An Incomplete History of Muralism at Rikers Island
The artworks I discuss in this article are, for the most part, unseen. They are either unrealized, destroyed, lost, or on display in a place that is geographically, administratively and, largely, psychically removed from New York City’s mainstream society—Rikers Island (until 1966, the Island was only accessible by boat).1 The murals at Rikers Island Penitentiary, made by artists outside and inside Rikers alike, are owned by the penitentiary and seen only by a community of people that are either incarcerated or explicitly permitted to visit. Some murals are preserved by the jail, but most are presumed destroyed or painted over. The history of these murals exists mostly in fragments,institutional records, artist accounts, and the testimony and memory of people who are incarcerated. Driven by a combination of my professional interests as an art historian and my personal experiences with the incarceration system, I began compiling a history of murals made at Rikers earlier this year. The majority of murals created at Rikers are made by artists who are unpaid and incarcerated, which, unlike works made by outside artists, do not circulate widely amongst the general public and are not recorded in easily accessible archives. What I’ve amassed thus far, presented here, predominantly focuses on murals made by or in collaboration with outside artists, thereby making this history incomplete. Contributing to this obfuscation is the invisibility and social stigma surrounding jails, prisons, and those that inhabit them, who are often rendered obsolete; during my father’s sentence, I felt as if he’d vanished.
The chronology of muralism at Rikers Island Penitentiary begins with the inception of the institution itself in 1932. Austin H. MacCormick, Commissioner of Corrections under New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, is responsible for spearheading the development and completion of Rikers Island. Under MacCormick’s vision, the new Rikers Island Penitentiary would replace the city’s previous jail, the Welfare Island Penitentiary (now Roosevelt Island), and be a distinctly reformist penal institution—more “modern” and “social” than its predecessor.2 To help support his supposedly improved penal model, in the spring of 1934, MacCormick enlisted artist Ben Shahn, who would become the first artist to work on a Rikers Island arts mural.3
With financial support from the federal government’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA; 1933–35), Shahn, in collaboration with his friend and fellow artist Lou Block, began working on a mural proposal for two facing walls of a large corridor leading to the chapel. Commissioner MacCormick supported and guided the artists throughout the project’s progression, encouraging them to consider their intended viewers not to be the incarcerated population alone, but also the “visitors, especially visiting penologists and students of sociology.”4 Rather than spending most of their time in a studio, the artists consulted historians of penology, interviewed inmates, and visited prisons in the New York City area.
Narrativizing their extensive research findings, Shahn designed a mural with a didactic chronology, provoking viewers to weigh historical examples of inhumane carceral conditions against contemporary institutions that were reformist and “enlightened”—like, they hoped, Rikers Island would be. Soon thereafter, the artists abandoned the history of penology and focused on depicting contemporary penal conditions only.5 Shahn felt it was untenable and erroneous to suggest that inhumane conditions were only a matter of history. In his proposal, Shahn dedicated one wall of the corridor to depicting the violent and non-progressive side of the narrative, including scenes such as chained inmates laboring in the foreground of a county courthouse, numbered prisoners in solitary confinement, and the societal struggles faced upon re-entry, like unemployment and social stigma. Shahn also implicated judges and police officers, who are depicted carelessly and mechanically classifying prisoners: police targets, child killer, gunman, racketeer. Along the opposing wall, Shahn planned to include scenes of rehabilitative penitentiaries, visions of a reformist penal ideal: inmates studying in classrooms, engineering cars, and playing baseball. Shahn’s mural proposal, through social realism, sought to mirror the physical and systemic conditions of the location for which it was intended.
