The Siqueiros Experimental Workshop

In April 1935, Lehman returned to New York City. The reasons for returning east are unknown. It can be speculated that between his interest in pursuing new opportunities for artists with federally funded projects, and the fact that his girlfriend, Thea, who was the model for Portrait of a Dancer had returned to New York to join the Martha Graham Dance Company, it was time to leave Los Angeles. 

 

In 1936, when the first American Artist's Congress was planned for New York. Siqueiros, along with the Mexican muralist Clementes Orozco came east to attend. During the convention, Siqueiros gained much attention for his fiery speeches and proclamations that the only way modern, progressive art could occur was by joining forces with progressive, social movements. His call for artists to join forces with activists, using the latest available techniques targeting the public with works that were accessible and understood to support revolutions - both in society and in art. 

As Lehman said, 

The basic thing about mural painting is that it’s a message that the artist is giving to the public and, in turn, the message must be received by the public. This kind of give-and-take is an extremely important and valuable one, to both the social and artistic life of this country. 

NY at War Parade, 1942.  Float created by Harold Lehman and the Artists Union for New York City’s United Front parade. The float was an advertisement for donations to the Red Cross.

New York Manifesto

The ideas for these early works were centered around the public use of art, big banners, floats, and big demonstration pieces and things of that nature for parades, gatherings, conventions, meetings. Not particularly for exhibit.

Harold Lehman

May Day Parade Float 1937 created by Siqueiros Experimental Workshop

Gouache study on board by Harold Lehman depicting four uniformed soldiers, one from each of the major Allied nations of WWII. The image was made while Lehman was working at the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop in New York City and was the original sketch for the NY at War Parade float 1941. 

Siqueiros and Lehman had kept in touch knowing that they would soon be living in the same city. Together, at 5 East 14th Street, they established the Experimental Workshop where artists were encouraged to experiment combining different paints that resisted vs. blended together in "controlled accidents."  Pouring paint and then solvents across paintings on the floor certainly had an influence on the later work of Pollock, who became known for the "drip technique."

 

Like any decent revolutionary movement, this one too needed a manifesto.  So, Lehman helped Siqueiros to write and evangelize this new experimental laboratory in the newly formed Artists Union.

 

This workshop intends to be experimental in purpose…. We intend to experiment with new theories of composition in the plastic arts…[and] we intend to experiment with modern methods of working collectively...Through a profound analysis of the relation of traditional techniques to their time, we intend to find the technique of our time;—for we consider also that so-called modern techniques are in reality archaic and consequently anachronistic.

As Siqueiros' assistant, Lehman recruited many American artists, including Jackson Pollock, while Siqueiros brought in artists from Mexico and South America. Their purpose was to do experimental large-scale work using industrial tools and materials. Specifically, no oil paint or canvas was to be used. Automotive enamels and lacquers on wood panels was their medium. It was during this workshop that the drip technique was conceived.

The participants in the Workshop were drawn to the ideas of social justice espoused by Siqueiros.  Much of the work done was for large-scale public artworks supporting the anti-fascist cause - including parades both on land and in the Hudson River. The only remnants of this work often ephemeral in nature, only exist in the interviews of artists from the time who participated, like Lehman, or in archival photographs. In Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (c1989), Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith say:

 

Large Scale Public Artwork

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Collective Suicide, 1936. © 2017 Siqueiros David Alfaro/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

Siqueiros Workshop Float May Day 1936.

Courtesy: Siqueiros Archives.

No matter how large the image, Siqueiros never worked from a drawing or a cartoon, preferring to work directly - in "partnership" with his materials. He studied the dynamics of paint - its density, its viscosity, its flow rate - in an effort to incorporate those dynamics into the image, letting the paint itself help create the painting..."Accidental" images were also created by pouring paints of different colors onto a board, then pouring thinner on top. As the thinner began to flow it would form rivulets though the layers of color, creating "the most fantastic, weird patterns", Harold Lehman recalls..." Many of his images started the same way," says Lehman, " with automatic dissolvings of paint from which he would pick out images and develop them. That wasn't just one of Siqueiros' techniques, it was the technique."

In an article that art historian, Laurance Hurlburt wrote for Art Journal, on the Siqueiros Workshop, he credited Lehman as "an extremely valuable source of information, writing that fortunately, "he retained every scrap of material developed by the Workshop experience."

The Workshop operated in spurts.  Short bursts of activity (for parades, demonstrations, union, etc.) would be followed by periods of relative quiet during which S. would develop his own personal work.

