It’s Labor Day weekend, which means my traditional blog post on the great folk painter of the American working class, Ralph Fasanella. I was reminded of this the other day when the American Folk Art Museum in New York posted one of their Fasanella paintings, Iceman Crucified #3, on its Facebook page in honor of what would have been Fasanella’s 96th birthday. Having done a lot of work on this artist, from my dissertation at Boston University to an exhibition and book in 2001 for the Fenimore Art Museum, I feel obligated to elaborate on the meaning of this provocative work.
As we get older, I suspect, we all ruminate to some degree on the sacrifices our parents endured to make our lives possible. Sometimes it is a coming to terms with a complex relationship. Such was the case with Fasanella, who as a young boy was made to work long hours in the pre-dawn darkness of New York City to deliver ice with his father, Joe Fasanella. He was not paid to do so, of course. The resulting tensions between father and son were, unfortunately, one of the defining characteristics of Fasanella’s childhood.
As an adult, however, and with more understanding of the struggles of working people gleaned from his years as a labor organizer, anti-fascist, and artist, Fasanella saw things differently. Inspired by an old proletarian novel, Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, he began to see his father as a martyr who gave his health, strength, and sanity to try to provide for his family. The result was a powerful series of paintings focusing on the central image of Jesus Christ in the image of his father as an iceman.
The painting in the American Folk Art Museum is the third of this series, and a crucial part of the evolution of the imagery. Parting from the iconic, frontal, stiff crucifixions in his first two paintings, here Fasanella positions the crucified iceman inside the icebox that defines his world. Importantly, the icebox is being lowered to street level by workmen (including the artist in his blue shirt!) to be replaced by a new Westinghouse refrigerator.
The sense of loss is palpable and overwhelming; not only is the iceman nailed to the cross, but his whole way of life is being left behind. Fasanella actually lost his father twice. Joe left the family when Ralph was young and went back to the town of his birth in Italy. He died just a short time after this painting was done in 1956.
So what we’re seeing here is not only a universal statement about the sacrifices of working people, but also a very personal sense of loss and an attempt to reconcile a mix of emotions. All in the visual language of the masses.
The most poignant passage in this work is the small inscription in the middle of the stickball diamond sketched in chalk on the street below the iceman. It must have been added later, after Fasanella received word of his father’s death in Italy. It reads: “Joe the iceman is dead. No game today.” The artist later recalled, “I cried when I put that in.”