Monday, January 18, 2010

Is Rico Lebrun Hiding in the Post Office?

Posted by baad lamb

“As for the subject matter: they are ‘flood’ figures, ‘hell’ figures, ‘Roman” figures – but no, in reality they are apparitions of my own being to myself, because I would like to be double, or many, upside down and right-side up, masculine and feminine, carnal and remote, seen and unseen; these obsessive shapes keep popping up and now they keep me company – a company I have always wanted, now they do, they come, they stay, they mirror me.”

It’s the end of an epic walk on a sunny day in March 2008, and I’m photographing the matching verdigris light fixtures projecting off the long and repetitious north façade of the Farley Post Office. The iconic 8th Ave main building is full of immediately recognizable features, its block-long stairs rising monumentally to the equally long series of entry doors, with enough room across the architrave to spell out the entire well-known phrase “Neither snow nor rain etc.”. But here, on 33rd much closer to 9th Ave, these lights are the major protrusion on the utilitarian section known as the Western Annex, and they mark an equally utilitarian entrance.

A few more pictures and it occurs to me that I have never been inside this Charles McKim landmark, built across the avenue from his undisputed masterwork Pennsylvania Station (RIP). And now, right here a door was presenting itself, and it was unlocked. Rather than go around to the front, I went in.

Who was Rico and what did he do? Pictures and more after the jump...

Whatever grandeur might be present in that main lobby was definitely absent here. A short vestibule spit me out into a relatively small, low ceilinged, nearly empty room. Dark green marble wainscoting and some painted gold trim on doors and windows were the only hints of decorative interest. A rectangular fold out table, the type usually covered with plastic tablecloths at church potluck suppers or elementary school bake sales was off to the right, harboring the lone security guard. There was no one else in the room; we nodded wordless hellos.

Turning away from the guard, wearing my I’ve-been-here-a-million-times-and-I-know-exactly-where-I’m-going face, I quickly scanned the other doors to plot my next move.

And there it was.

Serendipity-Intrigue. There on the plaster wall were the faded remains of a frescoed wall mural, largely covered by successive layers of now peeling white paint, with not enough visible detail left to figure out what it once was. The sole fully recognizable feature was an arm, which allowed my eyes to fill in the rest of a body - a partial torso, two legs, and the back of a head.

Arm detail on the central figure

Forgetting my man-with-a-purpose posture, I move close and start studying, scanning for more clues to my racing questions; what is this, who did it and when, why is it in this deteriorating state? Knowing I would need pictures, and knowing how forbidden it has become in the post 9/11 age (even when perfectly legal, over-zealous security guards have chased me away from buildings many times) I turn back to Bake Sale Boy and start chatting him up.

He was new to this post and knew nothing that would help me (“I’ve been here for a month and it’s always looked like that”) and at first didn’t seem too curious to know more. But he could sense my enthusiasm, and did not protest when I produced the camera with a hopeful smile. I secured the needed photos, realizing then that with my new pile of unanswered mural questions, there would be no greater surprise at the main entrance to capture my attention. I left and headed home (to a computer and Google search, of course).

My first results were disappointing. Cluttering the results was the fact that plenty of Post Offices across the city had WPA murals, many by famous or soon to be famous people. Of further hindrance were lots of dead ends about mural restoration and grant money, or articles that might mention New York but were really about Oklahoma. Eventually the pieces started coming together and an artist named Rico Lebrun became my leading candidate. Unfortunately, as is typical with internet-only research, much of the information I found was broad-brush sketchy, with many conflicting details, sometimes in the same article. So I approached this investigation skeptically, reminding myself not to consider everything as quotable “facts”.

Here is a quick summary of what I think I know:

Frederico (Rico) Lebrun was born in Naples, Italy in 1900. While still a teen, he fought for the Italian Army in WW1. He then worked as a stained glass designer for a factory in Naples, and eventually accepted a limited contract to work for a division of PPG in Springfield, Illinois. When the contract ended, he moved to New York and supported himself drawing advertisements, cartoons and fashion plates for magazines. After a multi-year trip abroad, where he studied the frescoes of Luca Signorelli, he returned to New York, replaced commercial art with a passion for fine art, and taught at the Art Students League of New York, (still on west 57th today).

It appears that his first mural commission was for Harvard, where he and fellow Art Students League artist Lewis Rubenstein painted a mural in the Fogg Art Museum depicting a hunger march on Washington in 1932. Beginning what seems to be a reoccurring theme for Rico, this mural was covered over or removed not long after its completion. (There are some references to indicate it still exists and is in the museum basement.)

It seems like 1936 was the year our forgotten mural was painted. One art gallery bio/timeline references it as “…completes a mural for the New York City Post Office”,

but a new level of intrigue is added on a site called the Memorial Gallery of American Art (MGAA):

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935/36 for a proposed mural project "Story of the Mines" (which was never executed) and worked on a WPA mural "River Flood" at the Pennsylvania Station Post Office Annex in New York.

