Review of reviews: Art
Exhibit of the week
The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., through Sept. 3
America’s labor class finally has pride of place at the National Portrait Gallery, and “what better time than now,” said Noah Weiland in The New York Times. An exhibition that shares a floor with the museum’s paintings of the nation’s presidents has gathered more than 75 images of workers, beginning with an 18th-century watercolor of a slave, and many of the figures that follow seem to want to join in the political debates we’re having today. A World War II–era poster by Norman Rockwell proves that ash-smeared coal miners were as much heroes of American industry in 1944 as they were during the 2016 presidential campaign. A famous 1942 Gordon Parks photograph of a Washington, D.C., cleaning woman reminds us that the city’s white power brokers have long depended on a black working class. Dial the clock further back and you see again and again the “devastating” effects of 19th-century industrialization, and how people struggled to survive before our society established any safety nets.
Though the worst days might be behind us, “it’s hard to locate any golden age of the American worker in this exhibition,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Despite the curators’ decision to include Rockwell’s miner and plenty of other images that romanticize physical labor, a more tragic story breaks through. “Seduced into the fiction that work is essential to our humanity” and “beguiled by promises of rising prosperity,” American workers have allowed themselves to be exploited for generations, only to reach this current moment when automation has ended the wealthy’s need for them. “One wishes for some kind of utopian image to end the show, something that says: It didn’t have to be this way.” But instead of pointing out that we could choose an economic system that shares prosperity more evenly, the art mostly delivers more evidence that workers are regarded as disposable— and more cause for anger.
Don’t expect to see many images of cubicle jockeys, suburban office parks, or modern service-industry workers, said Louis Jacobson in the Washington City Paper. The exhibition “defines laborers in the most traditional sense, as workers whose sweat pours out due to heat and physical exhaustion.” Still, amid the familiar century-old images from such celebrated muckrakers as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, you will find “a few welcome surprises.” Winslow Homer’s Girl With Pitchfork creates a hero out of a young hay baler leaning on a towering farm tool, and Shauna Frischkorn has done the same, more than a century later, by creating a 2014 photo portrait of a Subway sandwich shop worker that gives him the dignity of a modern Rembrandt.