In February 1935, in spite of continued support from Commissioner MacCormick and Mayor La Guardia, the Municipal Art Commission, which held power of veto over all murals slated for the city’s municipal buildings, rejected Shahn’s proposal.6 Jonas Lie, a conservative painter and high-profile member of the Art Commission, doubled-down on his rejection in the Times: “I would rather see blank walls in Rikers Island penitentiary than walls…which I believe would incite prison inmates to further an anti-social attitude, to oppose the existing government and to encourage those already opposed to society, as now established, to increase their opposition to law and order.”7 For the Commission, and Lie in particular, the issue boiled down to using federal funds for artwork that was sympathetic to anti-establishmentarianism perspectives.
Citing the answers to a questionnaire that was distributed to 40 individuals incarcerated at the Welfare Island Penitentiary along with images of Shahn’s proposal, Shahn claimed that his project was supported by a majority of the interviewees.8 However, according to the commission, the responses proved that the murals, in the words of Art Commission President Stokes, were “psychologically unfit” and “unsuitable for the location for which they were intended and submitted—the main corridor leading to the chapel of the penitentiary, where they would be seen at frequent intervals.”9 The inmates’ handwritten responses are available online through the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s collection of Ben Shahn papers. Below are a few of the many notable responses:
Q: In your opinion, what will other men here think about these pictures?Q: Visitors will also go through the halls. Of what interest do you think these pictures will be to them?
A1: “The other men here I think will agree that the reform that is gradually being introduced in prisons will eventually absolve the State from its former policy of creating habitual prisoners.”
A2: “Men in prison will think more seriously about studying while in prison.”
A: “It would please them to know that the prison is in the same order as the pictures (if it is).”
Although the Art Commission remained steadfastly opposed to Shahn’s proposal as submitted, they did offer “to consider the use of some of the sketches for less public portions of the penitentiary.”10 In the end, Shahn’s project was never carried out.
For many leftist artists, including Shahn, the Commission’s rejection, which was based not on artistic but rather political and psychological merits, amounted to artistic suppression. Along with Nelson Rockefeller’s destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural because of a portrait of Lenin within the composition, Shahn’s Rikers rejection became one of the defining political events of the 1930s mural renaissance. In defense of his fellow artists and in condemnation of the rise of what he and other leftist artists considered fascist tendencies, Stuart Davis, a prominent artist and outspoken member of the Artists’ Union, published a rallying cry in the August 1935 issue of The Magazine of American Art: “Organization by the artists and cooperation of the organized workers is the only method to fight these attacks on culture.”11
With the establishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA; 1935–43) under President Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, the next phase of muralism at Rikers was initiated. Under the auspices of the fine arts branch of the WPA, known as the Federal Art Project (FAP), Harold Lehman, Anton Refregier, Alexander Alland, Balcomb Greene, Jean Xceron, Irving Block, Peter Busa, Abraham Lishinsky, and Arshile Gorky all submitted project proposals for Rikers Island. Only seven of the proposals by the above-named artists were completed, of which just one, a mural by Anton Refregier, remains at Rikers Island today. The WPA/FAP funded the artists’ labor-time for these projects, but the materials were furnished by the Department of Corrections. Furthermore, the specific locations for mural projects were selected by the Department of Corrections and the warden.
