Modernist Strategies: Highlights from the WPA

Saturday, Jun 5 – Dec 23, 2021

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
College of Fine and Applied Arts
500 E Peabody Dr.
Champaign, IL 61820

From 1935 to 1943, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sponsored the Federal Art Project, which employed as many as 10,000 artists during the Great Depression. In exchange for a modest weekly wage, artists produced paintings, sculptures, prints, and other works to be distributed to federal buildings and other public institutions. The University of Illinois received an extensive cache of works, which were transferred to Krannert Art Museum upon its founding in 1961.

Many works produced under the WPA portrayed scenes of everyday life—images of urban and rural landscapes, leisure activities, and industrial growth—as well as depictions conveying the grief, anxiety, and hardship brought on by economic inequity and other social injustices, typically rendered in realist, representational styles.

However, as this installation highlights, artists also explored these themes through modernist visual strategies, including abstraction, expressive color, compressed or flattened space, and a reduction of detail. Artists used these strategies to visually communicate the heightened psychological tension and anguish experienced by many during this time. Modernist Strategies: Highlights from the WPA will include prints and paintings that navigate a fractured world, convey the struggles of the everyday person, and explore the fraught relationship between workers and the industries that employed them.

This installation is featured as a newly installed exhibition space in Summer-Fall 2021, then transition a Collection Gallery where works from the WPA will be exhibited with periodic rotations.

Curated by Kathryn Koca Polite, Assistant Curator