Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King: A View from the Gas Station

It was the winter of 1963-64 and Ralph Fasanella was angry. A progressive almost from birth, he had been a textile worker, truck driver, member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, union organizer, and machine shop worker. At present he owned a gas station in the Bronx with two other friends who, like him, could not get a job because of constant harassment by the FBI for their radical backgrounds. Ralph pumped gas for the customers, which allowed him to meet people and share their daily issues, joys, and concerns.

He had also been painting for about 15 years. Large, colorful, detailed works meant for public spaces but confined for now to a small apartment. The works celebrated working-class life and also explored politics and history. Recent events had given the paintings an edge they did not have previously.

It was the combination of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in late 1963 and the nomination of arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in early 1964 to head the Republican Party Presidential ticket that raised the artist’s ire. Worse than that, actually. He felt a coup of sorts had taken place, orchestrated by powerful forces behind the scenes. Reminiscent of the Fascist coups of the 1930s.

He feverishly painted his thoughts and emotions. The work that resulted, a large 45” x 90” canvas entitled “American Tragedy,” is shown here (although we have 9 major Fasanellas in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, this one is privately owned). It shows the ill-fated Kennedy motorcade at the right, and a Goldwater parade at left. In the center is a composite figure – part cowboy, part businessman, and part klansman – representing the sinister forces at work in America. The painting is very dark, very pessimistic. Villains and victims abound.

Except for one.

A detail at the upper left shows the unmistakable figure of Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington. Surrounded by death and destruction, yet resolute in his forward-looking stance with throngs of people behind him. A small measure of hope in a hopeless picture. Four years before his own assassination.

Who would have thought in 1964 that one day we would celebrate a national holiday for that tiny figure off to one corner of a major historical painting? This painting has always been, to me, a reminder of the power of right over might, even against all the odds.

It’s amazing what you can learn from a gas station attendant who can handle a paintbrush.

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