Believe it or not, Barack and Michelle Obama are crazy about modern art. You don’t think that’s big news? The New York Times did, when it ran a piece recently with the headline “For Obamas, a more abstract choice of art” about how the First Couple had quietly stocked the White House walls with pieces by Rauschenberg, Rothko, Hopper, and others loaned from museums around the country. The story’s tone wasn’t entirely scandalized—after all, it’s not like they’ve got Kehinde Wiley hanging in the Lincoln bedroom. But the old grey lady was clearly signaling that pushing aside fusty portraits of presidents and rough riders might not sit well with everyone. “Art,” the piece reminded us, “does change slowly in the White House.”
The Times piece may feel like tepid tea in the boiling history culture wars, but it comes at a good time for B.A. Shapiro. Shapiro’s new historical novel, The Muralist, features FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt as players in a drama about the power of modern art to agitate and redirect political dialogue. As it happens, Mark Rothko turns up as a character as well.
He is the lover of the fictional main character of The Muralist, Alizée Benoit, a French-American woman with exceptional talent and an exceptional circle of friends that also includes Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Ashile Gorky, and Lee Krasner. We know they’ll become the core of the Abstract Expressionist movement, but at the time of The Muralist they’re all working in New York as hired hands for the WPA, the Roosevelt administration’s effort to put cash in the pockets of starving artists in exchange for creating work that will lift the spirits of Depression-era Americans.
How Alizée came to be the forgotten player on this team of Ab Ex all-stars is the main drama of The Muralist. She is only re-discovered in 2015, after her own grand-niece, a mid-level researcher at Christie’s auction house named Danielle, is cataloguing a new cache of unsigned paintings that may have been painted by Rothko, Krasner, and Pollock. When Danielle examines the canvases for clues to their provenance, she discovers envelopes taped to three of them, each containing a remnant of a mural in a style that looks remarkably similar to the work of her great-aunt Alizée. Danielle believes that if she can prove that the mural scraps were painted by Alizée and if the other paintings are authentic Rothkos, Pollocks, and Krasners, she can connect the famous painters and her forgotten relative, who disappeared mysteriously toward the end of World War II, leaving behind only a few pieces and some cherished family lore of her place at the center of American art.
Shapiro tells the story like a game of ping-pong, in one chapter flashing back to Alizée and her hard-drinking, paint-splattered compartriots, then forward to Danielle’s sleuthing through the haystack of art history in hopes of finding her great-aunt’s needle sticking in a prominent place. We see that Alizée was very much at the heart of the Abstract Expressionist movement, experimenting with radical painting techniques right alongside Bill, Jack, Lee, and the rest. In fact, when none other than Eleanor Roosevelt drops by to check on a studio full of WPA artists in New York one day in 1939, it’s Alizée who has the nerve to approach her and call the First Lady out. “I noticed that all the WPA murals are representational,” she tells Mrs. Roosevelt. “There are lots of us doing nonrepresentational work right here in New York. All over the country. It’s innovative, forceful, and very American.”
Charmed by the young woman’s pluck, Mrs. Roosevelt pulls some strings to get Alizée a commission to paint a mural in the New York Public Library (and a second gig for her friend Lee Krasner). But then Alizée ups the abstract ante. It’s not only her style of painting that’s becoming radicalized. Most of Alizée’s extended family is back in Europe. They are Jewish, and while they desperately want to flee to the United States, the Roosevelt administration is dragging its feet by slowing the number of visas granted to European refugees. Alizée’s relatives were on board the St. Louis, a ship headed for Miami in 1939 only to be turned away when the Americans wouldn’t allow it to dock and discharge its desperate passengers. Her response is a fierce painting she calls “Turned,” which depicts “The ships, the children, the families, the sea. The nos, the Neins, the turning backs. The transformation into statelessness, hopelessness, and finally, nothingness. In red, white, and blue.”
The painting becomes a sensation, denounced in the papers not only because of its clearly interventionist message but also because Alizée’s patron Eleanor Roosevelt buys it and hangs it prominently at her cottage in Hyde Park. Alizée, almost manic in her excitement over her art having entered the national conversation, decides to use her New York Public Library mural to make an even bigger statement. And then on the eve of the mural’s unveiling, she disappears and is never heard from again—until 60 years later, when her niece Danielle retraces her steps and finally uncovers the truth.
The keystone of any piece of historical fiction, of course, is how convincingly the novel weaves the strands of history into its larger fictional narrative. The problem with The Muralist isn’t that the overall story is hard to swallow (though the ending feels a tad too happily-ever-after). Shapiro gets the key players—from the terminally soused Pollock to the genteely iconoclastic First Lady—acting according to script. Where the book falls apart is in its voice. Every character in The Muralist sounds like a slight variation on a first-year art history professor desperate to make the case for the political and emotional power of paint. The word “representational” pops up over and over, spoken by characters in the ’40s and in 2015, as do the words “emotion” and “muse.” It’s hard to believe that artists would talk about their work like that, especially this macho crowd. None of this makes The Muralist an unjoyable tale, but it does end up feeling more like a paint-by-number manifesto than a rich story with characters who live on after the tale is told.
Marc Peyser is the co-author of Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.