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Philip Reisman (1904-1992)

Coal Town

1939

Tempera on paper, 18 1/4 x 41 1/2 inches. Signed lower right: "Philip Reisman '39"

Exhibitions:

Painting America: Mural Art in the New Deal Era, Midtown Galleries, New York, NY (March 2, 1988 - April 9, 1988, no. 72); The Squibb Gallery, Princeton, NJ (April 17, 1988 - May 12, 1988, no. 64); Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, KS (July 17, 1988 - September 4, 1988); Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015.

Reproduced:

Painting America: Mural Art in the New Deal Era, Midtown Galleries, New York, NY (exhibition catalogue), p. 37; Enduring America (catalogue).

References:

Bush, Martin H., Philip Reisman: People Are His Passion (The Wichita State University, 1986); Park, Marlene and Gerald E. Markowitz, Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal (Temple University Press, 1984), p. 226.

Provenance:

Probably with Midtown Payson Galleries after 1989; acquired from Bermans Auction Gallery, Dover, NJ, October 12, 2005, lot 516.

Notes:

Mounted and framed under glass. Matting obscures inscription (visible in exhibition catalogue photograph) in lower center (“Sketch/ For Post Office Mural/ Mercer, Pa”). New 3/8-inch wood frame by Josef Framing, Inc., New York, NY to overall dimensions of 23 1/8 x 46 ¼ inches. Exhibition labels on reverse from Midtown Galleries, New York, NY; The Squibb Gallery and Wichita Art Museum; gallery label from Midtown Payson Galleries (successor to Midtown Galleries beginning in 1990).

       Born in Poland, Philip Reisman immigrated to the United States at the age of four. Determining to become an artist by the age of ten, he began studying art at the Art Students League in his late teens, supporting himself with odd jobs. Reisman favored subject matter derived from the everyday life he saw about him on the streets of New York City. His compositions are crowded with ordinary people and teeming with activity. Many of Reisman’s works reflected his heightened social conscience---the lower-class New Yorkers who frequently populate his paintings are portrayed with sympathy, humor and respect.

     Beginning in the early 1930s, Reisman was employed by the WPA Federal Art Project on various easel and mural projects in New York City and competed against many of his peers for mural commissions in post offices and other federal buildings. Coal Town is an elaborately rendered study for a post office mural commission in Mercer, Pennsylvania, a small community located about sixty miles north of Pittsburgh in the heart of the coal mining country of western Pennsylvania.

     The overall composition of Coal Town derives from El Greco's View and Plan of Toledo (c. 1610, Museo del Greco, Toledo, Spain, Fig. 1), although this allusion to the Spanish master was likely lost on the competition's judges. From left to right, Coal Town traces the cycle of the coal mining process. In the left foreground, a lonely miner rests with his dog outside the mine entrance. The raw coal moves by rail and chute through the center of the composition toward the smoke-belching refinery which dominates the picture on the right. In the background, Reisman portrays the company town with its modest housing and local church. There is a pronounced ambivalence about the composition: the industrial dominance is fully counterbalanced by the weariness of the miner and the choking atmosphere of smoke and haze. This ambivalence, in all probability, contributed to the decision to award the mural commission to local Pittsburgh artist Lorin Thompson whose mural was entitled Clearing The Land.

      Reisman continued to document the urban scene through the Sixties, Seventies and beyond, portraying the "hippie" culture, the post-Vietnam punk rockers and countless other assorted characters populating New York streets and nightspots of the era, from streetwalkers in miniskirts to streetcorner evangelists. 

     Reisman's style changed little through his long career. His loose yet robust brushwork was heightened by a palette dominated by browns and blues. His work was featured in thirty-eight solo exhibitions over a period of more than half a century beginning in 1931. Reisman died in 1992 at the age of eighty-eight. 

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Fig. 1 - El Greco (1541-1614), View and Plan of Toledo, c. 1610, Museo del Greco, Toledo, Spain.

Previously in the Collection:

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Philip Reisman, Delancey Street, 1948, oil on masonite panel, 24 x 28 1/2 inches.