A surrealist 1937 WPA mural (left) by Reuben Kadish (right) has been restored and is on view in San Francisco.
A surrealist 1937 WPA mural (left) by Reuben Kadish (right) has been restored and is on view in San Francisco.

A surrealist WPA mural in S.F. by Jewish artist Reuben Kadish has been restored

Dorothea Lange. Walker Evans. Coit Tower muralist Victor Arnautoff. Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists have often become household names, known for their searing documentation of social issues during the Great Depression.

Yet Reuben Kadish’s “A Dissertation on Alchemy,” a 1937 mural that was dedicated April 27 at the Haight Street Art Center after an extensive restoration, breaks the mold.

A surrealist work — and one of Kadish’s few surviving pieces after a studio fire destroyed the majority of his abstract expressionist paintings — it stands alone in the straightforward, often socialist-leaning WPA oeuvre.

“They were too flamboyant,” Kadish said of the designs he submitted to the WPA. “Alchemy” was the only one of the 20-some he created that was selected.

Not that it doesn’t have its own serious story to tell, one just as complex as class struggle.

“It’s about finding value in yourself and others,” said Gail Baugh, co-chair of the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco, which raised $20,000 for the mural’s restoration — “and about what really matters in life.”

A renowned artist and sculptor, Kadish was friends with Pollock and other famous artists like Philip Guston. He was a major force on the contemporary art scene in the 1930s in San Francisco and New York City — until he moved north to a dairy farm in New Jersey, a decision he regretted for the rest of his life.

The Victorian Alliance raised more than half the funds necessary for restoring the mural — which he painted at the top of a grand staircase of a historic San Francisco building that now houses the Haight Street Art Center — by conducting house tours in 2018. A grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation provided the remaining money to complete the project.

The Haight Street Art Center was founded in 2017, in part to preserve historic music posters. The building, which is itself historic, was saved from redevelopment after being vacant for many years. It is open to the public 12-6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

“People came to San Francisco looking for gold,” Baugh said. “And finding a new way of life became their gold.”

Originally published by The San Francisco Standard. Reprinted with permission. For more information, visit sfstandard.com.

Julie Zigoris

Julie Zigoris is a writer based in San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter at @jzigoris and find more of her writing at juliezigoris.com.

San Francisco Standard

Content republished with permission from The San Francisco Standard.