“Mr. Gropper, the first question is: Are you a member of the Communist Party?”
William Gropper—painter, political cartoonist, writer and social activist— appeared before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Government Operations headed by Joseph McCarthy in May 1953.1 He had been subpoenaed to account for his painting William Gropper’s America, Its Folklore (1946), a whimsical geography of the country’s folk heroes, from Johnny Appleseed to Rip Van Winkle, prints of which had been distributed in U.S. Information Services libraries abroad. Because these libraries fell under the purview of the State Department, McCarthy’s reach extended to anyone with a published book, document or—in Gropper’s case—print included in a library’s collection. At the height of the 1950s Red Scare, Gropper earned the distinction of being one of only two visual artists to fall afoul of McCarthy’s infamous Communist witch hunt.2
Gropper pleaded the Fifth Amendment to the first question, “on the grounds that I might bear witness against myself.”3 A committee counselor then asked if he were the “William Gropper who has prepared various maps?” The wording (devaluing Gropper’s well-established reputation as a painter and printmaker) implied that Gropper was some kind of covert cartographer for the Soviet Union. Although linking the innocuous Folklore painting to espionage was less Orwellian than Swiftian in its comical incongruity, McCarthy had in fact good reason to suspect Gropper of Communist sympathies. The Folklore “map” gave McCarthy a convenient excuse to extract testimony from arguably the highest-profile artist of the American Left.
The Rebel Worker
By 1953 Gropper had been for almost three decades an ink-dripping thorn in the side of the “ruling class,” puncturing and deflating the egos of politicians, capitalists, dictators and emperors. Gropper had achieved commercial publishing success in the 1920s and ’30s with regular illustrations in Vanity Fair, Vogue and The Nation. A 1935 caricature of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito for Vanity Fair caused an international scandal; copies were impounded in Japanese ports.4 Gropper was equally controversial in his prolific, though less lucrative, career as a cartoonist for radical leftist journals such as Liberator, Freiheit (Freedom), Rebel Worker and New Masses.
His work for these publications— scathing indictments of worker exploitation, militarism and racism, and vicious caricatures of bourgeois capitalists, power-drunk cops and blowhard congressmen—brought him to the attention of the FBI, which opened a file on Gropper in 1941.5 He had been involved since the 1920s with organizations categorized by the FBI as potentially “subversive”—the John Reed Club, the Artists’ Union and the American Artists’ Congress—which intensified the bureau’s scrutiny of him through World War II and into the Cold War.
“I have the honor of being the first artist to have been blacklisted by McCarthy in 1953,” Gropper wrote to a friend over ten years after his subpoena. He described the impact of the blacklist on his life and career:
The blacklist was officially published in a little box on the front page of the NY Times the first week of May 1953, and although it is now more than ten years, I am still blacklisted. I suppose for life, which means that I cannot get a job as teacher or janitor in any school, institution, or government building. I cannot receive an award, or have any of my work exhibited or commissioned. Neither is any of my work to be sent on international shows. Of course, with it goes the concentrated effort to keep my name out of publications, books, or work of any kind, and believe me they do a thorough job.6
Gropper was not exaggerating. The consequences of the blacklist were immediate and devastating: friends abandoned him, galleries returned his work, commissions dried up and previously scheduled exhibitions were canceled.7 A small cadre of supporters rallied, however, when Gropper asked for $500 subscriptions to fund the time and materials to produce a portfolio of lithographs. He chose for the series an appropriate inspiration: “Like Goya, who was moved to create a set of Capriccios etchings of his times,” Gropper wrote in the same letter, “I devoted in solitude, for three years (1953–1956) to express myself on the Inquisitions of our times.”
