Ralph Fasanella (1914–1997) was a working-class New Yorker and renowned painter of “social reality.” Through his colorful and dense compositions, he depicted complex themes of social and political unrest, historic events, the importance of leisure, and the unique energy of New York City and its citizens.
Born in the Bronx and raised in New York City’s Little Italy, Fasanella was the son of Italian immigrants who, like so many others, left their country in search of a better life. Fasanella’s working-class identity, formed during those early years, was one that endured throughout his life. Raised by a mother who was involved in labor rights and anti-fascist activism, Fasanella fought against Franco’s army in the Spanish Civil War, as a member of the all-volunteer Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Fasanella’s early activities as a light industry worker and labor organizer gave way to his burgeoning interest in painting. In 1945, at the age of thirty-one, Fasanella began to draw as a way to alleviate pain in his hands. He attended some art classes, but he felt self-conscious about the pretensions of being an “Artist”; he came to terms with it by using his art as a tool to agitate for social change. He eventually transitioned out of his role with the union and devoted himself full time to his painting.
For Fasanella, being an artist was hard work. Like his jobs as truck driver, machinist, union organizer, or gas station operator, Fasanella’s function as an artist was one he took on as a serious responsibility, even when it wasn’t providing an income. The struggle to find and keep gainful employment, to affect change in one’s life, to participate in culture in meaningful ways, and to support one’s family was a defining characteristic for Fasanella, both personally and artistically.
Drawing upon the people, places, and social matters that surrounded him, Fasanella quickly developed a body of work and was offered exhibitions at the prominent ACA Galleries in New York in 1946 and 1947. However, after this brief period of art world recognition, Fasanella was blacklisted during the McCarthy era because of his leftist profile, and gallery interest ended abruptly. Through these and ensuing years, he maintained an earnest and consistent effort with his painting, while working at a family-owned gas station in the Bronx to earn an income.
In 1972 Fasanella was “discovered” and featured on the cover of New York Magazine. Although he had been producing and showing his work on a regular basis at venues such as union halls, churches, and a variety of public spaces, the feature framed Fasanella as a “primitive” artist—a label he roundly dismissed. Nevertheless, it was this media attention that led to a turning point for Fasanella, who, at the age of fifty-eight, became able to focus his full attention on his artmaking. His incisive visual narratives continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, proclaiming social engagement and action as a primary effect of artistic expression.
Interested in learning more about Ralph Fasanella? Check out these resources about the painter:
- Explore the Ralph Fasanella Collection and Archive
- See Fasanella and his work on the covers of New York Magazine and The New Yorker
- Read Ralph Fasanella’s obituary from The New York Times
- Look back at Lest We Forget, a 2014 exhibition celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth