Barack Obama seems intent on reversing the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, refusing to take the stands that endeared FDR to the American people [can you imagine Barry O saying to the forces of what he called organized money “I welcome their hatred”?].
One of FDR’s legacies, the great public art explosion of the New Deal, is coming under intense fire as the government — pushed by California Senator Diane Feinstein and to the profit of her developer spouse Richard Blum — sells off many of America’s post offices, including the Berkeley central post office in the city center.
Just by coincidence [snicker] the listing agent for the post office properties is Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis [CBRE] — owned by none other than Richard Blum.
And they say Greece is corrupt!
But, heck, that’s the way the game is played in Washington.
It’s not the first time Blum has benefitted from federal legislation to sell off properties.
On 21 April 2009, Washington Times reporter Chuck Neubauer wrote this:
On the day the new Congress convened this year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation to route $25 billion in taxpayer money to a government agency that had just awarded her husband’s real estate firm a lucrative contract to sell foreclosed properties at compensation rates higher than the industry norms.
Mrs. Feinstein’s intervention on behalf of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. was unusual: the California Democrat isn’t a member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs with jurisdiction over FDIC; and the agency is supposed to operate from money it raises from bank-paid insurance payments – not direct federal dollars.
Documents reviewed by The Washington Times show Mrs. Feinstein first offered Oct. 30 to help the FDIC secure money for its effort to stem the rise of home foreclosures. Her letter was sent just days before the agency determined that CB Richard Ellis Group (CBRE) – the commercial real estate firm that her husband Richard Blum heads as board chairman – had won the competitive bidding for a contract to sell foreclosed properties that FDIC had inherited from failed banks.
Blum is, in other words, the embodiment of FDR’s “organized money.”
Somehow, it reminds us of this.
Blum’s axe and a Berkeley legacy
The main Berkeley facility is both a notable piece of architecture [listed on the National Register of Historic Places (PDF)] and the repository of two notable New Deal artworks created under the Treasury Department’s Treasury Relief Art Project [TRAP], a remarkable historical mural by Suzanne Scheuer surrounding the door to the postmaster’s office and a bas relief plaque on the eastern side of the building’s loggia by David Slivka, the subject of today’s post.
It’s on the list of Blum’s plums, ripe for the plucking, along with that wonderful art, paid for by the public.
First the sculpture:
And here is a closeup of the upper package:
And the lower package, the artist’s signature:
Here’s some background on Slivka from the website of New York gallery Vincent Vallarino Fine Art:
A passion for art came at a young age for the Chicago-born David Slivka, son of Russian immigrants. At the age of thirteen he was awarded a scholarship to attend classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Slivka’s family moved around the country for the next three years until finally settling in San Francisco where he won a scholarship to The California School of Fine Arts and spent the next one and a half years studying under the guidance of Ralph Stackpole.
Stackpole recommended Slivka for a commission on the Public Works of Art Project (a precursor to the Works Progress Administration). In 1937, Slivka completed a bas-relief of postal workers on the Berkeley Post Office, commissioned by the Treasury Department. Like many artists during the time, Slivka’s career was placed on hold as the US entered World War II. In 1941, Slivka became a Ship Fitter on Naval vessels before joining the Merchant Marine in 1942.
After the War, Slivka moved to Manhattan where he studied painting under Stanley William Hayter. It was through Hayter that Slivka was introduced to other contemporary artists like Joan Miro, Jacques Lipchitz, and Romar Bearden. An early member of The Artists’ Club, Slivka also began to exhibit with many artists from the New York School like Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Franz Kline.
During this time Slivka also changed his artistic style from the figural, evident from his earlier PWA commissions, to the abstract. The artist began to work in carved marble but eventually turned to lost-wax bronze casting. In 1951, after the death of his friend, the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, Slivka was asked to make a death mask before Thomas’ body returned to Wales.
The Historical Marker Data Base notes one of those depicted in the Berkeley sculpture, “the bent-over figure about to lift a mail sack,” is none other than Slivka’s San Francisco mentor, Ralph Stackpole.
More, from his 3 April 2010 New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox:
Mr. Slivka, one of the last living members of the New York school of Abstract Expressionists, died last Sunday at the age of 95. The death, at his home in Manhattan, was confirmed by Joan Ullman Schwartz, his partner of many years.
A widely recognized artist both before his association with Thomas and long after, Mr. Slivka was known primarily for his thoughtfully proportioned, frequently playful sculptures of wood, metal and other materials. He was also known for his paintings — often quasi-abstract landscapes characterized by bold color and uncluttered composition — and works in ink on paper.
His art is in the permanent collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution, the Brooklyn Museum and elsewhere.
Two of Mr. Slivka’s busts of Thomas are in the United States, at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York and at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Three are in Wales: at the National Museum of Wales and the headquarters of BBC Wales, both in Cardiff, and at the Dylan Thomas Center in Swansea, the poet’s hometown.
Slivka was also a genuine radical [a rare thing these days in Berkeley], wrote his friend Gail Levin in the East Hampton Star [PDF] shortly after the artist’s death on 28 March 2010:
It was in San Francisco that David, just 18, joined the John Reed Club, founded in October 1929 to support leftist and Marxist artists and writers and named after the journalist and Communist activist. He recalled that he “had to pass on” potential members; among those who impressed him most was Paul Radin, the distinguished American cultural anthropologist and folklorist.
In World War II, the promising sculptor became a ship’s carpenter in the merchant marine. After that, he got a job in New York: political action director of the Port of New York for the National Maritime Union. He organized speakers and protests. He was engaged by the conflict felt by Indonesian sailors working on Dutch ships, while the Dutch, who had occupied Indonesia, sought to return after the Japanese occupation ended. He recalled setting up protest marches at Rockefeller Center, where the Dutch had their offices.
So there they are, the art and the artist.
Fighting to save a legacy
A coalition of Berkeley residents is working hard to stop the sale, and we wish them our best. Opposition to closures did force the cancellation of sales in San Francisco, so there’s some reason to hope.
For more information, listen to this interview with UC Berkeley scholar Gray Brechin and read this essay he’s written for The Living New Deal. Here’s the website for Save the Post Office, and this [PDF] is a plea to save the Berkeley post office from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.]
And we’ll conclude with this, a brief interview with the artist: