A story that’s always interested me comes from early Woodstock history, and the effect that growing success and reputation had on the band of brothers and sisters who came to the Maverick to follow their dreams. Some of that success came during the 1930s, the WPA Artists Project years, and with success came friction, most notably in the nationwide competition for commission to paint a mural at the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco. As fate would have it, the finalists for the competition were two Woodstock artists, Anton Refregier and Wendell Jones. And Refregier was ultimately chosen to paint the mural.
Ironically, I can’t find a link to Ref’s mural online, but Wendy Jones’s studies can be found here,
The competition caused some serious rents in the Woodstock community, and the destruction of friendships. Many thought that Wendy Jones should have won, and that Ref’s work was more facile, less profound.
I don’t want to comment on that. I held both men in the deepest regard, personally and professionally. Wendy died when I was still a teenager, but his sons were my best friends, and his surviving son, Peter, remains my oldest and closest friend. Ref was a mentor and role model to me; he influenced me profoundly.
But I’ve been thinking recently about the assignation of roles to them: Wendy the depth and nuance, Ref the flash and commercialism. Was this real? Did Ref win the competition because his work was flashier and more commercial?
Or is his work seen as flashier and more commercial because he won?
Did winning competitions and commissions turn Ref into an artist who began to play it safe? And if Wendy had won this hugely prestigious commission, and Ref had lost it, would Wendy have been the one to start to play it safe?
I don’t believe any of this. But I believe the perception exists, and not just in this long-forgotten example. I don’t believe Ref’s burning artistic integrity was compromised by success, and I don’t believe Wendy’s would have been (he did enjoy success and prestige during his career). But I suspect that although the work would not have changed, the perception would have—that Wendy would have been categorized as the facile one, Ref the unjustly overlooked soulful one. And none of this perception would have had anything to do with art.