A few years back the excellent art and architecture website SOCKS Studio made a post featuring “The diesel era lithographs of Louis Lozowick, 1920s-1940s.” They included some of his biographical details along with examples of his work. I would like to expand briefly on Lozowick’s role in disseminating principles of the Soviet avant-garde as well as his political involvement in American communism during the interwar period.
Lozowick was a Russian-Jewish émigré who spent the majority of his life in the United States. Born in 1892 outside Kiev, then part of the Ukrainian province in the Russian Empire, Lozowick fled the pogroms that followed the 1905 Revolution by moving to New York in 1906. He continued his training as an artist and worked as an illustrator until the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, whereupon he renewed his commitment to Marxist politics.
Frequently contributing to such periodicals as Broom and Transition, Lozowick later helped found the journal New Masses in 1926. One year after the infamous trial of the Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, Lozowick designed a very constructivist cover to commemorate their martyrdom. Prior to that, he’d already begun a series of lithographs portraying major American industrial cities in bold, angular contrasts. Each painting was given simply the name of the city portrayed as its title — New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, etc. — and were widely reprinted.
Sometimes he would paint versions of these stylized cityscapes. His choice of colors was sometimes reminiscent of other artists in the Precisionist movement, as it came to be called, as well as European and Soviet artists. Compare, for example, his piece Cleveland (1927) with the Industrial Scene (1930) rendered by his fellow precisionist painter Miklos Suba. Or else view Lozowick’s Red Circle (1924) alongside Victor Servranckx’s Factory (1922). Max Thalmann’s woodcut of a Manhattan cross-street from 1925, a narrow valley flanked by towering skyscrapers on either side, presages Lozowick’s Bulloch Hall ten years later. Likewise, though left uncolored, Lozowick’s Corner of a Steel Mill resembles a colorful fantasy by Iakov Chernikhov. During a trip to Kyrgyzstan, Lozowick depicted the construction underway in Soviet Central Asia in a manner akin to his depictions of industrialism in the US. The similarities are everywhere striking.
After the atrocities of Nazi Germany became known in 1945, Lozowick joined many of his peers in reluctantly supporting Zionism. Heartbroken by the loss of so many of his friends and relatives, he donated to various charities for Israel. For this, he would be listed in a pamphlet circulated by the virulently anticommunist and antisemitic Senator Jack Tenney, The Zionist Network. Lozowick’s memoirs were gathered and posthumously published as Survivor from a Dead Age. If anyone has a copy and would like to scan and upload it, I’d be very grateful.
Below you can read “A Note on Modern Russian Art,” written by Lozowick for Broom in 1923. You can also scroll through a gallery of his lithographs by clicking on any of the icons that follow.
A note on modern Russian art
It is well the devil can quote Scripture: we know thereby the character of Satan, even if we are in the dark as to Holy Writ. St. Paul of Aix, St. Apollinarius of Paris, Revelation, Apocrypha and other books in the Bible of modern art have been quoted so copiously and interpreted so liberally by the modern Russian artists, in their fight against orthodoxy, that their own identity is never left in doubt.
The advent of the Soviets resulted in a heightened productivity among modern Russian artists. Whatever state patronage of the arts may be worth in general, it is undeniable that in Russia the Soviets gave a great impetus to artistic effort by inaugurating a program of reform on a scale hardly paralleled in any other modern State. They abolished the old Imperial Academy, organized a Free College of Artists in its place, opened new free art schools, established Museums of modern art (Museums of Artistic Culture) organized popular lectures and traveling exhibitions, supported the artists, bought their works, employed them in staging popular revolutionary festivals, issued new art publications — in a word did everything to encourage the growth of art and to bring it nearer to the masses.
Artistic activity rose to tremendous proportions, and yet the threads connecting modern Russian art and the Revolution are a little difficult to trace because the period is so brief and the schools are so various. There is, in the first place, an extreme preoccupation with social theory, an attempt to stress the obvious parallel between the political and artistic revolutions, to break with the past in order to create new art forms just as the Soviets had broken with the past to create a new State; a desire to bring art nearer to life, to make art an integral part of it, to concentrate the constructive essence of the revolution in pictorial form that would have universal import and become eventually universal property.
