O. LOUIS GUGLIELMI (1906–1956)
The American Dream, 1935
Oil on Masonite, 21 1/2 x 30 in.
Signed and dated (on the back): O. Louis Guglielmi / ’35 // “The American Dream”
RECORDED: John Baker, O. Louis Guglielmi: A Retrospective Exhibition, exhib. cat. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Art Gallery, 1980–81), pp. xii (listed as “lost”), 12, 69 n. 38 // Andrew Hemingway, Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926–1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 122, 127 figs. 89, 93 illus.
EXHIBITED: Mezzanine Gallery of the International Building at Rockefeller Center, 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, First Annual Exhibition of the American Artists’ Congress, April 16–29, 1937; Downtown Gallery, New York, Louis Guglielmi: Paintings, November 15–?, 1938
EX COLL.: the artist; [Julien Levy Gallery, 1935 or 1936]; [The Downtown Gallery, New York]; to private collection, 1940s until the present
A new discovery, The American Dream is an iconic painting by Guglielmi of the period 1934 to 1940, one of the earliest of what biographer John Baker calls Guglielmi’s “radical enigmas." He applied his skill in composition and mastery of precisionist technique to a mix of realism and allegory that conveyed the very personal anxiety that pervaded these years—his own and that of his subjects. Painting ordinary people going about their daily business in familiar surroundings, he showed them oppressed by invisible, impersonal, and overarching economic forces and by the gathering international crisis that, by the end of the decade, erupted in war. To communicate his feelings, he added elements of “poetic suggestion and the haunting use of metaphor.” He was a realist who “thoroughly believe[d] that the inner world of our subjective life is quite a real as the objective” (Baker, pp. 38–39). These are paintings with unmistakable political commentary, but without a coherent narrative, an amalgam of social realism and surrealism that allowed them to fit comfortably into MoMA’s definition of “magic realist.” Somber reflections of their time, they gained recognition and reputation for the artist in the 1930s.
The artist’s title, The American Dream, is certainly freighted with significance. Just as Guglielmi and his mother were leaving Europe, in 1914, the continent exploded into war, eventually drawing in the United States as well. The decision to emigrate is always wrenching. In different ways, all immigrants are drawn by the eternal beacon of “the American Dream.” As a boy, Guglielmi lived in “the tenement jungles of Italian Harlem” (p. 38). Although the Guglielmi family became U.S. citizens, the decade of the 1920s was a time of poverty and anti-immigrant agitation, and, for young Louis, of a soulless art school education, and a series if “inadequate” jobs. As an indication of Guglielmi’s “Americanization,” it may be noted that he was born “Osvaldo Luigi,” listed in the 1930 census as “Oswald,” and recorded in the 1940 census as “Louis,” the name he used to sign his MoMA catalogue essay. By the time that Guglielmi came of age as an artist with his first summer at the MacDowell Colony in 1932, the troubled economic situation of his childhood had spread into every corner of the country and the world as well, accompanied by an equally frightening international rise of far-right political forces. It looked as though the artist’s personal anxieties had metamorphosed into grim societal realities. This, in 1935, was the condition of Gulgielmi’s “American dream.”
The American Dream was exhibited in Guglielmi’s first one man show at the Downtown Gallery in 1938. A contemporary reviewer described the scene:
[A] well dressed business man complacently descends a staircase accompanied by a nude prostitute, while a uniformed guard strikes down a picketer. An eerie, dream-like atmosphere of surrealism pervades the square in which the scene is placed (“Guglielmi’s First,”Art Digest, November 15, 1938, p. 20).
The picture, begun in the summer of 1935 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and completed in New York, offers a series of disturbing vignettes. There is the naked woman, driven to her profession by the need to earn her bread, literally, in this instance, “a nude descending a staircase,” her left hand held by a much older gentleman fully dressed in executive business attire. The pair are literally stepping on bodies—nude female body parts that the artist has painted under each stair. To the right of the couple, a newsboy hawks the headline of the day, “War.” Where his head should be, Guglielmi has painted a ticker tape machine. Prominent in the foreground, a worker is sprawled on the ground together with his picket sign which exhorts “Workers of the World Unite.” He remains menaced by a helmeted guard who stands over him wielding a club. The setting is a large de Chirico-like square defined by precisionist industrial buildings. A statue identified by the inscription on its pedestal as Thomas Jefferson (which doesn’t look anything like conventional representations of our third President) looks down and downcast. Guglielmi’s dreamscape is most emphatically not Jefferson’s “American dream.” At the base of the statue a man dressed as an office worker sits, looking on. His hat and a flask rest next to him. At his feet, the remains of a bouquet of roses lies strewn on the ground, unwrapped and scattered. Two figures occupy chairs at a lone table further back, facing each other across a table with a loaf of bread, a knife and a jug. They appear unrelated to anything going on in the foreground. There is nothing subtle about the political content here and Baker’s description of Guglielmi’s “radical enigma” style is strikingly apt. For Guglielmi, however, politics was a heartfelt reflection of his experience and observations. Powerfully moved by “the plight of humanity,” he was not, in contrast with some of his artist colleagues, an engaged activist or an ideologue. Thus, Andrew Hemingway, whose book-length study, Artists on the Left, examines the subject in great detail, calls Guglielmi “a marginal figure in the Communist cultural movement in 1935” (Hemingway, p. 44).