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American Art By Mail

How one company brought fine art into homes across the country.

James Chapin, Boy, That’s Tobacco, 1942

James Chapin, Boy, That’s Tobacco, 1942, oil on canvas, 36 x 44 in.

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Grant Wood’s oil on masonite painting The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) can be seen in Gallery 900 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Further downtown, however, at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, the picture is also on view—that is, printed on a vintage piece of fabric (1952). The textile hangs in the downstairs room of the gallery’s current show “Art for Every Home: Associated American Artists, 1934–2000” (through July 9). On it, the painting is reproduced over and over in undelineated row and column. When turned into a pattern, Wood’s characteristically exaggerated perspectives become almost cartoonish, and here his colonial Town Square appears to form multiple blocks of one larger, steeple-dotted city. The effect is almost dizzying—and Revere’s route seems to wind like the Alps-traversing legs of the Tour de France. No fabric seems better suited to dress the bedroom windows of a kid growing up in 1950s America—the type who watched Lassie and played cowboys with a holster and toy gun.

Shortly before his death in 1942, Wood was commissioned by Reeves Lewenthal, the founder and president of Associated American Artists (AAA), to create fabric designs for The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and Spring Plowing (1932), but Lewenthal couldn’t find a fabric manufacturer interested in making them. However, after the rationing of World War II, consumers were thirsty to spend, and well-known artists—such as Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso—began to produce high-end artist-designed home furnishings, including fabrics, wall panels, china, and ceramics. Lewenthal struck a deal with Riverdale Fabrics and released a line of fabrics and drapery in 1952 with coordinating Stonelain ceramics designed by “America’s Famous Artists”—among them, of course. was Wood, who as a recognized name, was a great selling point. The line, titled “Pioneer Pathways,” included seven other designs, all with motifs connected to American folklore and culture. Named after a design produced by Russian-born muralist and painter Anton Rifrigier, the line offered multiple colorways of readymade draperies, bedspreads, pillows, and lampshades or fabric available by the yardage. The collection was given a weeklong debut at Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, after which it was available at over 100 stores nationwide—a cross-country ride for Paul Revere.

Lewenthal began AAA as an art print publishing company in 1934. In July of that year he met with a group of 23 American artists, including Doris Lee, John Steuart Curry, and Thomas Hart Benton in Benton’s Manhattan studio and developed a plan to commission prints directly from artists and sell them to a wide audience. The company, which effectively did just that until 2000, started selling prints by Benton, Curry, and Wood, who at that time were well established in the art world and known by those outside of it. The prints were priced at $5 (approximately $88 today) and published in limited editions of 250, with the artist getting $200 when an edition sold out.

Early on, Lewenthal’s company benefited from a lack of competition. Artists, whose ability to make money from their work suffered during the Depression, profited from AAA’s production and promotion of their prints. To the middle-class consumer, Lewenthal offered a slice of the American Dream—making it possible to hang a piece of fine art in even the humblest of abodes. Regionalism and the etching revival, which were all the rage at the time, formed the bedrock of AAA’s inventory. Prints like Curry’s John Brown (1939, published 1940) and Benton’s Frankie and Johnnie (1936), which were wildly popular, cemented the idea that AAA was selling the American scene to the American people.
AAA used a direct-to-consumer model, much like the e-commerce businesses of today. The company produced a mail-order catalogue with reproductions of the prints alongside descriptions. The catalogues often teased that print runs had sold out or were about to, hoping to invoke a “better act now” mentality in the consumer. AAA also took out advertisements in periodicals and on the radio and set up displays in
department stores.

All of AAA’s materials promoted the idea that collectors were buying “Fine Art,” and strove to help collectors enjoy their budding collections. The catalogues even ran instructions on the right way to hang art. “AAA promoted its patrons, too,” says Gail Windisch, a California-based collector of AAA catalogues and ephemera who was instrumental in organizing “Art for Every Home.” “There’s a catalogue from 1946 that features a woman from North Carolina on the cover. She’s sitting in her living room reading, and she’s saying to the world ‘I’m sophisticated and educated—I’m reading a book and I have fine art on my wall.’” The photograph was sent in by the woman herself, an AAA collector, and the company, smartly highlighting their prints in action, chose to run it on the catalogue’s cover.

