This work by Charles Alston depicts a group of people: black and white women, men, and children are walking together

Arts in Medicine: Three American Masterpieces as Tools for Healing

By Zoe Fortin

Art can heal. Perhaps no one knows this better than the patients and staff of NYC Health + Hospitals. During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began commissioning artists to create artworks and illuminate government buildings, which included the hospital network. Today, with more than 3,000 works of art installed in lobbies, waiting rooms, corridors and patient rooms across its facilities, NYC Health + Hospitals holds the largest public art collection in New York City.

But now, the art collection has found new support and new meaning with the Arts in Medicine initiative, launched by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund (LMTIF) in February 2019. With a $1.5 million grant, the program will significantly expand the offerings of the public health system, which serves 1.1 million New Yorkers annually. Taking advantage of NYC Health + Hospitals’ extensive collection, the Arts in Medicine program will introduce new initiatives such as guided art-viewing sessions created to enhance focus as well as collaborations between artists in residence, staff, and community members.

“NYC Health + Hospitals is in the vanguard of hospital systems across the country using the arts as a tool for healing,[1]” said Laurie M. Tisch, Founder and President of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. “We know from decades of research that the arts have an important role to play in reducing stress and helping individuals in their healing process.” Below, we look at three of the works included in the collection, featured in these incredible new programs

1. "The Sum Of The Squares Of The Houses" (1973) by Alfred Jensen

Colorful abstract composition by Alfred Jensen
Alfred Jensen, Guatemalan/American, 1903-1981. The Sum Of The Squares Of The Houses, 1973.

On view at the Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, The Sum Of The Squares Of The Houses (1973) is a bright grid of smaller squares, executed in thick oil impasto. The Sum of the Squares Of the Houses acts as a nod to Jensen’s signature style: the artist often squeezed paint straight out of the tube, spreading it over the surface with a palette knife. As the title of the work suggests, Jensen was an intellectual, inspired by ancient mathematical and numerical systems, as well as color theory, physics, astronomy, and ancient calendars and architecture, perhaps the result of his early education in Guatemala where Jensen was exposed to Mayan archeology. His checkerboard abstractions, including this work which is part of the Arts in Medicine program, “caused considerable puzzlement,[2]” reported Peter Schjeldahl in 1972, “but before long he was being touted, along with artists several decades his junior, as a pioneer of “Post‐Painterly” or “Minimal” painting.”

2. "Man Emerging" (1969) by Charles Alston

This work by Charles Alston depicts a group of people: black and white women, men, and children are walking together
Charles Henry Alston, American, 1907–1977. Man Emerging, 1969.

Also part of the Arts in Medicine program, Man Emerging is a mosaic tile mural, located in the Main Lobby of the Harlem Hospital Center. Created during the height of the Civil Rights era, Man Emerging depicts a group of people: black and white women, men, and children are walking together, symbolizing that “man” can be understood as encompassing all humankind.

Also on view at the Harlem Hospital Center are two earlier works by Charles Alston, Magic in Medicine and Modern Medicine. Commissioned in 1936 by the WPA, they were among the first major U.S.- government commissions awarded to African American artists. Restored in 2005, the diptych explores traditional and modern healing practices in Africa and in the United States.

Charles Henry Alston's work features African American surgeons wearing white.
Charles Henry Alston, American, 1907–1977. Modern Medicine, 1940.

3. "Untitled" (1974) by Romare Bearden

Rural colorful scene by Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden, American, 1911–1988. Untitled, 1974.

Like Charles Alston, Romare Bearden created several works for the city’s public hospitals, through WPA commissions, and the Bellevue Hospital is home to Untitled (1974) and Cityscape (1976), a photo-silkscreen and collage mural depicting scenes from Harlem. Both were executed following Bearden’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1971 and are on view in the exact hospital where he was treated after collapsing on the street in 1956, realizing then, “I just had to be a painter, that was it.[3]” Now Untitled, which depicts a colorful rural scene, is being used in the new programs funded by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, and, perhaps, inspiring future artists.

Collage mural by Romare Bearden depicting scenes from Harlem
Romare Bearden, American, 1911–1988. Cityscape, 1976.

Cover image: Charles Henry Alston, American, 1907–1977. Man Emerging, 1969.

2. Peter Schjeldahl, “Ever Intimidated by a Painting?,” The New York Times, 28 May 1972, p. D17
3. Paul Trachtman, “Romare Bearden: Man of Many Parts,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2004