“I work on a canvas until it becomes a clear and realistic statement," wrote O. Louis Guglielmi.
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By Valerie Stanos
O. Louis Guglielmi was born in Cairo, Egypt. His father was an orchestral musician and so the family lived in several European cities before emigrating to the United States when he was just eight years old. The family settled near relatives in the east 120s in Manhattan, in the impoverished neighborhood of Italian Harlem.
Guglielmi’s first home in America formed a lasting impression, as he once stated: “The tenement jungles of Italian Harlem must have had a tremendous impact on the sensibilities of a child. The lusty primitivism of the new milieu must have dimmed the memory of an ordered Geneva or Milan. The ever-recurring theme of the day of the poor in my work is, I suspect, due to the abrupt change (Dorothy C. Miller and Alfred H. Barr Jr., American Realists and Magic Realists [New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943], p. 38). While he was still in high school, the young Guglielmi enrolled at the National Academy of Design. He spent five years there, eventually dropping out of high school to study full time at the Academy. He won first prize in Charles Curran’s life drawing class and built a solid artistic foundation.
At the Academy, Guglielmi developed his skills in drafting and painting, but he felt the teachers were “unimaginative” and that the paintings that hung on the walls of the school were “innocuous.” He was inspired by the modern movement and tried living as an artist, sharing an apartment in a rundown building with Gregorio Prestopino and Michael Lenson. Unable to support himself financially, he then tried to work in more conventional jobs as a factory hand, store clerk, commercial artist, and mural painter’s assistant. By 1932, he returned to a career in art.
Guglielmi was one of only a few artists selected from the Works Progress Administration project by Edith Gregor Halpert to join her avant-garde Downtown Gallery in 1936. Halpert’s support of precisionist painting is one reason why the style continued into the 1950s. In the 1930s she had shown works by Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, and Charles Sheeler — all of whom Guglielmi cited as influential to him. In 1938, Halpert gave Guglielmi his first solo exhibition and the critical response was very favorable. He went on to have several more one-man shows with Halpert and was included in important exhibitions at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art.
In the catalogue of the MoMA’s show American Realists and Magic Realists (1943), Guglielmi explained the relationship between the real and surreal in his paintings: “I work on a canvas until it becomes a clear and realistic statement. Some lines and smudges drawn on a scrap of paper on a street corner are enough to compose with at leisure in the studio — a division of a given space into slow or fast forms and patterns. It is essentially an imaginative production, in some instances completely so. I have never used a model. If at times my work becomes surreal, with the use of an added nonexistent object, it is really a valid device to play with poetic suggestion and the haunting use of the metaphor. I thoroughly believe that the inner world of our subjective life is quite as real as the objective” (ibid.).
Through his masterful rendering of facial expressions and body postures in Sisters of Charity, Guglielmi demonstrated his ability to convey intense emotions and multiple meanings in his paintings. Guglielmi broached the subject of religion and sexuality, in the presumed chastity of the nuns, the emphasis of the woman’s body, who wears a form-fitting red skirt and sheer blouse on the right, and the compromising position of the old woman bent over on the stoop in the upper left. The nuns, who look like men, are compared to a pig by the positioning of the image on the Meat Market sign directly above one nun’s head. While rooted in reality — one can imagine Guglielmi may have once observed such a scene — it is clear this is a fictitious scenario, but one that invites the viewer to interpret its meaning. An unfinished version of the same subject exists in a private collection in Illinois.
Guglielmi’s sharp satire was not always appreciated — his paintings were often controversial and incited criticism. The State Department once canceled an international tour of American modern art that included Gugliemi’s painting Tenements. Seventy-eight paintings were part of the show and critics claimed the works were Communist and portrayed American life negatively as dreary, ugly, and crass. A series in the Hearst newspapers at the time ran a full-page spread once a week for several weeks to protest the exhibition.
While Guglielmi later moved toward abstraction, the gritty subjects he addressed in his flawless technique in the 1930s and 1940s place him at the top of the list of artists focused on social consciousness in the tumultuous years surrounding World War II.
Cover image: O. Louis Guglielmi, American, 1906–1956. Sisters of Charity, 1937. Oil on masonite. 30 x 24 inches