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Home -> UE News -> 1998 Archives -> Article

Artist, Former
UE Organizer,
Ralph Fasanella Dies


Ralph Fasanella, a former UE organizer and widely regarded working-class artist, died Dec. 16. He was 83.

Ralph Fasanella

Fasanella was born on Labor Day in 1914 to Italian immigrants; his father was an iceman, his mother a buttonhole maker and active anti-fascist. In 1938, Fasanella fought fascism on the battlefields of Spain as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. A machinist, he became a UE Local 1227 member while working at the Morey Machine shop in Brooklyn.

Fasanella joined the UE staff in 1940, organizing the Western Electric plant in Manhattan, Sperry Gyroscope, and numerous other electrical equipment and machine plants in and around New York. He left the union staff in 1946 to become a painter; appropriately, one of his paintings depicts an organizing committee meeting in a UE hall.

Some years later when asked by the UE NEWS why he left the UE organizing staff, Fasanella replied, "I had to paint. I couldn’t do both." (He came back on the union’s staff in 1950 as UE fought off vicious Cold War attacks on the union’s right to exist.)

McCarthy-era blacklisting left Fasanella unable to find work. He supported himself by pumping gas at his brother’s garage in the Bronx until his rediscovery in 1972. Fasanella appeared on the cover of New York magazine in October of that year; the magazine devoted eight pages to the former UE organizer and his scenes of working-class life. Fasanella quickly gained a reputation as the greatest American primitive painter since Grandma Moses.

His dense, enormous canvases were filled with vibrant city scenes, among them Yankee baseball games, Coney Island and the subway at rush hour. He also depicted such significant events as the funeral of New York’s labor congressman, Vito Marcantonio, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

"He has done what he set out to do, paint the heroism of the working class in the organizing struggles of the thirties and the forties and the continuing struggles, the joys and sorrows and the hopes that make up the lives of workers and their families," the UE NEWS wrote in November 1972.

The artist spent three years in Lawrence, Mass. in the 1970s gathering material for a series of paintings on the city’s labor history, especially the 1912 "Bread and Roses Strike" of more than 20,000 immigrant textile workers.

Fasanella’s 5x10-foot painting, "Lawrence 1912: The Great Strike," was purchased by donations from 15 unions and given to Congress, where it hung for years in the Rayburn Office Building hearing room of the House Subcommittee on Labor and Education. Following the 1994 elections, the new Republican majority in Congress eliminated "labor" from the committee’s name and Fasanella’s painting from the committee’s hearing room.

A Boston Sunday Globe editorial on Sept. 10, 1995 said the Republican staffer who ordered the removal of the painting had "little grasp of history and even less of art." According to Eva Fasanella, the artist’s widow and business manager, "Lawrence 1912" had been the only labor painting in the Capitol.

Two years ago, Fasanella’s 1950 painting "Subway Riders" was installed in the subway station at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, one of the few oil paintings in the world permanently on view in a public transportation center.

UE News - 01/98

Home -> UE News -> 1998 Archives -> Article

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