This brings up the second great preoccupation of modern Russian artists: art theory. Formally modern Russian art is up in revolt against the older Russian art and in particular against the didacticism of the Wanderers [Peredvijniki] and the aestheticism of the World of Art [Mir Iskusstva]. The Wanderers — Perov, Kramskoi, Gué, Vereshchagin, Repin — painted illustrated sermons intending to make evil men good, and good men better. It was art with a mission and a message. The members of the World of Art — Benois, Golovin, Korovin, Somov, Roerich, Bakst — admitted one message: Art for art’s sake, and one mission: Beauty.
The modern Russian artists summarily reject the methods of both. Art has a social function, certainly, but this can best be exercised if the formal laws of art are observed. The ethical significance of art is in direct proportion to its aesthetic quality. But it is, precisely, in this respect that the older schools are found wanting. One makes disagreeable facts a little less attractive, the other makes agreeable facts a little more attractive. Both dilute life into anecdote and the method of procedure is in both cases very much the same, must of necessity be so, for the practice of both is based on imitation. The modern Russian artists base their practice on creation. They, too, hold life paramount but their attitude to it and their conception of it can be fully materialized only if the barrier between them and life is removed — if imitation as a method is abandoned. The modern Russian artists demand before all else mastery of technique, skill of workmanship, and devote themselves to a thorough going study of the elements peculiar to each art: the structure and stability of a picture; color: its hue, shade, value, weight; materials: their texture and solidity; space, volume, depth; form: balance and relation of masses and planes.
The reaction began with the Jack of Diamonds [Bubnovy Valet], a school of Cezannists — Mashkov, Konchalovsky, Rojdestvensky, Lentulov Falk — which tried to solve anew Cezanne’s problems. The artists did not seek, like the Impressionists, to record a fleeting, transient impression, but rather to fix the stable and permanent. They employed natural form, but ordered the planes and balanced the masses of their pictures with a view to structural significance.
The Cubists — Morgunov, Ekster, Udaltsova, Popova, Pevsner — selected what appeared to them most essential in the art of Cezanne and went as far in the same direction as seemed logically inevitable. They used color and form not as elements necessary to represent concrete visual objects but as autonomous elements, as bricks used in the construction of a picture. They attempted to introduce a perspective of depth instead of distance and to set planes in a given direction to express spatial relations.
The Suprematists — Malevich, Ekster, Rodchenko, Dievin, Lissitzky, Rozanova — tried to carry the analytic process of Cubism to its logical conclusion. They sought to get rid of what appeared chaotic in cubism by employing a greater economy of means. They combined pure elementary colors and simple elementary forms in a manner to suggest movement and create rhythm. Malevich, the leader of the movement, carried simplification so far as to paint a black disk on a white square. Then he made the next step and painted White on White. To be sure, the two whites differ in hue and texture. Rodchenko one of his ablest pupils, painted Black on Black (mat and glossy). Then he made the last step by painting three square canvasses in the three elementary colors, red, blue, and yellow respectively. Does that mean that art has at last reached a blind alley? Rodchenko who passed from Suprematism to Constructivism would answer in the negative. There is a passage into the open. It is the passage leading from art to production. Art should merge with life. Autonomous art has no longer any important function to perform. But the artist has. He should devote his organizing, creative faculties to the productive industrial processes and thus relinquish his parasitic existence. Rodchenko was true to his doctrine: he gave up the practice of art.
Not all constructivists — Medunetsky, Sternberg, loganson, Klutsis, Lissitzky, Tatlin — hold the same views. Another tendency grants the legitimacy of artistic activity, although it would transform that in harmony with the demands of the new age. Art should root in the weightiest realities of our day. These are science and industry. The Constructivists, therefore, go for instruction to science and borrow an example from industry. Like science they aim at precision, order, organization; like industry they deal with concrete materials: paper, wood, coal, iron, glass. Out of these, new objects — not pictures — are created not imitative of reality but built with a structural logic to be utilized eventually, just as steam was utilized long after its discovery; — new objects that can affect society just as they are rooted in it. Hence the Constructivists consider their work strictly utilitarian. Technical processes organize dead materials; constructivist art would mold the new social personality.
