Around 1970 my grandmother gave me a print by Käthe Kollwitz—Stehender Weiblicher Akt (Standing female nude, 1900)—that she had acquired a decade earlier in exchange for a week’s salary from her job as a sales clerk at Gimbels department store, where the print had been for sale under the Associated American Artists label. She owned no other original art and the presence of the Kollwitz in her belongings was a reflection of AAA’s unique role in the development of middle-class taste in art and design, its innovative promotion of affordable American art in the middle of the 20th century, and ultimately its extension of powerful and expressive art to a new demographic.
The remarkable story of this singular endeavor is the subject of Art For Every Home: Associated American Artists, 1934–2000, the first comprehensive overview of the organization and its rise and fall. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of some 150 prints, paintings, ceramics, textiles and ephemera organized by the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University (whose collection of Regionalist artists represents many of the artists who were central to AAA), the exhibition catalogue also serves as a checklist,1 and is further accompanied by a companion index of AAA prints, fabrics and decorative arts, downloadable as a PDF.2
AAA’s origins date to 1934, when an artists’ agent and promoter named Reeves Lewenthal convened a meeting of 23 American artists at the studio of Thomas Hart Benton to propose a unique art-marketing enterprise that would combine quality, affordability and volume in a profitable business model. Lewenthal, understanding the egalitarian character of prints, recognized the potential for sales of original prints to the middle class, to whom fine art had not been a financially or culturally accessible—or even necessarily desirable—commodity. His avowed mission was to create “a national movement directed to stimulate wider public interest in the ownership of fine works of art,” and he promoted those artists whose work he believed would appeal to the general public. Of the 750 artists Lewenthal initially invited, 40 agreed to take part, including Benton, John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, Adolph Dehn and Peggy Bacon. Joseph Hirsch and Paul Sample were among those who took up printmaking at Lewenthal’s encouragement. The scale of AAA’s print activity was unmatched at the time: between 1934 and 1945 it published more than 600 prints, primarily etchings and lithographs, in editions of 125 to 250 individually signed impressions and sold them for as little as five dollars (about $90 today). A 1941 advertisement reads, “What! Only $5 for a SIGNED ORIGINAL by Thomas Benton, the Great American Artist. Yes, Incredible, but True!” Over its 66 years, AAA produced more than 480,000 individual impressions.
Recognizing that few Americans lived near art galleries or were inclined to visit them, Lewenthal sent direct mail order catalogs throughout the country listing new works and profiling featured artists, and he advertised widely in popular magazines such as Time and Reader’s Digest. AAA also sold original art through department stores and galleries. It invented new marketing tools and systems of distribution for original art and, most importantly, it created new audiences.
Lewenthal selected and commissioned work from a stable of Regionalist and realist artists, eschewing imagery that reflected European avant-garde ideas and influences. During the Great Depression, Lewenthal offered artists some considerable measure of financial security—$200 ($3,500 in today’s dollars) for each print project, a monthly stipend and health insurance—as well as the opportunity to extend the reach of their work. The artists enjoyed expressive freedom in their choice of subjects and approaches, but wholesome, familiar and innocuous subjects such as bucolic landscapes with woodland fauna sold best, and AAA in the 1930s was nearly unerring in gauging the tastes of middle-American consumers.
By its second year the organization was showing significant profits and in 1938 expanded its offerings to include limited edition “gelatone lithographs”—photomechanical reproductions of oil paintings by its best-selling artists, which were advertised as indistinguishable from the originals. In 1939 AAA began a long relationship with Abbott Pharmaceuticals, which commissioned artists to create war bond posters and paintings documenting the war effort at home and overseas. AAA also arranged commissions for its artists for movie posters, book covers, magazine ad campaigns and playing cards. After World War II, the organization responded to the nation’s new prosperity and rise in home ownership by introducing artist-designed textiles for interior design and apparel, as well as ceramics and dinnerware under the trade name “Stonelain.” Modernism and abstraction found their way into popular taste through Miró-inspired stoneware platters and Picasso-esque ashtrays. At the same time, however, AAA’s sales of art began to decline, and in the early 1950s its print publishing slowed to one catalogue per year; in 1956 it ceased to issue prints at all.
Then in 1958 Sylvan Cole took over the leadership of AAA and its New York gallery, and revived the publication of contemporary prints. Cole expanded AAA’s range with a wider array of styles, including geometric abstraction and surrealism, and an international array of European, Latin American and Japanese artists, most notably David Hockney, who created the etchings Jungle Boy and Snake and Edward Lear for AAA in 1964. The 1970s saw the publication of more than 500 prints by more than 200 artists, as well as 130 exhibits at gallery locations in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Beverly Hills. Mail order sales were discontinued, but AAA began to distribute antique prints, primarily restrikes by old master and 19th-century artists including Rembrandt, Corot and Degas. Cole believed firmly in the founding premise of AAA that art should be affordable to the general public, and he disapproved of the high prices that accompanied the ambitious editions produced by the new generation of collaborative print workshops such as U.L.A.E., Gemini G.E.L. and Tyler Graphics. He held to the AAA model of affordability for over 20 fruitful years before finally conceding its obsolescence, leaving to start his own gallery in 1983. In the meantime, competition for artist-designed housewares and fabrics forcedAAA to drop its activities in that realm. After several changes of corporate ownershipAAA went out of business in 2000. Its leaders could not have anticipated the advent of online art sales platforms like Etsy and eBay.
This sprawling, exhaustively re-searched catalogue reflects the longevity and scope of Associated American Artists. The history of the organization is admirably presented by exhibition curators Elizabeth G. Seaton, of the Beach Museum, Jane Myers, former senior curator of prints and drawings at the Amon Carter Museum, and Gail Windisch, the retired Los Angeles lawyer whose research into the company formed the basis for the show. In a series of brief essays, Beach Museum curator Bill North discusses AAA’s reproductive “gelatones” and “paintagraphs”; art historian Kristina Wilson weighs in on the organization’s ceramics and interior design advice; Karen Herbaugh, of the American Textile History Museum, discusses “Textile Art for the Masses”; and art dealer Susan Teller offers a personal reminiscence of her years at AAA with Sylvan Cole. One particularly fascinating section, by Laura Kuykendall, traces the commissioning of John Steuart Curry’s painting Our Good Earth by <AAA, Abbott Laboratories and the U. S. Treasury Department. Curry’s farmer in a wheat field evokes Michelangelo’s David (1501–1504) and Millet’s The Sower (1850) to promote patriotism and agricultural heroism; the image was issued as a war bond pamphlet, the cover of an informational booklet on farming, a poster, an advertisement and a limited edition lithograph, while the original painting was exhibited in AAA’s New York gallery. No work better represents the far-reaching alliance of artistic expression, business interests, government policy, popular sentiment and media distribution that was stimulated by AAA.
A jewel of scholarship, the book also includes a chronology, bibliography, and exhibition checklist. With so many moving parts (foreword, introduction, chronology, essays, insets, appendices, notes and index) the book has many interruptions, but its fine design enables one to linger occasionally on especially lovely, noteworthy or representative pieces, and successfully accommodates the density and scope of the material. Written in clear and cogent prose (all the more remarkable given the involvement of so many contributors), Art for Every Home rewards, even requires, close reading and careful attention. It makes exploring the colossal enterprise of AAA a pleasure.
- The exhibition traveled to the Grey Art Gallery at New York University and will be installed at the Syracuse University Art Galleries in January 2017.