THE ENGLISH ARTIST and art critic Jon Thompson in his essay “Realism, Pop and Poverty” reminds us of the astonishing fact that “by the beginning of the 1960s American art had become almost completely depoliticized.” In retrospect, it seems inconceivable that any cultural product of that volatile, socially dynamic era could be free of the political. But the dominant art movement of the time, Pop Art, “came across more as a celebration than a critique of the media society out of which it sprang.”

Long before Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were familiar names, art work addressing social and political themes had permeated American art. Historian Paul Johnson writes that the Great Depression prompted many in the American intelligentsia to move “sharply to the Left, or rather into politics for the first time, presenting their newly discovered country in crude ideological colors.” And the origins of this tension between American artists and the political and economic establishment can be dated even further back, to the “arrival” of Modernism with the 1913 Armory Show in New York, Chicago, and Boston. American art historian and critic Thomas Crow in his essay “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” writes that visual art at that time was “inseparably an effort to come to terms with cultural production as a whole under developed capitalism.”

The desperation of 1930s, however, created strange bedfellows. As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative, he established the famed Works Progress Administration (WPA), to employ as many Americans as possible in public works projects. Astonishingly, this effort took into account the cultural lives of Americans, and included a division known as the Federal Art Project (FAP) to train and employ American artists. While this may now appear a rather tame arrangement, having happened 80-odd years ago, it’s worth appreciating how radical the move truly was: in effect, you had an aristocratic president using the resources of the most advanced capitalistic country in the world to pay artists, many of whom were ideologically opposed to free enterprise, to express themselves via prints, murals, posters, and the like. To update the deal for 2015, imagine a scenario where Jeb Bush gets elected, quadruples the budget for National Endowment for the Arts, and then works with members of the Occupy Movement to ensure that those who’ve lived and protested at Zuccotti Park get grants and commissions to make art critiquing the “one percenters.”

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In the mid-1970s, when Dave and Reba Williams set out to assemble the world’s greatest collection of American Fine Art prints, they decided to restrict their hunt to black and whites from the first half of the 20th century. And by prints, we are talking only original editions, distinguished as such, as Dave Williams explains in his new book, when “the artist had personally etched the copper plate or drawn on the lithographic stone. Only a limited number of each print was made, and each was hand-signed in pencil, and often numbered, by the artist.”

“Spend just a few hours researching any aspect of American prints,” art dealer David Tunick advised at the time, “and you’ll become the expert on that topic.” Reba and Dave, it’s true, were ahead of the curve. Before the Art Market Boom of the 1980s, fine art prints were of little interest to collectors. (This was due, partly, to the process of printmaking itself, an umbrella term for lithographs, silk screening, etching, engraving, wood block prints, et cetera, which resulted in numerous editions, creating the impression of “copies.”) And since prints were relatively affordable, the Williamses were able to develop ambitious collecting goals — also to break their own rules — which is one of the delights of Small Victories: One Couple’s Surprising Adventures Building an Unrivaled Collection of American Prints, in which Dave Williams chronicles their experience collecting, cataloging, and promoting art on a global scale.

The cornerstone of the Williamses’ collection are those WPA prints from the 1930s. Williams notes that many artists at the time were socialists, and many of them turned to screenprinting:

It was no coincidence that artists with these political persuasions were attached to screenprint. After all, it was an economical medium, and the technique was available to all, resulting in low prices for prints. Screenprint was an art medium for the people, perfect for their brand of politics and art.

By the ’80s, the Williamses had acquired several hundred WPA prints — the largest collection in the world, outranking any museum. And while the WPA had employed artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, who would later become super stars, the pleasure of Small Victories — and the focus of the Williamses’ collection — is discovering lesser-known, but equally rich, veins in American art history. In its pages we encounter, for example, vital WPA lithographic artists like John Langley Howard, Florence Kent Hunter, and Joseph Vogel. In Howard’s 1936 The Union Meeting, “nobody’s smiling or laughing,” Williams writes. “But there’s a determination and confidence in the faces and postures of the union members.” Vogel, on the other hand, depicts labor in a considerably less empowered state. His 1937 print Another Day shows workers trudging forward like automatons as the factory towers menacingly over them. Hunter, in contrast to both, steps out of the workplace entirely in the lithograph Decorations for Home Relief Bureau, ca. 1938–39. In a stylistic depiction of homemakers during the Depression, Williams notes that the print “combines protest and praise.” It shows, he writes,

women [approaching] the relief agency with hands outstretched, and on the right, women volunteer to participate. Hunter portrays all this with distorted figures — reminiscent of the Mannerists of the sixteenth century — and a dream like quality.

