Rediscovered W.P.A mural masterpieces from Williamsburg Houses

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. =
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/

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