Abstract Artists, headed the mural division from 1935 to 1942. Committed to artistic freedom, Diller noted that the WPA/FAP was making an effort to "stimulate rather than to restrict the direction of painting, which, in the last analysis, should be the artists' prerogative."

Diller was instrumental in persuading government officials and sponsors to accept abstract art commissions at a time when abstraction was not widely popular or exhibited in museums or galleries. Instead of trying to convince bureaucrats to appreciate abstract art, however, he used another tactic; he called the works decorations instead of art. In an interview with Harlan Phillips, Diller describes how he “introduced abstract work just simply by calling it…‘the decoration,’” noting “if you introduced the word ‘art’ then you were in for it.”

The Art Commission of the City of New York (now the Public Design Commission) reviewed WPA/FAP murals for City-owned property by many artists for sites throughout the city. Abstract murals were reviewed for four sites; most were approved as proposed by the artist.

Today, guided by its Conservation Advisory Group, the Public Design Commission is proud to continue providing government support for the arts. The Commission works to conserve and preserve the City's important art collections for the enjoyment of future generations of New Yorkers and visitors alike. All of these New York City murals serve as reminders of an unprecedented government-funded initiative that provided essential work and income to artists and supported the artistic careers of many otherwise overlooked abstract artists.


Other abstract murals commissioned by the WPA/FAP (but not reviewed by the Art Commission) included a series for the Williamsburg Housing Projects by Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden that were restored in the late 1980s and placed on long-term loan at the Brooklyn Museum; Arshile Gorky's ten-part "Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations" at the Newark Airport, two of which survive and are at the Newark Museum; Byron Browne's semi-abstract mosaic for the United States Passport Agency at Rockefeller Center; and the murals for the Public Health Building and WPA Community Building at the 1939 New York World's Fair, which were destroyed at the end of the fair.