Painter Ralph Fasanella

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Ralph Fasanella is one of the most celebrated artists ever to come out of the Bronx, which might not be saying much, given that most of his competition is wild-style graffiti cats. Born in 1914 and raised on Manhattan's Sullivan St., Fasanella's journey to become an artist is just as interesting as any of his paintings. Little Ralph was a second-generation Italian whose biggest influences in his life were his father, Joe, who worked as an ice deliveryman, and his mother, Ginerva, who put in brutal hours working in the garment district. As a kid Fasanella would occasionally work the ice route with his father, seeing firsthand the hard world of an iceman. In 1958 Fasanella painted Iceman Crucified, to both honor his father and all the sacrifices he'd made for his family, and to mourn the end of the iceman job, caused by refrigerators. On the cross the iceman has a pair of ice tongs instead of a crown of thorns and he's nailed into the wood with ice picks instead of nails.

As much as Fasanella looked up to his father, though, it was his mother who was even more of an influence on his art. Growing up, there was no money for a babysitter for Ralph, so Ginerva brought him to her job at a Chatham Square dress shop. It was there that she taught him about the value of unions and organizing for working people, and the importance of self-education.

In 1925 the Fasanellas moved to the East Bronx. Ralph found pleasure in the empty lots of this spacious new borough, and developed a lifelong love affair with baseball. During the Great Depression?with the lessons learned at his mother's job in mind?he came to a strong belief in trade unionism and antifascist organizing. He became a true Social Democrat. In 1937, at 23, Fasanella volunteered for the International Brigades and fought in the Spanish Civil War. When he got back to New York in 1938, he began a career as a union organizer. But Fasanella quickly soured on the organized labor movement, and went on to work a variety of manual jobs like truck driver, shipping clerk for an underwear manufacturer, presser and machinist.

Six years later Fasanella developed a numbing pain in his fingers. To relieve it, he began to draw. Soon that hobby became a vocation and he began to paint. His first works were of what he knew as a child: early paintings are titled Sullivan Street, Sheridan Square and Grove Street Interior.

In 1950 Fasanella married school teacher Eva Lazorek, whose salary helped subsidize his forays to the galleries where he'd try to sell his paintings. Because he'd been investigated by the FBI for his union organizing, and was effectively blacklisted, Fasanella had a tough go of it early on in the art world. In the 1960s the couple put together enough money to open a gas station in the Bronx called Happy and Bud's Service Station. In his later years Fasanella painted in his gas-jockey shirt with the Gulf emblem sewn on the pocket.

Today, a Fasanella painting is displayed near the token booth at the E train stop at 5th Ave. and 53rd St. Given that it's the stop for MOMA, Fasanella's work found a good home. 1950's Subway Riders was put up in 1995; it's behind thick glass and on the side there's a gold plaque with a quote from Fasanella: "I'd ride the subway every day back and forth to my machine shop job. I'd ride and ride and sketch and sketch. I love the subway. It pulls the city together, pulls people together in a magical way."

I stood in front of the painting during rush hour and watched hordes of New Yorkers pass by it without a glance. At first look the painting seems almost elementary. Then I stopped myself and really looked at it. Fasanella has a way with light and the people in the canvas have a glow to them?so much so that I peered under the glass to see if it was lit inside (it wasn't). Fasanella is the fourth subway rider from the right and he drew himself snoozing in his blue work clothes and workman's cap.

In 1972, after 28 years as an artist, New York magazine "discovered" Fasanella and did a cover story on him titled "Portrait of the Artist as a Garage Attendant in the Bronx." The New-York Historical Society is running an exhibit called "Ralph Fasanella's America" through July 14. I sat with Travis Stewart, the society's public relations man, on a wooden bench in front of a Fasanella painting. Stewart is the rare breed of publicist who is self-effacing and speaks honestly. He told me he wasn't sure if he was the right man to talk about Fasanella. I told him that since he had eyes and could see the paintings he'd do just fine. We sat in front of Night Game?Yankee Stadium (1961). The work is tilted up and has no scale, with everything in a vertical position. The stadium is full of mostly women and everyone seems to be having a grand old time. Fasanella rendered the ballpark grass with flecks of paint and it glows with various shades of green. On the scoreboard there's a Yankee dream-team lineup that includes sluggers from different eras, like Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. In the distance the Bronx skyline looks like Manhattan.

After staring at the painting for a minute I asked Stewart if he found Fasanella's art primitive.

"Well, it is primitive. He was a self-taught painter and his work is not filtered through some school. He uses only his eyes. If you like the blues and folk music I imagine you would like Fasanella."

I asked Stewart what he most likes about Fasanella's work.

"I really like the historical detail and documentation aspect of his art. He'd go into sweatshops and ballgames and paint what he saw. This kind of thing gets neglected in modern art. It's almost like it is out of medieval times."

We talked a little longer, then I thanked Stewart for his time and walked around the exhibit. I stood in front of a 1995 painting, South Bronx Rebirth, that has Fasanella in his blue work clothes and cap helping a family move into a new house on Fox St. American Tragedy (1964) is Fasanella's response to JFK's assassination. A Barry Goldwater-looking fellow is riding a horse over JFK's coffin. Sandlot Game #2 (1954) shows the East Bronx in all of its prewar glory. The streets are clean and empty and young boys play baseball in an empty lot.

As I left the exhibit I wished I could talk to Fasanella about his work. He died in 1997, but I'll give him the last word here, from the book Ralph Fasanella's America:

"I'm a society minded guy. I'm committed to life. But I can't shut myself off from the past?I don't forget yesterday, so I know who I am today. I hang onto what I was yesterday, so I know what I'm going to do tomorrow."


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