There are still other versions of the Constructivist doctrine, all of them having at their core what one might call irreverently a romantic adoration of the machine. The law of contrast, perhaps. It was in the classical land of Political Economy, the Industrial Revolution, and urban centralization — it was in England that landscape painting had its rise.
Tatlin, one of the most prominent representatives of this tendency, attempted in his Monument to the Third International, to unite art and science and to create a utilitarian work. This monument comprising three stories (cube, pyramid, cylinder) rotating at different velocities (year, month, day) brings the time factor into his work. In different connection and on a smaller scale, the sculptor Gabo also introduces dynamism into his work. He seeks to establish in his sculpture an interrelation of forces rather than of masses. Gabo operates, like Archipenko, with the concave instead of the convex surface common in sculpture, and attempts to solve his novel problems in plastic glass constructions.
Archipenko holds high rank among modern Russian artists for his structural sculpture, his sculptural painting, his work in porcelain and metal, and his excellent drawings.
The social and formal aspect are both strongly emphasized by Altman. This artist passed all stages in the evolution from Mir Iskusstva to the latest tendencies. He holds that the old art of the Wanderers and the World of Art as well as the new art of the Cubists and the Futurists is reactionary and out of date. The new age requires a new departure. Two ways are open to modern artists. The first is to abandon art and pass into production as Rodchenko did; the second is to create a new art based not on merely visual forms, planes, lines, colors, but an art whose component elements are actual materials; coal, iron, steel, wood, paper. His work Russia embodies his theory. It is a rectangular board varnished and polished in some parts and inlaid with coal, paper, black wood in others. The materials are wrought and combined with a view of making an object which while not a picture shall yet have aesthetic value. Aesthetic value intermingled with ethical value, for the work purports to affect human consciousness by revealing to it in abstract form the powerful reality of revolution with its glorification of labor.
Stenberg, though, in general, not indifferent to social theory, confines himself in his work to pure aesthetic expression which he seeks to achieve by a simplification and conventionalization of natural form and by color and texture contrasts.
The painters Kandinsky, Filonov, and Chagall have each a well defined personality and stand somewhat aside from the general trend. They may be all termed Expressionists, for their intricate design, their intuitive method of work, and their rich often inchoate fantasy indicates kinship with the German art movement of the same name.
Critical literature is as ever abundant. At times the modern critics have a tendency to treat as axioms propositions that are doubtful even as theorems; at times they like to play the part of Apollinaire and explain the artists to themselves. On the whole however there is a healthy tendency to examine fearlessly and searchingly all standards.
Punin would have art train the apperceptive and cognitive faculties, to make man perceive the world as synthesis and thereby become master of it. Arvatov would have art be first ancillary to life, organize the human emotions and intellect, make them receptive to progressive revolutionary processes, and be finally distilled in life and absorbed by it. Brik would raise the artist to the rank of artisan and thus make him a useful member of society. (“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”) Gan would banish art from society altogether (“We declare irreconcilable war on art.”) and decree material intellectual production, the creation of socially necessary objects of use.
To one acquainted with Russian critical literature much of this sounds familiar. Pisarev, over half a century ago, drew a parallel between Pushkin and a shoemaker, much to the disadvantage of the former. Stasov advocated an art of social utility. Tolstoy’s doctrine of artistic “infection” is universally familiar. Even the case of Rodchenko finds its analogy in that of Gué who after a successful artistic career abandoned art under the influence of Tolstoy’s evangelical doctrines.
In general, however, the modern Russian critics are much bolder owing to their more radical social philosophy and their leaning on the State. The Soviet Government acted on the assumption that a new art can be the work of a new man, himself the product of a new social system. Their policy was based on this assumption and they attempted to solve the art problem in a practical way — perhaps in the only practical way possible — in the way implicit in the assumption.
The assumption might be challenged; the policy might be criticized; that the effort is worth making is hardly open to doubt.