At Work: The Art of California Labor

Richard V. Correll's 'For Labor's Right to Organize,' 1934

Fiftieth National Bourgeois Art Exhibit; From the personal collection of the Fortune 500, a display of high art which perpetuates the dominance of form over content and reduces artistic creativity to marketable commodities.' 1981, Lincoln Cushing

detail from Domingo Ulloa's 'Painters On Strike,' 1948

Many Californians are aware of San Francisco's 1934 General Strike, but probably few realize to what degree labor movements shaped the state's political and social climate. Even fewer know of the copious art that both inspired and reflected California's labor struggles throughout the 20th century.

"There was a time when all the famous artists in California made art about labor," explained Mark D. Johnson, professor of art at San Francisco State University. A mid-century backlash, however, including the persecution of labor sympathizers in the McCarthy era, has all but erased from public memory the very "vast and compelling" art surrounding the labor movements, he said. Collaborating with arts, history and labor organizations, Johnson helped organize this important exhibition to recover that spirited history as well as recognize today's artists who deal with labor themes.

Gathering more than 100 recent and historical pieces, At Work: The Art of California Labor was the first major show to survey the vast range of California labor art in the past century. At Work's origial debut included two collaborative exhibits, one at San Francisco State University and the other at the California Historical Society in January, 2004 ; a lavishly illustrated book; and a series of lectures and special events. A series of exhibition tours were coordinated by the California Exhibition Resources Alliance (CERA).

A companion book, At Work: The Art of California Labor (California Historical Society Press and Heyday Books), edited by SFSU art professor Mark D. Johnson, presents numerous color plates from the exhibit along with commentary by eminent artists and scholars. At Work: The Art of California Labor was organized by the California Historical Society, the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO, the SF Labor Council, and San Francisco State University. Major funding for At Work was generously provided by the James Irvine Foundation, The Walter and Elise Haas Fund and San Francisco State University.

For more information on ordering the catalog, see the Heyday Press website.

Images from the exhibit and catalog - top, Richard V. Correll's "For Labor's Right to Organize," 1934; middle, Lincoln Cushing's "Fiftieth National Bourgeois Art Exhibit," 1981; bottom, detail from Domingo Ulloa's "Painters On Strike," 1948.

More Labor art links-
Agitate! Educate! Organize! American Labor Posters - Lincoln Cushing and Timothy W. Drescher, Cornell University Press

Database of American Labor Graphics project
Research portal on Labor Culture

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last updated 4/23/2021