Two California artists, Gridley Barrows (who later became an architect) and Santa Barbara painter Channing Peake assisted Lebrun on the WPA project and were instrumental in persuading Lebrun to leave New York and go west to California, which he did after conflict with the WPA caused the abandonment of the mural and the breakup of his marriage.

Two things about this are interesting:

A) The above referenced mural name “River Flood” does not match a name given in a different article where it is called “Post Office in the Country”, and

B) Here we are told the mural was never completed. I believe my photographs may support this theory, but new questions arise: What was this conflict with the WPA, why did it end his marriage (he appears to have married 3 or four times), and who were the “California artists*”?

* I only found answers to this 'Who were the artists' question: Architect Gridley Barrows is not well documented on the net, but appears to have ended up in Lewiston, ME, and died in 1999; The well known and well documented Channing Peake studied with Diego Rivera, and met Rico Lebrun at the Art Students League.

Lebrun thrived in California, had a successful run of national exhibitions for his drawings and paintings, and continued to teach, including some time at Walt Disney Studios, and was acclaimed as a leading modernist artist.

In his later years, his original figurative and then cubist styles became more and more abstract, the themes of his work were often religion, death and suffering, the Holocaust, man’s inhumanity to man, but with a hopeful and transformative underlying message. In his own words “… changing what is disfigured into what is transfigured”.

His best-known works were his “Crucifixion” series now in Syracuse University, and a mural called “Genesis”, installed at Pomona College. Rico Lebrun died in 1964 (or 1963 - more conflicting information).

Did Rico Lebrun paint my neglected mystery mural? It seems there is enough information to answer yes.

Construction scrawls, light switches and mysterious lettering on right side of mural

Was it “completed” or “abandoned”? I don’t know. I’m sure any expert could tell with one look what is damage and decay, what is still covered and what is actually unfinished. I don’t know if the unpainted but drawn face is original or an ill-fated earlier restoration attempt.

Drawn but unpainted face to right of central figure

Is this mural worth saving? What’s visible is not particularly pretty, and not enough is even distinguishable to make a judgment on the merits of its composition.  Is it an idyllic depiction a "Country Post Office", or is it a turbulent "River Flood"? There is no question of Rico Lebrun’s position as a prominent and influential muralist and modernist. With so many of his works unexecuted, removed, covered over or forgotten, the greatest value may be as historical artifact from his early years.

A young girl with a dog?

Left side. Besides the ghosts of removed signs, what images are here?

Will this mural be saved? The benevolence of the chosen developer for the on-again, off-again project to move Penn Station into the Farley Post Office may be the deciding factor. If it is rescued and restored as a result of a New Penn Station, the symmetry for New Yorkers would be delightful: “… changing what is disfigured into what is transfigured”.


  1. Very, very interesting and great art investigation.

  2. You are a man after my heart. I love this sort of investigation. The reward is the journey itself.

  3. Judging by the size of the figures, I'm suspecting that some of the adjoining walls are not original and that they cut into the mural which was originally longer and maybe even higher. I am eager to see this with my own eyes. I wonder if anyone is concerned with their preservation, removal and completion. Remember the beautiful WPA murals at the base of the Coit Tower in San Francisco? Lebrun's hands and arms are very much like those in the Luca Signorelli frescoes in Orvieto. We'll be visiting them later this year.

  4. What a great little mystery this is, my favorite kind, in fact, art history. I'm going to seek out more of Lebrun's work now. I imagine his ghost is grateful for your perceptiveness and curiosity.

  5. The specifics of this post aside, the little I know of the WPA continues to absolutely fascinate me. So many talented people grew from that project, both in art and literature. I wonder if such a thing could ever be done again, with such support, and such a eye for choosing rising talent that will forge the road ahead for decades and decades to come.

  6. Fritz and I visited the Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, an hour east of Portland Oregon in August. Virtually everything--furniture, ironwork, carved newel posts, glassware, sculpture, paintings, mosaics, engravings, fabrics, etc.--was created between 1936 and 1938 by local artists, some of whom were located living in packing crates or other desperate circumstances. WPA money gave them back their lives and a spectacular gallery to show off their work.

    Timberline almost succumbed to neglect during the 1950s but has been magnificently restored. It may be the largest and most varied repository of WPA-funded art anywhere in the country.

  7. Jim Farley's Building supply company built the Annex, he is historically associated with the Landmark. Its called the Long-Farley Affair.

    Farley also commissioned the artwork as Postmaster General, I am not sure if it was a WPA project, the P.O. expanded greatly under the New Deal to get everyone their Social Security and Welfare checks.

  8. When I saw these pictures and started reading this post a lot of this story sounded familiar to me. So I went back and clicked on the Diego Rivera link because I had read about and seen the movie about Frieda Khalo. She and Diego Rivera were lovers and their lives and stories and art intertwined. Now I see that he is intertwined with Lebrun. This was a fascinating art history read. I'd like to see that place in Oregon that Will mentioned.