Finding a Voice – The WPA, Chicago, and Mexico

Kohn finished art school and began his professional life during the depths of the Depression. Hitchhiking to New York to “make it big,” he came close to starvation as he took what few odd jobs he could find, and he spent his nonworking hours haunting the museums, beginning a self-education in art that would serve him well for the rest of his life. Then, a lucky chance meeting in late 1939 led him back to Chicago in order to enroll in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.3-early-lithos

The W.P.A. “salary” of $92 per month afforded artists the luxury of working without worrying about market forces, and provided the opportunity for many artists of that generation to find their mature voices. Kohn began his W.P.A. work in lithography and did some painting and serigraphy as well, but soon gravitated to wood engravings. These works – particularly the sixteen prints created for the book Pursuit of Freedom, published in 1944 – are consistent with the political and social trends in the art of that period. Much of his work from this time may be described as relatively straightforward interpretations of archetypical or even heroic scenes – albeit with a dash of socialist realism thrown in.

After Pearl Harbor, Kohn – who was not accepted into the armed forces for medical reasons – quit the W.P.A. and began working in a factory designing war materiél. By 1942, as the design work wound down, he began creating works with more overt themes mirroring the increasing horrors of the war, although at times not without humor.

The Artist and His Wife, 1942
   Piecework, 1940       Linoleum cut

Later that same year, in an attempt to invigorate his art with new images and approaches, he moved to Mexico. There, he immediately became part of the vital contemporary art scene, meeting Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, working on a mural with José Clemente Orozco, and teaching lithography at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, the workshop of José Guadalupe Posada.  Although he concentrated on watercolors during his year in Mexico, he also created lithographs and wood engravings, and became infused with Posada’s emphasis on using art to comment on contemporary issues and force social change.

Photo: Rudolph Penn, 1943
Blue Rebozo, 1943 Lithograph
Bull Fight, 1944. Wood engraving
The Bullfighter, 1944. Wood engraving









Note: This text is excerpted from the comprehensive book Misch Kohn: Beyond the Tradition by Jo Farb Hernández (Monterey Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), which includes a full catalogue raisonné of the prints as well as an exhibition history, chronology, list of works in public collections, prize list, and bibliography.