Abstract Murals of the WPA

Rikers Island Penitentiary, Rikers Island

In 1940 and 1941, the Art Commission reviewed abstract murals by Balcomb Greene and John Xceron, as well as a stained glass installation by Arshile Gorky, for new chapels in the Rikers Island penitentiary.

Balcomb Greene proposed a mural installation opposite a work by John Xceron in the Assembly Room of the Christian Science Chapel. Greene noted his intention to use non-objective imagery, as the Chapel served members of both the Orthodox Jewish and Christian Science religions, which “do not jointly permit of any representation.” For reasons undocumented, Greene’s proposal was rejected by the Commission, and instead the Commission approved two murals in the room by Xceron. Both have either been covered up or removed.

Arshile Gorky’s stained glass proposal was based on traditional medieval church symbols. It was initially rejected in March of 1940 but then approved the following month. However, the project was never realized, because, according to Gorky’s assistant Giorgio Cavallon, the artist was depressed over a lost love. (See Arshile Gorky, His Life and Work by Hayden Herrera, page 304.)

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