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Modernism

Redefining Schools in the Post-World War II Years

In the post-World War II years, public school art took off. An undercurrent of familiarity imbued some commissions, while others broke new ground. More funding, a greater variety of materials, and art opportunities such as climbable sculptures, helped push the envelope. New York City had become the center of the art world, broadening the possibilities for public school art. European artists such as Hans Hofmann fled to New York to escape the war, and others, like the expatriate sculptor Mary Callery, returned home, bringing the lessons of European Modernism with them. Some artists, such an Anton Refregier, Jack Lubin, and Frank Reilly, who designed a mosaic mural featuring great scientists for the then new Bronx High School of Science, continued the approach favored by New Deal artists and celebrated local history of school activities using representational imagery. Still others, such as Ben Shahn and Max Spivak, built on their public art experience with New Deal projects but worked in new mediums and styles. Others returned to a more traditional model of public school art and sought to inspire by their use of figurative or semifigurative allegory.

There was no single artistic response to Modernist architecture, and artists used varying degrees of abstraction with varying degrees of success. For Hofmann, the primary problems were aesthetic: scale, location, color, form, and medium. Conversely, Ben Shahn, who had always been concerned with audience response and the accessibility of his work to the general public, believed that effective public art could not be totally nonobjective. He used abstract elements to structure the composition for his school mural, but for him content was paramount. Thus, he created his mural around a specific message for a particular public—the students.

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