It is believed Hunter had planned the work as a design for a WPA mural in a New York City subway station.

The Williamses’ relentless search for prints resulted in colorful encounters both within the United States and abroad, from a meeting with Jackson Pollock’s brother Charles in Paris (an unsuccessful attempt to buy one of the last remaining Pollock screen prints in private hands) to discovering the richness of printmaking in 1940s Texas in small Fort Worth galleries in 1987. “What an eye-opener,” Williams remembers. “Surrealist and abstract prints a stone’s throw from Fort Worth’s sprawling and smelly stockyards!” And in 1990 the Williamses visited Mexico City to tour the great public murals from the 1920s. Now it’s hard to believe, but, writes Williams, in 1990 “information on [mural locations] was sketchy […] Mexico’s great twentieth-century art was hardly documented.”

The trip to Mexico helped the Williamses understand, and later promote, the little-known connection between the Mexican muralists of the 1920s and the subsequent style of the Federal Art Project (FAP) printmakers, once FAP was established under President Roosevelt,. The FAP’s inception story begins with an old schoolmate of FDR’s, George Biddle, who had studied with famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera for six months in 1928. Biddle, impressed with Mexico’s national school of mural painting, proposed a similar public murals project for the States. In a letter to FDR, he wrote, “Diego Rivera tells me that it was only possible because [President] Obregon allowed Mexican artists to work at plumber’s wages.” According to Williams, this led directly to the establishment of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1933, to “decorate nonfederal public buildings with works of art, most prominently murals.” Not long after, FDR established the FAP, which “sponsored a more varied and experimental body of art, and had a far greater influence on subsequent art movements.”

As the Williamses started to add Mexican prints to their collection, they began to notice that American prints from the ’30s and ’40s shared qualities with Mexican murals from the ’20s and ’30s. “The stylistic similarities,” Williams writes, “strongly suggest that the Mexican murals might well have influenced a generation of north-of-the-border artists.” Williams credits his wife with articulating the connection:

Reba defined the style as narrative, usually with heroic figures and often with a social message and a full picture plane — no blank sky or open spaces — and a high horizon line, or none at all, little or no perspective or depth, and crammed with people, or animals, or objects, or all of these.

Further investigation revealed that “budding U.S. artists went south to assist, and learn from, the Mexican muralists. A surprising number of these Yankee novices were young, single women.” One can speculate, too, that the revolutionary politics of the Mexican muralists also made an impression on the Americans. Diego Rivera, of course, famously enraged his client Nelson Rockefeller by inserting a picture of Vladimir Lenin into a mural in Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller retaliated by destroying the piece.

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Despite the centrality of WPA prints to the Williamses’ collection, it would be misleading to characterize Small Victories, or their passion for prints, as being overly focused on works with political or social themes — it is not. This is first and foremost a story about collecting, and the Williams collection includes fascinating sub-collections such as prints by African-American artists (many with religious themes); war-related prints (from the Napoleonic Wars to World War II); early American prints dating to the 1700s; 20th-century illustrated advertising posters; and even famous works from art stars like Warhol (Marilyn [pink], screenprint, 1967), Jasper Johns (Target, screenprint, 1974), and Edward Ruscha (Standard Station [red], screenprint, 1966).

Williams writes conversationally, making the reader feel as if he’s been invited to dinner party to hear old “war stories.” One of the more memorable tales is a recounting of the aforementioned visit with Charles Pollock in Paris. Pollock welcomed Williams and produced one of his famous brother’s rare prints. Williams didn’t get to buy the print (it was later sold to another party), but he did have an interesting evening:

Charles offered me a second glass of wine, and in pouring it, two drops of red fell into the margin of the print. Sacrebleu! A valuable art object, damaged! Charles look distressed, so I took a handkerchief out of my pocket, and dabbed at the drops — but two red stains remained. I pretended to be unperturbed.