In 1936, AAA opened its eponymous gallery on Madison Avenue (it moved to Fifth Avenue in 1956). There, gallery goers could view museum-quality exhibitions and also buy prints. Says Windisch, “It was the largest public gallery in New York City at the time—it was more akin to a museum even though it was a commercial enterprise. They even had living room furniture set up, and prints on a pulley system, so you could see what they would look like on your wall.” The gallery would also provide framing services and boxes to store purchased works.

Lewenthal, a skilled marketer, used various devices to sell and promote prints. Benton’s mural in the Missouri State Capitol, A Social History of the State of Missouri (completed in 1936), which featured 235 individual portraits, captured the state’s people living and working, suffering hardships and enjoying simple pleasures. Benton received harsh criticism for his depiction of the Midwest, which Lewenthal used to his advantage when selling prints of the mural. “The mural had some images that weren’t positive,” says Elizabeth Seaton, the show’s curator and a curator at the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University (where the exhibition was first installed), “and AAA promoted their editions as ‘the controversial prints from the mural.’” Wood’s Sultry Night (1939), which pictured a farmer in the buff bathing after a long day of work, was banned by the United States Post Office for sale by mail order. AAA had 100 impressions of the image made and sold them at their gallery.

Lewethal also worked with corporations throughout the ’40s. Companies such as Maxwell House and Standard Oil commissioned AAA artists to create imagery for their ads. The American Tobacco Company commissioned 19 AAA artists to produce art for them, including James Chapin, whose painting Boy, That’s Tobacco (1942) was featured in an ad for Lucky Strike. The painting, which features a burly, denim-clad farmer holding a large tobacco leaf, creates an idealized picture of American agriculture.

Acknowledging that Regionalism wouldn’t be in vogue forever, the company began courting international artists after World War II. In 1946, AAA established the Department of Latin American Art, and in 1947 it released Mexican People, a portfolio of 12 lithographs by 10 members of the Taller de Grafica Popular, a group from Mexico City that promoted social change. Around this time, Lewenthal began making deals with consumer goods companies, as with the Riverdale Fabrics and the “Pioneer Pathways” collection. AAA released its first ceramics collection with Stonelain in September 1950. In 1953, M. Lowenstein & Sons produced a line of clothing fabrics with patterns designed by AAA artists. The following year, United Wallpaper did the same thing with wallpaper patterns. Other collaborations, with companies like Steuben Glass and Castleton China, came and went over the years.
By the time AAA closed in 2000, it had published some 2,600 prints by 600 artists. However, its legacy was not well tended. According to Seaton, who eventually borrowed prints from over 25 museums for the “Art for Every Home” exhibition, many museums have AAA prints in their collections without even knowing it. The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art was gifted a collection of about 200 AAA prints from the widow of an insurance salesman who lived in a small town in Kansas. Seaton became interested in putting together a show about AAA.

In 1999, Windisch found a print that came with an AAA biography card (AAA prints often came with cards that provided information on the artist and the piece). Curious about the company, she started purchasing AAA catalogues on Ebay. Later, with the help of print dealers and Sylvan Cole Jr. (Lewenthal’s successor at AAA), she began the arduous task of putting together a catalogue raisonné of AAA prints. Seaton was given Windisch’s name at a print fair in 2007, and in 2008 the two got in contact.

Around the same time, Karen Herbaugh, the curator of the exhibition’s textile component and the curator at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass., began researching AAA textiles. “A textile dealer brought us a couple of pieces that were AAA in the late ’90s,” says Herbaugh, “and on the selvage, it actually said ‘Associated American Artists, designer, title of piece.’ This was unheard of—designers, typically unsung heroes, rarely get individual credit.” Finding no information online, Herbaugh, used the sparse holdings she could find in the Archives of American Art and in the Syracuse University library, pieced together a presentation on AAA textiles. “When you Google AAA textiles, you see my early presentation,” says Herbaugh. Seaton did just that, and the two curators connected. Slowly, over time, the exhibition began to come together.

When walking through the presentation at the Grey Art Gallery, the viewer is confronted not only by a cache of incredible prints but also by a picture of 20th-century American life: its imagery, its consumerism, and its industry. Lewenthal, an enthusiastic proponent of contemporary American art, was also an incredible businessman. He used all available resources to support his artists or wares. When asked whether Lewenthal would have used the Internet to promote his business, Seaton, who relied heavily on the connecting power of the web to put together the show, said without hesitation, “absolutely.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: May 2016

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