Gropper’s invocation of Francisco de Goya, the patron saint of artists invested in print as a political medium, suggests the scope of his ambition. The eighty etchings of Goya’s Los Caprichos (1797–1799) skewered the aristocracy, the clergy, the vanities of women, the worldly pride of men and the superstitions of the common people, los pueblos. In his free interpretation of Goya, Gropper drew a provocative parallel between inquisitorial Spain and 1950s America: in both places hearsay, sham trials, false witness and abuses of power ruined reputations and destroyed lives. Excepting the occasional maja or witch, Gropper seldom refers explicitly to Goya’s series. Instead he pays homage through his use of print’s expressive powers and his blistering critique of institutional abuses and injustices. His Capriccios offer a vivid, historically specific response to McCarthyism, “the Inquisition of our times,” as he put it.
From the beginning of his career in the early 1920s, Gropper had used lithography to generate quick, flexible visual responses to contemporary events. For Freiheit (a communist-oriented, Yiddish newspaper) alone he produced thousands of political cartoons between 1924 and 1935.8 Lithographs could be produced relatively cheaply and in enough quantity to remain accessible to working-class audiences, essential to Gropper’s goal of democratizing the distribution of art. The Capriccios shows Gropper testing the limits of his chosen medium. Leftist artist Louis Lozowick, a longtime friend of Gropper’s and himself a brilliant printmaker, wrote that in the Capriccios:
Gropper took advantage of all the technical resources of the lithographic medium: he worked directly on the stone, utilized the full range of tonality from the softest grays to the deepest blacks, created sharp contrasts of chiaroscuro, white and black lines in endless combinations. As a result the emotional impact of the Capriccios is pervasive and at times gripping, incisively conveyed by the draftsman’s virtuosity.9
The Making of a Radical
That emotional impact is due not only to technical virtuosity but to intensely personal content. Gropper refers, for example, to New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century—the crucible of poverty and exploitation in which his radicalism was forged. Born in 1897 to Jewish immigrants from Romania, Gropper grew up in a grim, ghettoized world of tenement housing and sweatshop labor. His mother, a seamstress, worked long hours for little pay in the garment industry. As Gropper later wrote, “The sweatshop gave us our livelihood but robbed us of our mother.”10 This early conviction that his mother was a victim of oppression and profit-mongering shaped his future politics.
Piece Work depicts just such a sweatshop. Workers hunch over their machines, parceled out in a long line. Gropper’s experience as a cartoonist accounts for the print’s loose, wrist-flick draftsmanship, distorted perspective, and heightened expressivity. The contorted limbs and exaggerated features of his figures, in tandem with the charged social criticism, call to mind George Grosz and the influence of Germany’s Neue Sachlichkeit on American leftist artists in the 1920s and ‘30s. Throughout the Capriccios, however, Gropper reserves his Grosz-like savagery for depictions of generals, politicians, judges and robber barons (as in Patrioteers, which features a torch-wielding lynch mob of Groszian cowboy sheriffs and war veterans). His pieceworkers, by contrast, are given poignantly specific physiognomies. Gropper knew these men and women well; he himself had worked as a “bushel boy,” a child laborer shuttling fabric between the warehouse and home workshops.
At Manhattan’s Ferrer Center, one of the “Modern Schools” established in the early 20th century to educate the working classes, Gropper found a ferment of labor activism and socialism with ties to the anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Lozowick remembered the school as an “indiscriminate fraternity” of “‘wobblies,’ bohemians, sailors on leave, society women, hoboes, fanatical idealists, and unscrupulous self-seekers.”11 Visitors and guest lecturers included John Reed, “Big Bill” Haywood, Jack London, Margaret Sanger and Upton Sinclair. Marcel Duchamp dropped in occasionally to play chess.