Small Victories also reminds us of the vast chasm between the collector and the critic. The collector is, of course, not an objective party to the art in his own collection. It’s unlikely he’ll spend $115,000 on a print (the amount Williams paid in 1996 for the 1923 etching The Henry Ford by Edward Hopper) and then decide it has serious flaws. The consequence is that the reader encounters so much art in Small Victories — and so many pieces for the first time — that he longs for a bit more discrimination. It’s not that Williams can’t write effectively about the art, but only once, in a description of Dempsey Through the Ropes (1923), a lithograph by artist George Bellows portraying the near-defeat of boxer Jack Dempsey, do we get a glimpse of the author in a more critical mode: “Unfortunately,” he writes. “Bellows’ attempt at Modernism here leaves the fighters’ limbs rigid and stiff; there’s an overall lack of dynamism in the image.” Williams does not indicate whether the work made it into his collection, but one suspects not, considering his critique. He is a fan, however, of another boxing-themed work by Bellows, the 1917 lithograph A Stag at Sharkey’s, which, he tells us, some critics consider “the best American print ever.” This one, he owns. And his description is emblematic of a certain gut-level enthusiasm that he, and perhaps other collectors, feel for the works in their collections. “[T]he tension in the muscle of the sweating fighters was palpable,” he writes. “The viewer can almost feel the heat of the ring and hear the pounding of leather on flesh and the roars from the crowd.”

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During their decades of collecting, the Williamses showcased a small fraction of their 6,000 prints in the offices of the Alliance Capital building on 6th Ave. in New York City, as well as in Alliance subsidiary offices in London, Tokyo, and Johannesburg. David Williams served as the chief executive of this international financial firm, and his Wall Street wealth has given him the freedom to pursue his passions (Reba was also a financial analyst.) At various times they’ve had second homes in South Carolina, Palm Springs, Long Island, as well as an apartment in London. In the language of the Occupy Movement, the Williamses are undoubtedly the Wall Street one percent par excellence. And undoubtedly there is a certain irony in Wall Street millionaires spending their wealth on prints made by poor and relatively unknown artists from the downtrodden 1930s, but this tension, between art and money, will never be entirely erased in American society. Then again, perhaps it isn’t a matter of tension — more like spousal interdependence. After all, didn’t the great oeuvre of Andy Warhol permanently and gloriously fuse capitalism and art into a kind of pop-culture sacrament?

And speaking of marriage — it’s interesting to note that Reba Williams, who earned a PhD in art history at the Graduate Center at City University of New York, has not only authored many of the exhibition catalogs that have accompanied the collection in museums around the world, but has also written critical articles for various art publications. She’s credited with, among other things, helping to resurrect the legacy of Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s widow, who was a serious and accomplished printmaker herself. Therefore it’s hard not to wonder why Reba — the more accomplished writer and historian — did not author this account; but marriages, particularly long and enduring ones like the Williamses’, have their own internal system of logic, and these dynamics are best left unexamined.

Whatever the division of labor in bringing Small Victories to publication, David Williams has written a valuable and pleasurable book. In addition to all the stories and prints, the reader gets a crash course on major European and American art movements and dozens of tasty art history tidbits — many of them vital to understanding the progression of 20th- century American art — such as how Pop Art, seemingly overnight, obliterated the hold Abstract Expressionism had on the art scene, and why Warhol deserves credit for almost single-handedly legitimizing screenprinting as a fine art practice.

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The Williamses eventually decided the best way to promote their collection was to give it away. In 2008 they transferred their prints (a partial sale and a partial gift) to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The Gallery’s Director Earl A. Powell III noted that

rarely do private individuals collect with such serious intent, determination and success as shown by Reba and Dave’s example […] This acquisition was transformative, immediately giving us a new standing in the field of American prints. Ranging in date from around 1875–1975 — from the etching revival to Pop.”

And if fine art prints are truly a medium for the people, it seems only fitting that this collection now resides in America’s national art museum, waiting for Americans — and visitors from all over the world — to view and explore free of charge.

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Robert Fay’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, and First Things.