In a letter to Hurlburt, Lehman explained that the construction of floats for political purposes was quite common during the New Deal period. On July 4, 1936 as part of demonstrations being organized by the American League Against War and Fascism for "Anti-Hearst Day" activities, Lehman and some others from the Workshop created a float, which was mounted on a boat.

Lehman_Anti-Hearst-Day-Float_7-4-1936_ed

Siqueiros Workshop Float as drawn from memory by Harold Lehman in 1974. Courtesy: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

..on it two figures, Hearst and Hitler, were seated back-to-back on a construction mounted atop a small boat. The heads revolved, creating two interchangeable figures, which indicated the identical fascist positions of Hearst and Hitler. The sides of the boat were covered with "bloody" (red paint) handprints, symbolizing the suffering of the people at the hands of fascism. The plan was for the float to pass in front of the masses enjoying the holiday at Coney Island, but due to interference by police authorities and choppy seas, this did not happen.

Harold Lehman

Jackson Pollock, Landscape with Steer, c. 1936–37. © 2017 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

George Cox (left), David Alfaro Siqueiros (center) and Jackson Pollock (right) at a demonstration in New York, 1936. Courtesy of the Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Construction of Farmer and Labor Party May Day Float with Jackson Pollock at lower right. 1936.

Jackson Pollock

In 1966 Lehman was invited to present at Mexico Today - A Symposium in Detroit and speak about his memories of working with Siqueiros both in Los Angeles, and then later at the Experimental Workshop.  Describing the Coney Island Float, he explained that, "a feature of this project was our own hand-prints, representing the protesting victims of Fascism, applied to the surface throughout the design.  Jackson Pollock worked on this float.  As Lehman recalled,

 

I remember well working all night on it and leaving the nexy morning just as Jack was coming in for the day shift.  I showed him what we were doing and how we were doing it.  This had to be a significant moment in Pollock's Workshop experience.  For years later, in a painting called, "No.1 1948" that very image appears - hands upthrust through the paint.  But beyond this specific image, the methods used in the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop - the panels laid flat on the floor, the paint dripped, poured and splattered, the use of the "accidental' and myriad other techniques - all find their echo in Jackson Pollock's later work - in particular, the so-called "Drip Period"... a period I think would be unimaginable without Pollock's Workshop experience. 

Spanish Civil War

At the end of 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out and the Workshop began dedicating work related to support of Loyalist Spain. There were demonstrations and rallies in support of the effort, which added demands for banners, floats, posters, etc. In addition, lithographs were created and sold with all proceeds going to aid Spanish Loyalists. 

 

We decided on the theme 'Spain Today' for which I made a preliminary design.  But then came the bombing of Guernica.  I immediately scrapped the first theme and did another - which I titled (believe it or not) - 'Guernica.'​

Spain Today. 1936 by Harold Lehman

Spain Today. 1936.  Harold Lehman

No 1, 1948.  Jackson Pollock

Courtesy of the Pollock Krasner Foundation.

Siqueiros and all of the Latin-American members were particularly affected by the war and in 1937, Siqueiros made immediate plans to go to Spain. The Workshop continued to function for a few more years, including producing a float for the 1937 May Day Parade and a large curtain decoration for a memorial for victims of German fascism at which Thomas Mann was principle speaker. 

End of the Workshop

Read Harold Lehman's article, For an Artists' Union Workshop, published in Art Front in Oct 1937.

In October 1937, Lehman wrote an article for the Artists' Union Magazine, Art Front, titled, For an Artists' Union Workshop, in which he recounted the history of the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop and urged the Artists' Union members to carry on in the same spirit - to do experimental work collectively for the people. 

By 1942, with the United States participating in World War II, as Lehman said, "everyone was serving the armed forces in one way or another.  

 

The whole atmosphere - political, economic, and cultural was totally changed and the Siqueiros Experimental Worship was now part of history: a cultural phenomenon unique in its time. 

Next chapter - New Deal Murals

Related Images

Siquieros Workshop Members. 1936
Siquieros Workshop Members. 1936

Members of the Siquieros Workshop in discussion. 1936

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Saturday Evening Post - Communism Presses Its Pants.936_L
Saturday Evening Post - Communism Presses Its Pants.936_L

Article about the Siquieros Workshop.

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Jackson Pollock Lithograph. 1936
Jackson Pollock Lithograph. 1936

Lithograph created by Jackson Pollock while in the Siquieros Workshop.

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Siquieros Workshop Members. 1936
Siquieros Workshop Members. 1936

Members of the Siquieros Workshop in discussion. 1936

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