Exhibition of the Month: Edmund Lewandowski

Last month I introduced you to a new feature on this blog where I discuss one of the outreach exhibitions I’ve been researching. For the inaugural post, I described Arms and Armor, one of the Met’s Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions. This month, we’ll consider an offering from the Federal Art Project, FAP #292: Edmund Lewandowski.

Edmund Lewandowski, Water Tower #4, ca. 1936, watercolor on paper, Detroit Institute of Art. This painting was one of the works featured in FAP #292: Edmund Lewandowski. Image source: | Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (dia.org)

Historical Background

Community art centers hosted two different kinds of exhibitions. The first group consisted of locally-organized shows. These exhibits generally didn’t travel, or only regionally if they did. They usually featured artists or students, but could also highlight businesses, industries, or history. The Utah State Art Center in Salt Lake City, for example, proposed a “Back to School” exhibition in 1938 to showcase businesses specializing in school supplies. Abraham Slifkin and John Marfyak, two artists on loan to the Roswell Museum from New York, channeled MoMA’s influential 1934 exhibition Machine Art by presenting toasters and other industrially-produced appliances as design.

The second group consisted of shows organized by the Exhibition Section, the FAP’s exhibit branch. Established in 1936, the FAP created this office in response to the demand for exhibits from art centers. Under the supervision of Mildred Holzhauer, it curated over 500 exhibitions between 1936 and 1942, with each show assigned a number. Shows traveled around the country by train because freight shipping was the most cost-effective method. Exhibitions typically highlighted FAP work, but historical collections, private holdings, and other topics also appeared. The Exhibition Section curated the show we’ll be looking at today, and it appeared in art centers all over the country.

About Edmund Lewandowski

Edmund Lewandowski (1914-1998) is an artist associated with Precisionism, an aesthetic movement popularized in the United States after World War I. Recognized for its crisp, linear aesthetic and focus on industrial imagery, Precisionism embodied modernity in both its subject matter and style. Precisionist paintings often distill buildings and other forms to their essential geometric shapes. Charles Sheeler, Elsie Driggs, and Charles Demuth are some of the artists associated with this movement. Howard Cook, an artist I wrote about in an article a few years ago, also experimented with Precisionism in the 1920s.

Lewandowski was born in Wisconsin in 1914, and he attended the Layton School of Art, graduating in 1934. He initially worked in commercial illustration, taking a teaching job to pay the bills. In 1936, Edith Halpert invited him to exhibit at the Downtown Gallery. By the time his work began circulating to community art centers, he had exhibited at MoMA and The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Exhibition

FAP Exhibition #292: Edmund Lewandowski featured 12 watercolor paintings. Several of the works featured trains, tug boats, and gas stations, subjects that evoke both mobility and industry. Yet Lewandowski also explored rural modernity, with several of the paintings depicting grain elevators or barns. Through these scenes, Lewandowski reminded viewers that farming is no less a critical part of modern life than automobiles or freight shipping. Chances are, those cars, trucks, and trains carry crops and other agricultural products.

FAP #292: Edmund Lewandowski as it appeared at the Melrose Art Center in 1939. Water Tower #4 is located on the back wall, next to the stove. Image source: A Finding Aid to the Mildred Baker papers, 1882 | Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution | Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (si.edu)

Given that many of Lewandowski’s prospective audiences would be living in rural areas, including agricultural subjects was a smart move. By featuring barns or grain towers, these paintings connected with viewers who might see similar landmarks in their daily lives. The representational subject matter probably also made the show an appealing choice for the Exhibition Section, as it was modern while remaining visually accessible. For viewers wary of Surrealism or nonobjective works, Lewandowski’s paintings offered an approachable gateway into modern painting. They provided familiar subject matter in a style that was both representational and abstract. In centering rural subject matter, moreover, Lewandowski emphasized the worthiness of nonurban centers as artistic subjects. Life on a farm could be just as modern as living in a city, and just as worthy of creative exploration.

My Thoughts on Lewandowski

I have a soft spot for this show because I happen to like Precisionism. I can understand why viewers might find these works sterile or cold, but I don’t see them that way. The brushwork may not be as self-reflexive as a Beaux or a Sargent, but it’s there if you’re willing to look. As a printmaker who’s always struggled with getting a clean registration, moreover, I’m in awe of Precisionists who could nail their impressions with every detail cleanly rendered.  

FAP #292 also demonstrates the prominence of new or upcoming artists in Exhibition Section shows. Lewandowski was in his early 20s when this show debuted. He’d already had several important exhibition opportunities, but that’s still ridiculously young. For all its paternalism and other problematic qualities, the FAP did make a point of showcasing both new and established artists. To have that kind of national exposure so early in your career really stands out to me.

Finding Lewandowski

I also like this show because I know what a lot of the pieces in it looked like. The Exhibition Section didn’t include images in its checklists. For many of the shows then, I only have titles and measurements, and the former can often change over time. It’s for this reason that I’ve generally concentrated on prints, because multiple impressions mean I have a better chance of identifying works.

Fortuitously enough, however, Lewandowski’s watercolors were photographed while on view at the Melrose Art Center in early 1939. Through those photographs, I was able to identify one of the paintings, Water Tower #4. Grant it, there are still 11 other works I need to find, but every identification counts.

Stay Tuned for Next Month

So that’s the exhibition for this month. What did you think? Are you also a fan of Precisionism, or do you prefer your paintings a little less linear? If so, fear not, because next month we’ll be turning our attention to the VMFA Artmobile and the Italian Renaissance.

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