In October 1972, the cover of New York magazine featured a photo of a working-class man posing with several paintings.
[“Worker’s Holiday—Coney Island,” 1965]
“This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living,” the New York headline announced. “He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”
[“New York City,” 1957]
The smiling man on the cover was Ralph Fasanella. Born in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Fasanella had already scored some success as a self-taught painter.
[“San Genarro—Festa,” 1950]
But the New York cover turned this middle-aged union organizer and gas station owner into something of an artistic late bloomer.
His enormous, carnival-colored paintings and panoramas, finely detailed and conveying the complexity of urban life, became sought-after examples of primitive art.
“Primitive” was a term he disliked. Social realism might be a more appropriate label for Fasanella’s work, as he captured images of family life, labor unrest, and working-class neighborhoods.
[“New York Going to Work”]
“[His paintings’] bittersweet mood and crowded space also conveyed something of what the critic John Berger called ‘the violence of the daily necessity of the streets,’ noting ‘the way that the density of the working population makes itself felt,'” wrote the New York Times.
“Painting until the wee hours of the morning to the tunes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, Fasanella described himself as a jazz artist,” states aflcio.org.
“He said he painted from his belly and would urge young aspiring artists to reject pretention, to be authentic, to paint what they know and where they came from.”