Painter Ralph Fasanella

Written by C.J. Sullivan on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



Ralph Fasanella
is one of the most celebrated artists ever to come out of the Bronx, which might
not be saying much, given that most of his competition is wild-style graffiti
cats. Born in 1914 and raised on Manhattan’s Sullivan St., Fasanella’s
journey to become an artist is just as interesting as any of his paintings.
Little Ralph was a second-generation Italian whose biggest influences in his
life
were his father,
Joe, who worked as an ice deliveryman, and his mother, Ginerva, who put in brutal
hours working in the garment district. As a kid Fasanella would occasionally
work the ice route with his father, seeing firsthand the hard world of an iceman.
In 1958 Fasanella painted Iceman Crucified, to both honor his father
and all the sacrifices he’d made for his family, and to mourn the end of
the iceman job, caused by refrigerators. On the cross the iceman has a pair
of ice tongs instead of a crown of thorns and he’s nailed into the wood
with ice picks instead of nails.



As much
as Fasanella looked up to his father, though, it was his mother who was even
more of an influence on his art. Growing up, there was no money for a babysitter
for Ralph, so Ginerva brought him to her job at a Chatham Square dress shop.
It was there that she taught him about the value of unions and organizing for
working people, and the importance of self-education.


In 1925
the Fasanellas moved to the East Bronx. Ralph found pleasure in the empty lots
of this spacious new borough, and developed a lifelong love affair with baseball.
During the Great Depression–with the lessons learned at his mother’s
job in mind–he came to a strong belief in trade unionism and antifascist
organizing. He became a true Social Democrat. In 1937, at 23, Fasanella volunteered
for the International Brigades and fought in the Spanish Civil War. When he
got back to New York in 1938, he began a career as a union organizer. But Fasanella
quickly soured on the organized labor movement, and went on to work a variety
of manual jobs like truck driver, shipping clerk for an underwear manufacturer,
presser and machinist.


Six years
later Fasanella developed a numbing pain in his fingers. To relieve it, he began
to draw. Soon that hobby became a vocation and he began to paint. His first
works were of what he knew as a child: early paintings are titled Sullivan
Street
, Sheridan Square and Grove Street Interior.


In 1950
Fasanella married school teacher Eva Lazorek, whose salary helped subsidize
his forays to the galleries where he’d try to sell his paintings. Because
he’d been investigated by the FBI for his union organizing, and was effectively
blacklisted, Fasanella had a tough go of it early on in the art world. In the
1960s the couple put together enough money to open a gas station in the Bronx
called Happy and Bud’s Service Station. In his later years Fasanella painted
in his gas-jockey shirt with the Gulf emblem sewn on the pocket.


Today, a
Fasanella painting is displayed near the token booth at the E train stop at
5th Ave. and 53rd St. Given that it’s the stop for MOMA, Fasanella’s
work found a good home. 1950’s Subway Riders was put up in 1995;
it’s behind thick glass and on the side there’s a gold plaque with
a quote from Fasanella: "I’d ride the subway every day back and forth
to my machine shop job. I’d ride and ride and sketch and sketch. I love
the subway. It pulls the city together, pulls people together in a magical way."


I stood
in front of the painting during rush hour and watched hordes of New Yorkers
pass by it without a glance. At first look the painting seems almost elementary.
Then I stopped myself and really looked at it. Fasanella has a way with light
and the people in the canvas have a glow to them–so much so that I peered
under the glass to see if it was lit inside (it wasn’t). Fasanella is the
fourth subway rider from the right and he drew himself snoozing in his blue
work clothes and workman’s cap.


In 1972,
after 28 years as an artist, New York magazine "discovered"
Fasanella and did a cover story on him titled "Portrait of the Artist as
a Garage Attendant in the Bronx." The New-York Historical Society is running
an exhibit called "Ralph Fasanella’s America" through July 14.
I sat with Travis Stewart, the society’s public relations man, on a wooden
bench in front of a Fasanella painting. Stewart is the rare breed of publicist
who is self-effacing and speaks honestly. He told me he wasn’t sure if
he was the right man to talk about Fasanella. I told him that since he had eyes
and could see the paintings he’d do just fine. We sat in front of Night
Game–Yankee Stadium
(1961). The work is tilted up and has no scale,
with everything in a vertical position. The stadium is full of mostly women
and everyone seems to be having a grand old time. Fasanella rendered the ballpark
grass with flecks of paint and it glows with various shades of green. On the
scoreboard there’s a Yankee dream-team lineup that includes sluggers from
different eras, like Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. In the distance the Bronx
skyline looks like Manhattan.


After staring
at the painting for a minute I asked Stewart if he found Fasanella’s art
primitive.


"Well,
it is primitive. He was a self-taught painter and his work is not filtered through
some school. He uses only his eyes. If you like the blues and folk music I imagine
you would like Fasanella."


I asked
Stewart what he most likes about Fasanella’s work.


"I
really like the historical detail and documentation aspect of his art. He’d
go into sweatshops and ballgames and paint what he saw. This kind of thing gets
neglected in modern art. It’s almost like it is out of medieval times."


We talked
a little longer, then I thanked Stewart for his time and walked around the exhibit.
I stood in front of a 1995 painting, South Bronx Rebirth, that
has Fasanella in his blue work clothes and cap helping a family move into a
new house on Fox St. American Tragedy (1964) is Fasanella’s response
to JFK’s assassination. A Barry Goldwater-looking fellow is riding a horse
over JFK’s coffin. Sandlot Game #2 (1954) shows the East Bronx in
all of its prewar glory. The streets are clean and empty and young boys play
baseball in an empty lot.


As I left
the exhibit I wished I could talk to Fasanella about his work. He died in 1997,
but I’ll give him the last word here, from the book Ralph Fasanella’s
America
:


"I’m
a society minded guy. I’m committed to life. But I can’t shut myself
off from the past–I don’t forget yesterday, so I know who I am today.
I hang onto what I was yesterday, so I know what I’m going to do tomorrow."



sullivan@nypress.com


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