One Third of a Nation, 1939
O Louis Guglielmi (1906 – 1956)
Painter O. Louis Guglielmi moved stylistically from a symbolic Social Realism, Precisionism, and Surrealism, ultimately to abstraction, but his subject matter, when it existed, dealt with society’s underdogs. He had experienced slum living as a youth, moving from place to place because of his violinist father’s need to find employment. Though Guglielmi was born in 1906 in Cairo, Egypt, his Italian parents moved the family to Italy. In 1914, they were living in New York City in Harlem’s Italian slum.
Guglielmi was involved in the political and artistic protests of the trial, conviction as anarchist bombers, and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. He painted a picture that excoriated the tenement living conditions of many Americans, “One Third of a Nation.” It was such a strong statement that the State Department cancelled an international tour of American modern art.
He was a teenage art student at the National Academy of Design in New York City and the Beaux Arts Institute from 1920 to 1925. During this time, he worked as a commercial artist, painted murals and was awarded a Tiffany Foundation fellowship.
Guglielmi painted Precisionist stylized architectural motifs through 1933. He then moved toward a moody Magic Realism and Surrealism under the influence of Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. During the Depression years of 1934 to 1939, Guglielmi found employment with the Federal government’s artist relief programs, the WPA and Public Works Administration.
His social and political awareness impelled him, in 1938, to warn that the Spanish Civil War might lead to greater destruction. His painting, “Mental Geography,” depicted the Brooklyn Bridge destroyed, prophetically symbolizing, in its way, United States involvement and casualties in the coming war.
In 1945, after serving three years in the army in World War II, Guglielmi turned toward more formal, Stuart Davis-like abstractions. This is particularly interesting, considering that his experience in the War might have sent him in any of several artistic and philosophical directions. Guglielmi might have emerged from widespread wartime suffering with an enhanced concern for the plight of humanity he had already evidenced in his earlier work. But what he actually did, stylistically speaking, was avoid humanity and the world through his decision to paint abstractly, perhaps overwhelmed by his experiences, immersing himself solely in the safer, less troubling realm of aesthetic manipulation.
At the end, Guglielmi was painting completely abstract works.
He was a prize-winning artist who exhibited his paintings in many major exhibitions. Before his death in 1956 at age fifty, Louis Guglielmi taught at Louisiana State University and the New School for Social Research in New York City. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, as well as the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. and the Newark Museum in New Jersey.
Matthew Baigell, “Dictionary of American Art”
Michael David Zellman, “300 Years of American Art”
Biography from the Archives of AskART