With the space intended for Shahn’s mural still empty, artist Harold Lehman began envisioning plans for a replacement mural for Rikers Island in 1936. Although to a lesser extent than his predecessors, Lehman also conducted research into the penal industry.12 The sting of Shahn and Block’s rejection loomed large, however, and Lehman’s proposal was radically different. His mural composition included no overtly political, negative, or violent imagery, and, furthermore, avoided explicit reference to the penal setting for which it was designed. “In the case of Riker’s Island Penitentiary,” writes Lehman in the thesis for his project proposal, “circumspection seems necessary since a work relating to criminology or penology may have less than a salutary effect on those viewing it. Rather does it appear that in this particular instance, the most effective theme might possibly be one furthest removed in character from that of penalization, crime, the criminal, etc.”13 Man’s Daily Bread–Activities relating to it and the relation of these to the Family, a 70-by-20-foot mural, took Lehman four years to complete (figure 1). After receiving preliminary approval in the spring of 1937, it was not until February 1941 that the Municipal Art Commission finally approved Lehman’s mural for permanent installation in the penitentiary mess hall.14
Lehman originally began the composition with a true fresco technique of applying tempera paint directly onto the wall, but the penitentiary’s climate—abundant with food vapors and steam, not to mention the alleged mashed potatoes thrown at the mural by individuals incarcerated—proved too hostile.15 Forced to reconsider his medium, Lehman ultimately chose to execute the murals in oils on canvas, as did a majority of the muralists employed by the WPA/FAP16. Lehman’s mess hall mural employed a triangular visual structure, the apex of which was a white family sitting around a table with a fresh loaf of bread. For Lehman, it was necessary “to show for whom man labors…the idea of the Family.”17 It is worth noting that, according to the 1940 Census, 67% of people in US jails were white.18 To either side of the pinnacle family were two scenes of mostly white men laboring together in agrarian and industrial settings. On the left, wheat fields, plows, and the harvesting of crops. To the right, its industrialized counterpart: coal miners, oil drillers, and forest harvesters. Lehman’s mural was one among many WPA-commissioned murals that utilized a regionalist, figurative style and highlighted the values of the nuclear family, labor, and modern innovation. The same is true of Anton Refregier’s mural, Reconstruction, Home and Family, which, after first being proposed in 1937 under the preliminary title, Bread and the Family, was finally painted for the Rikers Island viewing room in 1942 (figure 2).19 Refregier’s mural, a scene of white men laboring—cutting trees, building log houses, laying bricks—hung in the public viewing room for decades. In 1978, when Warden Leonard Wolfson wanted to paint over the mural to make space for a new inmate-painted mural, art enthusiasts saved Refregier’s work from destruction.20 The mural was partitioned and relocated to an office area, where it remains today—the only WPA era mural at Rikers to survive into the 21st century.
In 1937, Alexander Alland designed and executed a photomural for the Rikers Island Penitentiary library. The photomural, now either destroyed or missing, is known through archival photographs. The composition consisted of a photograph taken on the Brooklyn Bridge looking toward Manhattan, superimposed twice as if it were a third longer than in actuality. Titled Approach to Manhattan, at the base of the bridge, Alland collaged a family walking hand-in-hand toward the city. The exposed piping of the library’s ceiling, visible in the archival installation photograph, blends perfectly into the iron cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, thereby creating a true trompe-l’oeil effect.
From 1940–42, the remaining WPA/FAP mural projects for Rikers Island were all slated for one multi-use building on the campus. This large building included sliding walls which compartmentalized rooms of various functions: an assembly room (which also functioned as a faith house for both Jewish and Christian Science beliefs), a Catholic Chapel, and a Protestant Chapel. In the end, only the proposals by Peter Busa (Catholic Chapel), Irving Block (Catholic Chapel), Abraham Linshinsky (Protestant Chapel), and Jean Xceron (Jewish Chapel) were realized.21 Lishinsky’s mural, Jesus Heals, Jesus Teaches, 1940, a true fresco for the Protestant Chapel, depicted traditional biblical scenes of forgiveness and obedience in an expressionist style.22 A mural by Xceron for the Jewish Chapel (two oil-on-canvas panels), on the other hand, was a non-objective, geometric abstraction (figure 3). Since the assembly room served both Jewish and Christian Science faiths, the non-representational style of Abstraction in Relation to Surrounding Architecture, completed in the summer of 1942, befitted its location. The multi-use building was destroyed over the years, and likely the works along with it.
With funding redirected to the Second World War, the Roosevelt administration ended the WPA in June 1943, thereby closing this busy chapter in Rikers’ history of muralism. From this point forward, most of the outside artists who worked at Rikers Island did so through non-profit organizations or on their own initiatives, rather than with direct funding from the federal government. Also, from this point forward, there is an increasingly collaborative effort between the outside artists and the people who are incarcerated—many of whom are also artists.
