Solidarity in Print

Michelle Donnelly on Public Works: Art by Elizabeth Olds at the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin, Texas

May 9, 2024

Public Works: Art by Elizabeth Olds, 2024, installation view

Since 2019, when a still ongoing movement to unionize workers at museums across the United States took off, the labor of art has again become a central current in art historical inquiry. Many museums have devoted exhibitions to the topic; the current exhibition of Elizabeth Olds’s work at the Harry Ransom Center contributes to this trend, highlighting an understudied artist whose oeuvre makes a rich and sensitive contribution to the history of labor and racial politics in the US. However, as art historian and curator Michelle Donnelly notes, the exhibition is marked by a hesitancy, perhaps the result of its situation in a museum under the jurisdiction of Texas’s public university system. In recent years, conservative lawmakers in Texas have enacted legislation that limits what schools can teach about race and racism and prohibits Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices and trainings on college campuses. Such political developments threaten the university as a central site of democratic inquiry and expression and raise urgent questions about how to continue doing political work in the academy. As Donnelly asks, how can curators grapple with the political stakes of an artist’s practice—in Olds’s case, with anti-racism and anti-capitalism—against these increasingly hostile conditions?

Public Works: Art by Elizabeth Olds, the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin, Texas, February 3–July 14, 2024.

A trio of faces with different skin tones greets visitors on a bright blue wall: three male miners with intense focus collectively gaze rightward. Their deep wrinkles and sagging jawlines suggest the wear of age after years of work underground. The beams of light that emanate from their headlamps echo their lines of sight, directing viewers’ attention beyond the boundaries of the image to the introductory panel for Public Works: Art by Elizabeth Olds. Nearly the height of the gallery’s entrance wall, this enlarged reproduction of Olds’s color lithograph Miners (1937)—which appears later in the exhibition—boldly announces the commitments of Olds’s art: the conditions of manual labor, interracial solidarity, and printmaking as a fine art medium. Public Works joins a recent surge of exhibitions that foreground women printmakers and their engagement with labor, including Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2023), Art/Work: Women Printmakers of the WPA at the Baltimore Museum of Art (2023–24), and Mary Cassatt at Work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2024). Alongside these curatorial efforts, Public Works illuminates an underrecognized woman artist whose incisive critiques of social inequities and advocacy of organized labor urge reflections on contemporary challenges in the United States.

Curated by Tracy Bonfitto at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Public Works is the first major exhibition devoted to Olds. The Ransom Center is the repository of two significant collections of Olds’s art and archives: the Emmett L. Hudspeth Art Collection of Elizabeth Olds, donated by the artist’s nephew-in-law who was a professor emeritus at UT Austin, and the Benjamin O. Rees Collection of Elizabeth Olds, given by the son of Olds’s patron Samuel Rees from Omaha, Nebraska. Drawing on these deep holdings, the exhibition presents over 100 lithographs, screenprints, drawings, watercolors, paintings, books, and archival materials that offer an expansive understanding of Olds’s practice. Eight chronologically arranged sections span the 1920s to 1960s, from her early work made in New York and Paris to the children’s books she wrote and illustrated later in life. The majority of the works on display, however, are from 1933–40 when she was employed by the government-funded Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP). Overall, the exhibition centers Olds’s dedication to social justice, her efforts to expand the accessibility of art, and her use of art as an educational tool.

Elizabeth Olds, Unemployment Line, 1934 

Coinciding with her introduction to lithography in the early 1930s, Olds turned a critical eye to the social and economic upheavals of the Great Depression. As the opening gallery demonstrates, she had sketched scenes of daily life throughout the 1920s, with a particular attraction to crowds and spectators, under the training of Ashcan School artist George Luks. She then became interested in leftist politics while living in Paris, galvanized by the controversial trial and execution of Italian American immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The defining shift in her practice occurred in 1932, three years after her return to the US, when she accepted a portrait commission for the Rees family in Omaha. At Samuel Rees’s printing company, she began to experiment with lithography, a printmaking process that does not require cutting into a plate or a block but allows one to fluidly draw on a stone matrix. With the support of the PWAP, Olds created lithographs of shelters, clinics, and aid agencies in Omaha that make use of the medium’s expressive possibilities. In The Preacher’s Message to the Homeless Men (1934), she portrayed a series of unhoused men asleep on benches. Their slumping bodies—articulated with hurried, built-up strokes of the lithographic crayon—appear weighted down, as though burdened by the gravity of their circumstances. Other prints, such as Unemployment Line (1934), convey the mass desperation of working-class men through repetition and stark contrast. These highly sensitive renderings left me wondering about Olds’s own class background, to which the exhibition only obliquely alludes. She presumably had some degree of economic privilege, given her ability to travel and pursue a career as an artist as woman during this era. What emboldened her to focus on the inequities of capitalism while in Omaha?

