The Lost Murals of Williamsburg

By Devon Johnson, Contributing Writer

Devon Johnson is a new contributing writer for Community Arts NYC.  Devon grew up in Brooklyn in NYCHA’s Marcy Development, and is one of our New York based writers. Check out his introductory post here.

Long-Term Installation

Museum Café, 1st Floor of Work by talented Brooklyn Artists from today and yesteryear

This is something interesting and something I, perhaps even you, haven’t known about. The Williamsburg Murals, which were recently reinstalled in the Museum’s newly renovated Café, near theZacarias installation, each of the four Zacarias sculptures will relate to the location of one of the Williamsburg Houses: 163–213 Manhattan, 122–192 Bushwick, 202–254 Graham, and 215–274 Humboldt. The exceptional murals were installed in this area, for more than twenty years, executed by the pioneer American abstractionists Ilya Bolotowsky, (1907-1981) Balcomb Greene (1904-1990) Paul Kelpe (1902-1985) and Albert Swinden (1901-1961) were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project in 1936 during the great depression for Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Houses, one of the earliest public housing projects in New York City.

For decades, art historians and the artists who painted them came to believe that the murals had been lost or destroyed, fortunately, though the murals suffered from neglect over the years, they escaped their confinement and were rediscovered in the late 1980s under layers of paint. After a painstaking restoration, they were returned to public view at the Brooklyn Museum, in 1990 on long-term loan from the New York City Housing Authority in the continuing exhibition Williamsburg Murals: A Rediscovery

If you didn’t know The Williamsburg Housing Project consists of twenty buildings, which are being erected under the supervision of the PWA and the New York Housing Authority. The architectural design is functional. These buildings contain social rooms, which were open to the WPA/FAP for decoration.

This mural below is shown, as it was found over the decades in an abandoned recreation room in the Williamsburg Housing Project. The murals fell victim to passive neglect; the decision to place abstract murals in these rooms was made because these areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment for the tenants. Some of the pictorial elements are visible in the background behind and above the graffiti and to the right of The Ya Ya. There is also a faint triangle to the left of the window on the right. You can tell they went to great lengths to have the murals restored.

NYCHA Williamsburg Murals YAYA

Courtesy of Shamil Salah / Hudson and Salah Art Conservation Studios

The mural, pictured below, and the other murals were found and restored. Their canvas backings were sliced from the walls with pneumatic chisels. Layers of over-painting and grime were removed from the murals with chemical solvents and the application of heat and dry ice. Some had been covered by as many as eight coats of wall paint and, in two instances, painted with rubber cement so they could be used as self-adhesive bulletin boards.

NYCHA Williamsburg Murals

The murals have been placed on long-term loan to the Brooklyn Museum for more than twenty years, and will be on view February 1 through April 28, 2013. Zacarias is the seventh artist in the continuing Raw/Cooked series of work by the New York City Housing Authority and have been on display since 1990 in the continuing exhibition Williamsburg Murals: A Rediscovery.

NYCHA Williamsburg Murals art

Two additional exhibitions in the Raw/Cooked series will take place later in 2013. Williamsburg artist Michael  Ballou will be the eighth Raw/Cooked artist, with an exhibition opening on April 12th, and another artist will be  selected to exhibit in June 2013.

About Alex Holt

I am a local artist from Brooklyn, NY. I love art, design, books, photography, gardening and blogging.
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