“Louis Schanker: The WPA Years” at Pollock-Krasner House

Louis Schanker with his mural for WNYC, the New York City municipal radio station, 1939.

At the bottom of the hill on Marsden Street, there sits a big white house on Madison, dating back to the mid-1900s — to a different time and place, and to a non-existent front porch.

The artist who once lived there in the 1950s took it down, saving nothing but the porch posts. He would carve out wooden spheres inside the posts, creating what Helen Harrison can only describe as “giant Razzles.”

It is very Lou Schanker, she said.

One of the beams is currently on view at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, the director explained, which is now home to a body of work by one of the leading printmakers and muralists working on the New York City WPA Federal Art Project in the 1930s — and friend of the buildings’ namesakes, artists Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner.

“I met [Schanker] when I was doing my WPA research,” Harrison said. “He was very forthcoming, very helpful. He really felt the WPA, that what it had done for artists was a godsend during the Depression. It helped them not only financially — it gave them a living wage — but that it helped them develop as artists because there was no commercial pressure. They were able to experiment freely.”

Louis Schanker (1903-1981), Study for mural, Neponsit Beach Children’s Hospital, WPA Federal Art Project, 1937. Gouache on paper, 4 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches. Lent by the artist’s estate.

Formally Louis Schanker — classically trained at The Cooper Union and the conservative Académie de la Grande Chaumière — the artist marched to his own beat. He had lived as a roustabout in the circus before moving to Mallorca for some time, where he began to paint Cézannesque landscapes and works inspired by Cubism and the School of Paris.

He idolized the Impressionists, especially Renoir and Degas, and when he returned to the United States, he was employed by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal
Art Project — a New Deal program designed to relieve unemployment during the Great Depression of the 1930s — to decorate the WNYC Radio Station. The mural, “Music,” that he completed with Stuart Davis, Byron Browne and John Von Wicht still exists on the 25 th floor of New York City’s Municipal Building, where the station used to be. Schanker stands out as the most conventional of the lot, according to Greta Berman, in her essay, “Louis Schanker, Modern Muralist and Master Printmaker,” but only at first glance.

Now, studying it from a greater distance, she sees Schanker as “unique, a forerunner of abstract expressionism, in a number of ways.”

“The vague gestural figuration drawn over the colorful abstract background looks ahead to action painting more than the geometric works of Browne and Von Wicht. And the textural surface adds to the feeling of movement,” she wrote. “Looking at a photo in situ, it is apparent that the artist thoughtfully planned his mural to blend in
with the setting, enhancing it with curves and grace. Schanker’s mural was cutting-edge at the time. Indeed, he can be considered in many ways an avant-garde artist, though he never abandoned representation completely, at least during the WPA years.”

Louis Schanker, “Hockey Players,” 1940. Color woodblock print, 14 x 11 7/8 inches. Lent by the Estate of Louis Schanker.

He would go on to work as supervisor of the graphic arts section of the WPA during the late 1930s, teaching printmaking first at the New School and then Bard College from 1949 until his retirement.

“I think it’s his experimental quality that is very interesting,” Harrison said. “He didn’t just use traditional print-making methods. He was very inspired by Japanese woodblock printing — that tradition resonated with him — but he was a modern man and he wanted to do things that were a little bit experimental and different, so
he used the woodblock technique but he used it in a more modernist vocabulary.”

Throughout the years, Schanker remained close with his fellow WPA artists, who became his neighbors on the East End — stories the artist’s nephew, Lou Siegel, will share on Saturday, July 28, at the museum, reminiscing about the artist and his wife, singer and civil rights activist Libby Holman.

“That will really give a lot of personal background,” Harrison said. “He was a young kid. He went sailing with Lou. He went fishing with him. He went to the parties and he was a fly on the wall. He rode in the Rolls-Royce that was so famous locally, this beautiful Silver Cloud. And he just has all these wonderful personal anecdotes that he’s going to share.”

Schanker and Holman — who was a larger-than-life character herself — split their time between their home on Madison Street in Sag Harbor, and a modernist build in East Hampton by architect Robert Rosenberg in 1953, which they acquired in the early 1960s.

“If you know the cover of my ‘Hamptons Bohemia’ book, that photograph is a house party that he and Libby gave at the Further Lane house,” Harrison said. “They did it every Fourth of July and everybody trooped down to the beach to have their picture
taken because the house was right on the beach.

Artists on the beach outside Lou and Libby’s home on Further Lane, East Hampton, during their July 4th house party, 1962. (Photograph by Hans Namuth)

It was one of these modernist boxes; you could look right through it to the water.”
Clearly unburdened by financial woes, Schanker had the freedom to do and create as he pleased, until his death in 1981 — much in thanks to his wife.

“She had married into the Reynolds aluminum family, and her husband died quite unexpectedly,” Harrison said. “She came into a significant chunk of change, so he certainly did not have to worry about money, whereas Jackson and Lee struggled for
a while — although by the end of Jackson’s life, he was making a pretty decent amount of money, but nothing like the comfort that Lou and Libby were able to enjoy.

“But you know, somehow that didn’t really matter,” she continued. “It was more about the camaraderie, the bonds they had established during the ’30s when everybody was poor. They weren’t competing with one another for galleries or reviews or museum shows. They were competing to be the best modern artist you could be.”

“Louis Schanker: The WPA Years” will remain on view through Saturday, July 28, at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, located at 830 Springs Fireplace Road in Springs. Lou Siegel will give the talk “Lou and Libby: An Intimate View” on the closing day at 5 p.m. For more information, call (631) 324-4929 or visit stonybrook.edu/pkhouse.