The town of Roosevelt, New Jersey, is 1.92 square miles, 77 years old, and has a population of about 900. That makes it smaller, younger, and less populated than most New Jersey communities.
Yet for what the town lacks in satistics, it more than makes up in cultural history.
Roosevelt was a New Deal-era planned cooperative community that mixed English Garden City design and Bauhaus architecture, settled by former New York-based Jewish garment workers, aimed to build its economic base on industry and agriculture, but, instead, became a center for artists — including prominent international, national, and state figures.
Originally called Jersey Homestead, the name was changed in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose administration initiated the project that created the town that is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Artists of Roosevelt,” the current exhibition of 42 art works at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, provides a small reminder of this major presence in the museum’s second floor Riverside gallery. Considering the volumes of contributions that the small town continues to offer, it is not surprising the exhibition on view through Sunday, May 25, continues in the museum’s hallways.
Curated by the museum’s Margaret O’Reilly, the exhibition is the last in a series organized as part of “Concentric Circles of Influence: The Birth of Artists’ Communities in Central New Jersey.”
Arts writer, artist, and U.S. 1 contributor Ilene Dube and Bernstein Gallery (at the Wilson School at Princeton) curator Kate Somers coordinated the “Circle” project that was launched in January with exhibitions by the members of Queenston Press — a cooperative of women artists that began meeting in the 1970s. Those exhibitions continue on view at the Princeton Historic Society’s locations on Nassau Street and Updike Farm until Sunday, July 13.
The curators describe the project as “a series of art exhibits, film, gallery talks, and panel discussions that focus on notable art communities that developed in central New Jersey beginning in the late 1930s. The exhibitions are being offered in venues across the region and explore the role New Jersey has had as a creative cauldron since the mid-20th century.”
The “Artists of Roosevelt” highlights the efforts and serves as a sampler of works by some of the town’s most prominent visual artists, though the town also includes a good number of writers and musicians.
Attention is paid to the phenomenon of overlapping generations of artists — with artists sharing names and years.
Rightfully prominent is Ben Shahn (1898 to 1969) — an internationally known artist who arrived in New Jersey in 1937 when he was commissioned by the federal government to create his first major mural in the town’s school.
Born in Lithuania, Shahn came to the U.S. in 1906 and began as a lithographer in Brooklyn. He was an American realist who incorporated themes of social issues into his work. One of his influences was Mexican painter and mural artist Diego Rivera, with whom Shahn worked on the controversial Rockefeller Center mural, “Man at the Crossroads.” Shahn’s vision and content were also shaped by his involvement with the Work Progress Administratio (WPA) and the Farm Security Program.
While Shahn’s main interest was the human situation, his work favors an expressive style that is less concerned with realism and favors bold and often rhythmic lines, planes of colors, and lettering — many traits of a lithographer — to create works that command attention and resonate with social significance.
The Trenton exhibition features several Shahn works that show his range: the Depression-era government poster (the 1937 “Don’t Take Chances With Your Eyes Wear Goggles” ); the overt social statement “Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” (a 1958 print that features the caricatures of the two Italian anarchists — whose conviction for murder and execution remain controversial and clouded — and a text of one of the men’s final interviews); the 1936 “Seward Park,” a work that affectionately memorializes the personalities of four “regular” men on a bench; a 1950 Christmas card for UNICEF; and a series of lively Hebrew-themed drawings for a Haggadah (the text for the Passover Seder).
Shahn’s subjects and themes in many ways suggests the internal landscape of the community that comprised other artists who passed through seasons marked by political winds, injustice, and the awareness of the joys and struggles of just being human. While many of the artists were Jewish, others had different religious backgrounds or were secular humanists.
In the exhibition, Shahn is joined by two small works by his wife, Bernarda Bryson Shahn: the 1946 satirical illustration “Military Housing” — sharp lines depicting a crowded and comfort-compromised family in such a facility — and the 1990 “Late Winter Sky,” a natural landscape that is both quiet in mood and intense in strength of artistic control. Bryson served as an illustrator in the WPA and later was celebrated as master of the large, magically charged paintings that she created until her death at age 101 in 2004.