There, Gropper studied with members of the Ashcan School of painting such as Robert Henri and George Bellows. Their insistence that art should engage with contemporary urban life can be seen in Gropper’s career-long commitment to documenting the world around him. His working-class upbringing and exposure to radical ideas at the center forged his political consciousness and drew him into Communist circles. Censorship soon followed. In 1919, two years after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Gropper was forced to resign from his job as the New York Herald Tribune’s staff cartoonist for having contributed caricatures to Rebel Worker, the organ of the International Workers of the World.12
Several of the Capriccios reveal his cartoonist’s knack for summarizing complex social injustices through succinct, laden narrative. Playmates is a hauntingly cynical song of innocence and experience. The scene initially appears benign: three children climb a tree on which a pair of lovers has carved their heart-framed initials. Closer inspection reveals these are rather malicious-looking children, with shaded eyes and expressions of malignant glee. The print discloses its secret through a disquieting punctum: a severed rope tied to a branch. In the 1930s Gropper, along with his comrades on the Left, contributed anti-lynching images to socialist journals and campaigned on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys. The dangling rope signals Gropper’s view of social relations in the United States—lynching gave the lie to the country’s claim to equal status for its citizens.
In such prints Gropper expresses the grotesquerie of human social relations—the hypocrisy, ambition, resentment and envy that characterize everyday interactions under capitalism. It was only a short step from a lynching tree to the Ladder of Success, an allegory of cannibalistic career climbing. A whirling vortex of figures, teeth bared and eyes flaring, scratch and claw their way toward the ladder—which remains ironically flimsy and out-of-reach. Capitalism’s failures are also invoked in his desolate Graveyard lithograph, which recalls the early years of the Great Depression, when there was no social safety net to catch the victims of economic devastation.
In other lithographs Gropper focuses on institutionalized abuses of power—cruelty and self-serving ambition as a structural component of the whole system rather than personal vices. Politicos is an adaptation of Gropper’s 1935 painting The Senate, in which a bald, bloviating senator addresses a half-empty room of indifferent colleagues; one reads a newspaper, another props his feet on a desk. McCarthy must have felt personally affronted by the image since he asked Gropper, “Were you under orders of the Communist Party at the time you made that painting?”
The question may have prompted Gropper to recycle the theme and composition for Politicos, which bites deeper than the earlier painting. The subject is no longer a pot-bellied windbag surrounded by feckless work-shirkers: now the pyramid of senators in the print’s right-hand corner appear furtive and conspiratorial. Gropper has fitted them all with opaque glasses or depicted their deep, eyeless sockets, so that the positive ideal of “blind justice” is twisted into sightless cruelty. His theme has shifted from the Senate’s impotent indifference to its complicity in the injustices of the McCarthy era.
In another print derived from the artist’s personal experience, Informers depicts a malevolent spirit hovering over a circle of freefalling whistleblowers and gossipers, their mutual finger-pointing a vicious cycle of envy and spite. A witness for the Senate Subcommittee, Harvey Matusow, claimed the Communist journal Daily Worker had employed Gropper directly (in fact they often reprinted his political cartoons without paying him). Matusow later wrote an autobiography, False Witness, in which he confessed that he had been paid to testify against defendants against Gropper and other defendants.13
A New Dawn
Like Goya, whose airborne witches and winged creatures defy earthbound reality, Gropper frequently suspends the laws of gravity to depict a world without foundation, a terrifying rule-free void: bodies fly, flail or float, caught up in a maelstrom. Tornado and Uprooted convey his sense of a nation cut loose from its ethical moorings, tossing helplessly on social and political currents. In his youth Gropper had had faith in the power of the “masses” to rise up and demand equality and justice; in Capriccios he shows them buffeted by forces beyond their control.
The titles Awakening and A New Dawn seem to promise a fresh start, but it may be the “clean slate” scrubbed fresh by catastrophe. The sun of A New Dawn is blotted out by clouds; a Boschian fish fixes its claws to a branch while a wolfish pig, skewered by a knife and fork, howls and a witch shrieks across the post-apocalyptic landscape. An egg nestled in a leafless tree hatches three baby-like humans whose scowling rage recalls the three tree-scampering children in Playmates. Through these Goyaesque grotesques, Gropper condenses the existential threat of nuclear holocaust. One of the most powerful and disturbing images from the portfolio is Nuclear Gods, in which he allegorizes nuclear warfare as hovering piranhas transformed, Godzillalike, into monstrous apparitions.