In addition to the plights of men in poverty, a central preoccupation of Olds’s practice is masculinized labor. Attending to the conditions of work outside the gendered space of the home, Olds routinely highlighted the dignity and the severity of jobs historically performed by men. In the Stockyard Series (1934), she deployed harsh diagonals and close cropping to express the intensity of work at the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in Omaha. One of the prints from the series, The Knocker (1934), emphasizes the strength of a laborer on the killing floor. Positioned near the top-center of a claustrophobic composition, the figure holds a mallet above his head, about to deliver a fatal blow to the cow trapped beside him. Yet, the animal’s anxious eyes also demand the viewer’s attention. The tension between the physical vitality of such workers and the violence they inflict remains deliberately unresolved.

Elizabeth Olds, The Knocker, 1934

Elizabeth Olds, Sheep Luggers, 1934

Olds continued to investigate manual labor in the Steel and Coal Series (1936–37) after joining the Graphic Arts Division of the WPA/FAP in New York. Informed by her travels in Pennsylvania with artists Harry Sternberg and Harry Gottlieb, she produced scenes of coal mines and steel mills in a variety of media, with subjects ranging from industrial landscapes of metal and toxic smokestacks to empathetic portrait studies. One of the most impactful paintings in the exhibition, Miner’s Burial Procession (1937), presents a community mourning a victim of a mining accident. Men, women, and children trudge along a bleak countryside of drab, muted colors. The pallbearers wear the uniforms of their trade, establishing a direct connection between the coffin they hold and the hazardous nature of their occupation. Foregrounding the shared grief of mining families, Olds’s painting is an indictment of the corporate prioritization of profit over the safety of laborers.

The theme of worker solidarity connects the Stockyard Series and the Steel and Coal Series. Olds consistently portrayed male figures engaged in a common task, their bodies visually in sync. In Forging Axles (1936 or 1937), a group of white-appearing men work together to shape molten metal. Holding a shared instrument with their bodies leaning forward, they collectively guide the scorching steel into the furnace. On other occasions, the workforce seems to be interracial, as exemplified by Sheep Luggers (1934). Here, two figures with darker-toned bodies toil alongside a man whose face and hand are delineated by the white of the paper. The exhibition’s didactics describe such compositions as embodying “unity” and “strength” or focus on the artworks’ reception. Yet, they leave uninterrogated the potential racial coding of Olds’s subjects and the racial dynamics of the worksites she visited. Were slaughterhouses, coal mines, and steel mills in Omaha and Pennsylvania integrated? In what ways were these jobs racialized? Did the unions welcome or exclude non-white members? The exhibition does not probe the regional histories of these industries, which would elucidate Olds’s subject matter and might productively complicate her representations of cooperative labor.

Elizabeth Olds, White Collar Boys, 1935

Elizabeth Olds, 1939 A.D., 1939

Olds’s support of unionization and her condemnation of upper-class greed emerge with biting wit in the lithographs she printed between 1935 and 1939 outside the WPA, which are displayed together on one wall of the exhibition. During this period, she participated in the leftist Artists’ Union and American Artists’ Congress and contributed to the Marxist magazine New Masses. Concerned that some of her subjects were too politically contentious to receive the approval of her government-appointed supervisors, Olds printed them at the studio of lithographer George C. Miller. One such work, White Collar Boys (1935), mocks the pretentions of wealthy businessmen through their identical top hats, suits, and craning necks. Unlike in Miners or Forging Axles, the repetition of bodies here does not express solidarity but foolish conformity. On the other hand, the mass of figures in 1939 A.D. (1939) conveys the power of organized labor. A group of workers, led by Jesus, march for “RIGHT TO WORK,” “SOCIAL SECURITY,” “RACIAL EQUALITY,” and “DEMOCRACY,” driving money-hoarding bankers and white supremacist Klansmen out of Wall Street. Through the strategic use of caricature, Olds declared her anti-racist alliance with an exploited labor class.