These two original Roosevelt artists were soon joined in New Jersey by painter, illustrator, and chair of Pratt Institute’s fine arts department Jacob Landau, an artist well identified with the community. Included in the exhibition are two 1978 paintings that demonstrate this artist’s affinity for abstracted figures, use of bold colors, and social consciousness. The works additionally “speak” through quotes from the Biblical prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The compositions were also realized in towering stained glass windows at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
Other first-wave Roosevelt artists include New York City-born artist, illustrator, and McDowell Colony director Gregorio Prestopino (1907-1984). Look for his powerfully constructed and disturbing “1932,” a Depression-era work that brings the pain of that era alive through contrasting tones and shapes that contrast the cleavage in society between the haves and the hungry, the satiated and the near desperate.
Photographer Sol Libsohn (1914-2001), the New York-born self-taught photographer who in addition serving in the WPA (and later as a photography instructor at Princeton University) had works included in the famed 1955 “Family of Man” photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and national magazines such as Fortune and Ladies Home Journal. A trio of silver-print photos in Trenton shows his eye for clear rhythms and patterns in both machinery and in human interaction.
And Edwin and Louise Rosskam, the artists-photographers married-couple who were on the forefront of documentary photography and worked with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the U.S. Treasury Department, the Office of War Information, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, and the Puerto Rico Office of Information. The “River Bank — Pittsburgh 1945” is an example of their simple and direct work in capturing the everyday moment that quickly becomes history.
The two are also represented by their individual work. The German-born and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) trained Edwin (1903-1985) was a noted for socially conscious photographs that ran in major American magazines and is credited with coining the term “photojournalism.” The approach is reflected by his 1937 “Families of Nationalist Demonstrators,” taken in Puerto Rico, and providing faces to a movement.
The Philadelphia-born and PAFA trained Louise (1910-2003) has been called one of the “pioneers of the golden age of documentary photography” also published in national publications and in her final work photographed the changing central New Jersey farmlands. Here her 1944 “Amateur Radio Night” in Wyoming captures of simple moment of pleasure.
The couple moved to Roosevelt in the early 1950s, in part to continue their association with Shahn, with whom they worked with FSA. Edwin also wrote a book titled “Roosevelt, New Jersey: Big Dreams in a Small Town and What Time Did to Them.” It is a journalistic account of the good ideals and human foibles of something decidedly Garden State: a stelt with Jersey accent.
A second wave — or generation — of Roosevelt artists includes Stefen Martin (1936-1994) who was raised mainly in Roosevelt to artist parents. His work in the exhibition includes the painstakingly realized wood engraving “Stream Edge” that provides the suggestion of moving water; a 1970 ink wash on paper “Portrait of Ben Shahn” that mixes empty space, thick black lines, and clouds of black to create a portrait of that artist is that is both solid and fluid; and the 1968 collaborative woodblock print “Baseball,” a work celebrating action that was drawn by Ben Shahn, carved by Martin, and signed by both.
Jonathan Shahn — Ben’s son, born in 1938 — demonstrates classicalism and something more in the depictions of three heads (two sculptures and one drawing). While his 1976 bronze bust of his wife shows his expertise in realizing semblance, his incised markings around the eyes and mouth mutely attract the eye and provide a life-like presence beyond form. A nearby bust made in wood echoes the former and show’s Shahn willingness to allow the use the media for additional artistic effect. And a drawing of a head — a coiling of lines against a vast white background — indicates that this Shahn (son of the formerly mentioned Shahns) is one of the most accomplished and capable artists in the state.
Sculptor Leonid Siverive, a Ukraine-born (1956) and Israel-raised artist whose move to Roosevelt in the 1990s contributes to the community’s immigrant and Jewish connection, has two works on display that show his interest in both representational form and seemingly futurism-styled abstraction (and representation of movement). That’s certainly the case with the bust where one side is a neutral and still representation of a man’s head: the other side suggests how the eye detects movement in blurry trace lines.
Finally, there are Bill Leech and Ani Rosskam, a married couple who work both together and independently. Although Leech is currently using stencils (for immediacy and sensation) and new approaches that bring him “new life” and “the unexpected,” his works in the exhibition use a light palate to create arrangement of common objects — in his case paint cans — that suggest the abstract designs that he would later create and that are also on display.
Rosskam, whose parents were described above, is represented in the exhibition with a series of collages, a strong three-panel wall piece, “Jolt,” and “The Party,” a sculptural group that serves as a presence that evokes a time, place, and attitude, in a manner not unlike what her parents had done in photography and what her father had done with his book. “The Party” also provides the opportunity to talk about Roosevelt’s legacy and future and the art created by one of the community members.