Ralph Fasanella Dies
Ralph Fasanella, a former UE organizer and widely regarded working-class
artist, died Dec. 16. He was 83.
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 couldnt do both."
(He came back on the unions staff in 1950 as UE fought off vicious Cold War attacks
on the unions right to exist.)
McCarthy-era blacklisting left Fasanella unable to find work. He supported
himself by pumping gas at his brothers 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 Yorks 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 citys labor history, especially the 1912
"Bread and Roses Strike" of more than 20,000 immigrant textile workers.
Fasanellas 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 committees name and Fasanellas painting
from the committees 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 artists widow
and business manager, "Lawrence 1912" had been the only labor painting in the
Two years ago, Fasanellas 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.