In 1971, American-artist Faith Ringgold was looking for a venue to utilize a grant that she had recently acquired from the Creative Arts Public Service program (CAPS). During the summer of that year, the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village closed. Erected just before Rikers in 1931, the Greenwich Village women’s center, like Rikers, was intended to be a modern and “enlightened” penitentiary. And, like Rikers, it turned out to be otherwise. By June 13, 1971, all 422 individuals incarcerated at the Greenwich facility were relocated to a newly constructed replacement facility at Rikers, the Correction Institution for Women.23 It was here, Ringgold decided, that she would realize her grant-funded project.24
Unlike the research and interviews conducted by Shahn, which were used by the artist to visualize the carceral system, and within it the role of “the prisoner,” Ringgold’s interviews with incarcerated women were driven by one particular question: what were they interested in seeing?25 Debuted in January 1972, For the Women’s House (oil on canvas) is a composition consisting of eight triangular quadrants with 19 women of multiple races engaged in extraordinary roles that were, in 1971, unprecedented: a bus driver, a professional basketball player, a police officer directing traffic, an orating president (figure 4). In hindsight, the mural is remembered as Ringgold’s first of many compositions to feature women exclusively.26 In 1999, sometime after the facility was converted to a men’s jail, Ringgold discovered that her mural had been whitewashed.27 Like Refregier’s, the warden painted over For the Women’s House in order to offer the canvas for a new painting by an incarcerated person. Also like Refregier’s, it was salvaged. After Rikers hired a conservator to restore the painting, the work was re-hung in the women’s facility, where it remains today (behind plexiglass).28 Since its creation, Rikers has lent the work for public display once in 2010 as part of a museum retrospective of the artist’s work.29
Although the actual process of painting the mural was completed by Ringgold herself, her mural can be seen as a collaborative effort in so far as the artist worked with women who were incarcerated to conceive of the mural’s content. As indicated by the title, it was her gift to the women of Rikers. In these ways, Ringgold worked from a position of collaboration and reform. In the ensuing decades, the outside artists who worked on murals at Rikers would continue to expand possibilities of collaboration and reform. Under the auspices of non-profit prison reform organizations, notably Groundswell Community Mural Project, many outside artists have collaborated with people who are incarcerated throughout the artistic process—from conception to execution. In the Face of Mountains, a particularly striking and colorful mural that came out of Groundswell’s initiatives, was painted in 2018 by artist DonChristian Jones in collaboration with five teenagers who were incarcerated.
I was able to glean some information of the rich and obfuscated history of muralism by those incarcerated through the annals of carceral photography and journalism and from individual conversations. In 2001, the Times profiled Anthony Jones, an artist who was incarcerated, who, during his 13 years in and out of NYS penitentiaries, painted dozens of beloved murals at Rikers. At the bequest of Corrections officials, Jones painted a pastoral landscape mural for the James A. Thomas Center jail at Rikers and a mural for the visiting room that placed “the viewer at the top of a grand staircase descending toward a bubbling fountain and manicured hedges and lawns. Green mountains and a pristine lake shimmer on the horizon.”30 Utilizing traditional landscape painting, Jones’ murals burrowed holes into the walls, opening the confined spaces of the penitentiary into imaginary, non-referential landscapes. In a conversation over the phone earlier this month, Larry Salander, a painter and former art dealer, told me that during his two-month incarceration at Rikers, he also painted a mural—a 30 ft. sunset applied directly onto a cinder-block wall. He said it was the most enjoyable experience of his six-year sentence.
With the planned closing of Rikers taking place by 2026, the fate of these murals, at least the ones that are still intact, is uncertain. Although the city’s closure plan involves five new smaller borough jails, a tenet strongly opposed by many organizations, including the Legal Aid Society, it would bring an end to one of the largest, most inhumane and corrupt jails in the country. Reflecting on the reformist ideals that Shahn depicted in his 1934–35 mural proposal leads me to wonder, will history continue to repeat itself?