Elizabeth Olds, Bootleg Mine, Pennsylvania (or Bootleg Coal), 1936 

In the late 1930s, Olds started to shift her attention from sites of protest and manual labor to those of entertainment. Embracing a new printmaking medium—screenprinting—she sought to create works with mass appeal. While her colorful prints of dance halls, theaters, concert venues, and amusement parks in the exhibition’s final sections may seem less politically oriented, they raise questions about racial exclusion and belonging. Several works present the joy of all-Black audiences in the spaces they forged in Harlem; others contend with the politics of integration. Merry-Go-Round (1940) portrays a dark-skinned girl jubilantly riding a white carousel horse beside a fair-skinned boy whose horse is the same shade of brown as his female companion. More than a formalist play on color, the visual rhyming between the subjects challenges widespread segregation policies at fairs and theme parks in the early twentieth century. However, the object label declines to provide the historical context for this scene. It is not until nearly the end of the exhibition that the didactics address the spatial politics of race. As the label for From the Top Balcony (1940) states, “During this period, Black theatre-goers were typically expected to sit in the top balcony seats, and Olds may have intended this work as a critique of the rule or as a rejection of segregation more generally.” With this information, it becomes clear that Olds structured her composition to reflect the privilege of white patrons: figures with cream-colored faces sit in the front rows, lit by the glow of the screen, while audience members who appear to be Black are cast in shadow behind them. From her prints of labor to leisure, Olds critically engaged with pressing matters of race, though the exhibition shies away from addressing these issues, foreclosing a full understanding of both the artist’s oeuvre and the racial politics of her time.

Elizabeth Olds, From the Top Balcony, 1940

Elizabeth Olds, Merry-Go-Round, 1940

This curatorial hesitancy should perhaps be understood in the context of intensifying efforts to ban considerations of race at public universities across the US. The Ransom Center receives funding from the University of Texas, a public system of higher education. In recent years, radical Texas lawmakers have passed House Bill 3979, which restricts teachings about race and racism in K-12 schools, and Senate Bill 17, which prohibits Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices and trainings on college campuses. After the latter went into effect in January 2024, the Multicultural Engagement Center at UT Austin closed after serving BIPOC students for thirty-six years. In April 2023, the Texas Senate also passed a bill barring critical race theory in higher education; though it has not been taken up by the House, the silencing of discussions of race and racism in public universities remains a legislative threat. Is the cautious framing of Olds’s anti-racist art in Public Works a consequence of these increasingly hostile circumstances? What is the responsibility of curators to grapple with the political stakes of an artist’s practice when their jobs may be at risk?

Olds’s works raise questions about race, labor, and solidarity that are as urgent today as they were in the early twentieth century. Though never explicitly addressed by the exhibition, her prints gain particular force in the context of recent museum unionization efforts. In 2019, museum workers started to form collective bargaining units to advocate for sustainable wages, increased job security, and reliable health coverage. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated longstanding issues of precarity in the museum field, accelerating the mobilization of staff across the country. The successful negotiation of fair union contracts at the New Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, and Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other institutions, has demonstrated the benefits of cross-departmental solidarity. Olds’s representations of working-class coalitions resonate with this rising organizing wave among those responsible for curating, interpreting, and conserving her art.

Olds’s critiques of wealth-based power and her intersectional championing of workers speak to the struggles of our present moment. Public Works thus makes a vital contribution to both a growing body of scholarship on art and labor in the United States and a swelling movement to improve the conditions of labor in the contemporary cultural landscape. Contending with the social injustices of a period of economic crisis, Olds’s art is a call to action.

Michelle Donnelly is a PhD Candidate in the History of Art at Yale University and the 2023–24 Menil Drawing Institute Pre-Doctoral Fellow. Her dissertation investigates how women artists and artists of color expanded the parameters of printmaking outside the traditional site of the workshop from 1935 to 1975 in the United States. She has held curatorial positions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Yale Center for British Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, The Morgan Library & Museum, and Brooklyn Museum, among other institutions.

All photos courtesy the Harry Ransom Center, © Elizabeth Olds Estate

This text was supported by a Public Humanities Grant from Humanities NY