These forlorn prophecies crystallize the most profound yet telling loss in the Capriccios; Gropper abandoned his mordant wit. His best political cartoons tempered indignation with humor, however bleak or bitter. The lithographs, on the other hand, are united by despair, as if the blacklist had crushed his fighting spirit as well as his career. This may be the portfolio’s most damning verdict on the McCarthy era: that it could turn a rebel and activist-artist into a fatalist, his vision unrelieved by hope.
Even without Gropper’s characteristic humor, the Capriccios is a powerful act of protest, and constitutes the artist’s most sustained and ambitious statement in printmaking. Yet the portfolio has been unjustly neglected, relegated to some scattered private collections and museum storerooms, unstudied and virtually unseen. The blacklist only partially explains Gropper’s fate. The triumph of Abstract Expressionist painting in the Cold War era swept aside a generation of artists like Gropper steeped in Marxism and committed to a partisan social viewpoint.14 In a time when abstraction was trumpeted as a progressive American answer to reactionary Soviet Social Realism, Gropper’s socially conscious homage to Goya’s Caprichos was aesthetically unfashionable and politically untenable.
Today the portfolio stands as a vital primary source for understanding McCarthyism from the inside, as experienced by an artist who throughout his career held the machinery of justice and democracy accountable. The righteous fury fueling his vision of a corrupt sociopolitical system taps into contemporary angers and resentments, while exposing the historical complicity of the American government in propagating fear and failing to protect free speech. As an act of artistic witness, the Capriccios is not only a bracing condemnation of injustice, it is the summit of Gropper’s career: a fierce mix of social criticism, political satire and bleak pessimism.
- The Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations were made available to the public in 2003–4 after a fifty-year gag order. An edited version is available online in PDF format through the website of the United States Senate: http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/McCarthy_Transcripts.htm. William Gropper’s testimony belongs to the records of the Senate Subcommittee’s First Session of the 83rd Congress (May 1953), 388– 392. Quotations from Gropper’s questioning are from these records.
- The other artist targeted by McCarthy was Rockwell Kent. His testimony also appears in the records of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
- Despite his far-left political views, Gropper was not a member of the Communist Party. So why did he plead the Fifth? Something often misunderstood about the McCarthy hearings is that it was not actually illegal in the U.S. to be a Communist; it was illegal not to be officially registered as one. McCarthy aimed to purge the country of insidiously “secret” Communists. Though Gropper was not a party member, it would not have been difficult for McCarthy to link him to a variety of Communist organizations, publications and activities.
- Louis Lozowick, William Gropper (Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1983), 33.
- The most complete scholarly account of Gropper’s career-long battle with censorship and surveillance is Norma Steinberg’s PhD dissertation, William Gropper: Art and Censorship from the 1930s through the Cold War Era (Boston University, 1994).
- Gropper to Jane Sorell in 1964, the director of the A.C.A. Gallery in Rome, one of the few galleries that exhibited his Capriccios portfolio in the mid-1950s. The letter is in the Gropper papers housed at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Steinberg quotes the letter in her introduction, 1–2.
- I am indebted to Steinberg for her thorough chapter covering Gropper’s trial and the production of the Capriccios, “American Inquisitions,” 116–158.
- Patricia Phagan (PhD dissertation), William Gropper and “Freiheit”: A study of his political cartoons, 1924–1935 (City University of New York, 2000).
- Lozowick, Gropper, 61.
- Quoted in Lozowick, ibid., 25.
- Lozowick, Gropper, 9.
- As Lozowick phrases it, “Naturally he was fired—or as Gropper prefers to put it, he fired the Tribune.” Lozowick, Gropper, 27.
- Harvey Matusow, False Witness (New York: Cameron and Kahn, 1955).
- See Serge Guilbaut’s seminal study, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983).