John C Devlin,“‘Bridge of Hope’ to Rikers Island Is Dedicated Here.” New York Times, November 23, 1966, p. 41.
- Ben Shahn papers, 1879-1990, bulk 1933-1970. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Box 21, Folder 15.
- Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), p. 16.
- Ben Shahn, Deborah M. Kao, Laura Katzman, and Jenna Webster. Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times (Cambridge, Mass: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, 2000), pp. 284–85.
- Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), p. 29.
- Greta Berman, The Lost Years: Mural Paintings in New York City Under the WPA’s Federal Art Project, 1935–1943 (New York: Garland Pub., 1978).
- “‘Anti-Social’ Move Seen in Relief Art,” New York Times, May 9, 1935, p. 13.
- Ben Shahn papers, 1879–1990, bulk 1933–1970. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- I.N. Phelps Stokes and Philippa Whiting. “Comment and Criticism,” The American Magazine of Art 28, no. 10 (October 1935), pp. 635–66.
- For a retrospective of Shahn’s work at Harvard, the curators commissioned a digital construction of how the mural commission would have appeared according to Shahn’s proposal if it had been approved.
- Stuart Davis, “The Artist Today: The Standpoint of the Artists’ Union,” The American Magazine of Art 28, no. 8 (August 1935), p. 478.
- Oral history interview with Harold Lehman, 1997 Mar. 28. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- “Thesis of Harold Lehman for Murals in the North Mess Hall of Rikers Island Penitentiary,” 1941. Series 1554, Exhibits EG-EH, Certificate 6451, Collection of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York.
- “Rikers Island Mural In Mess Hall Okayed,” Daily News, February 26, 1941, p. 578.
- Francis V. O’Connor, “New Deal Murals in New York,” Artforum 7, no. 3 (1968), p. 45.
- “Thesis of Harold Lehman for Murals in the North Mess Hall of Rikers Island Penitentiary,” 1941. Series 1554, Exhibits EG-EH, Certificate 6451, Collection of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York. In his thesis proposal, Lehman placed particular value on the role of the mother: “The psychiatrist of Elmira Reformatory, Dr. Rene Breguet, has informed the writer that one of the most universal traits of the inmates at that institutions, is the fact that they retain their concern and deep regard for their Mothers.”
- Margaret W Cahalan, and Lee A. Parsons. Historical Corrections Statistics in the United States, 1850–1984 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1987), p. 91. According to the report, “inmates were classified as white and nonwhite only. Spanish origin inmates who were not Indian or other nonwhite races were categorized as white.”
- Rikers Island Penitentiary, Proposal by Anton Refregier for Murals for Visitors Room, 1937. Series 1554, Exhibits CE-CG, Certificate 5339, Collection of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York.
- Oral history interview with Anton Refregier, 1964 Nov. 5. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- Greta Berman, The Lost Years: Mural Paintings in New York City Under the WPA’s Federal Art Project, 1935–1943 (New York: Garland Pub., 1978).
- “Prison for Women, Shut Down by City, To Be Demolish.” New York Times, June 15, 1971, p. 45.
- Michelle Wallace. Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory (New York: Verso, 1990), p. 33.
- Ibid., pp. 34–35.
- Faith Ringgold, Michele Wallace, Thom Collins, and Tracy Fitzpatrick. American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold's Paintings of the 1960s (Purchase, N.Y: Neuberger Museum of Art, 2010), p. 50.
- Ibid., p. 51.
- Rebecca Mead, “Behind Bars,” The New Yorker, October 18, 2010.
- American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, September 11–December 19, 2010.
- David Rohde, “Jailhouse Artist Makes Mark on Murals; Addiction Another Form of Imprisonment for a Well-Regarded Painter,” New York Times, August 21, 2001.