D.A. Siqueiros & Bloc of Painters
While at Otis Art Institute and studying under Lorser Feitelson, Lehman's interest in painting became a passion. At the time, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orosco, and Diego Rivera were gaining notoriety in Mexico for creating revolutionary art in the form of murals.
In 1932, Siqueiros came to Los Angeles to both avoid legal issues in Mexico and to explore opportunities in the United States. His initial assignment at the Chouinard School of Art, where he taught a class on fresco painting.
Shortly after, Siqueiros had an exhibit in Los Angeles at the Stendhal Gallery. Paintings he did in Los Angeles, as well as others done in Mexico and several large lithographs were shown. Siqueiros gave a lecture on his work and Mexican art in general and announced his intention of doing a fresco at the Plaza Art Center in downtown Los Angeles and asked for volunteers.
Assisted by 20 other artists, his second - but most famous mural Tropical America," ("La América Tropical") was the first large-scale mural in the United States created on an ordinary exterior wall, in a public space on Olvera Street.
Hearing about the revolutionary subject matter, as well as new approach of using mechanical equipment, projections, and the extensive use of the airbrush, Lehman and his high school pals, Guston and Kadish went downtown to meet with Siqueiros and learn more. As Lehman later recalled,
To a young artist, this was an extremely impressive piece of work. In addition, the technique used - cement and paint spayed on with an air gun, fascinated all of us.
After finishing Tropical America, Siqueiros announced the formation of a "Bloc of Painters" to collectively paint in fresco. He, Reuben Kadish, and Phil Guston, "eagerly joined up."
There were about a dozen of us. We met regularly at the house of Luis Arenal, Siqueiros' brother-in-law, and chief assistant - and it was there we did all of our painting. To gain experience and learn technique, we decided to paint portable frescos.
The group was committed to using art to decry matters of social injustice of the time. Following in the footsteps of Siqueiros to use the power of art to inform the public of political issues, the Bloc of Painters chose two themes of the 1930's to represent in their murals: 1) the harsh treatment of the Negro in America and 2) the exploitation of labor by capital. In the headlines at the time were reports of the Alabama Scottsboro boys, arrested and convicted on trumped-up rape charges, in what was in effect a "legal lynching."
The artists worked together and were sponsored by the John Reed Club to have their first group exhibit of approximately 14 frescoes.
Announcements were sent out and everyone was in great anticipation of this event... The frescos were extremely heavy, were set up in the exhibit hall on a Thursday. They were just leaned against the wall, not mounted. The next day, Friday, we were scheduled to open. But very early that morning I received a telephone call saying that all the frescos has been destroyed by the police.
The evening before the show was to open, the Los Angeles "Red Squad" attacked and destroyed every one to insure that the controversial images would never reach the light of day. Two of the frescoes Lehman worked on were ruined. Analogy: Capital/Labor shown to the right is the only remaining photograph of one of the destroyed murals.
Harold found out about the destruction the following day when he got a call from his aunt who reported having read an article in the Los Angeles Times that morning about the attack on the paintings. He and the other artists went to the gallery and saw all their work turned to rubbish on the floor. Nothing was salvageable. From the blows made by the police hitting the frescoes with the butts of their rifles, all that remained of the frescoes were crumbled bits on the floor. The art critic of the Los Angeles Times, Arthur Millier reported,
A series of frescoes done by the 'Syndicate' and raided at the John Reed Club showed Negroes being 'oppressed' by the Law.... Communist propaganda paints a false and exaggerated picture to accomplish one end - the destruction of existing institutions. No matter how brilliant such work may sometimes be, its merit as Art is no justification for its preservation.
The artists hired a lawyer to sue the police for the vandalism and destruction of their artwork. It was a notorious trial at the time. The judge was hostile to them from the start and the political atmosphere at the time was antagonistic to anything that challenged the status quo, especially with the theme of revolution or anti-capitalism. The artists had to provide evidence and witnesses to prove that they were not revolutionary - even if the artwork was...
At the hearing, the artists' lawyer presented photographs of the destroyed frescoes. The judge examined the photographs. He didn't like the idea that creative people would engage in this type of expression. To prove the value of the works of art in front of the judge, the lawyer brought an art dealer into court by the name of Murray Hantman to support the artists.
The defense attorney for the police showed the photographs of the frescoes to Hantman, asking after each one - "How much was this one worth?" Hantman would give a figure. After going through all of the photographs, the lawyer produced the same photographs a second time, and not realizing it, Hantman gave different answers regarding their worth. The lawyer responded, "How come now you're saying it was worth $400, when ten minutes ago you said it was worth $300?" (approximate figures) In this way the lawyer discredited and undermined the only witness the artists had and as a result the judge threw out the case, falsely concluding that the painters themselves might have destroyed their own paintings for the publicity and to increase the value of their own artwork.
Bloc of Painters. Postcard to promote the exhibit at the John Reed Club on Feb 17, 1933
Analogy: Capital/Labor. Harold Lehman. Portable fresco created as a member of the the Bloc of Painters organized by Siqueiros and destroyed by the Los Angeles Red Squad.
Untitled. Reuben Kadish. Portable fresco created as a member of the the Bloc of Painters organized by Siqueiros and destroyed by the Los Angeles Red Squad.
Untitled. Luis Arenal. Portable fresco created as a member of the the Bloc of Painters organized by Siqueiros and destroyed by the Los Angeles Red Squad.