Gordon Gilkey

For Labor Day, the art of work

As the labor movement struggles against new challenges, a look at art that reveals the highs and lows of work and its significance in life

Monday is Labor Day, the 126th in the nation’s history, and amid the barbecues, ball games, and big-box-store sales of the three-day holiday it’s good to take a little time to remember what it’s all about. As we wrote last year at this time, Labor Day is “the day we celebrate the American labor movement and its drive to guarantee living wages and safe, decent working conditions for all workers. It’s been an official federal holiday since 1894, through boom times and hard times, strikes and strike-busting, and massive shifts in technology and public/private economic strategies that have weakened the labor movement that inspired the holiday. A historic transfer of wealth away from the working and middle classes and into the bank accounts of the superrich threatens much of what the labor movement has accomplished in the past century and more. Nevertheless, the movement persists.”

Gordon W. Gilkey, 6th Avenue Subway Construction, New York City, 1937, watercolor on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, © Portland Art Museum

Artists, of course, are workers in good standing. And over the years countless painters, sculptors, photographers and printmakers have created art depicting the centrality of work to human civilization. Sometimes the art is mainly documentary. Sometimes it’s psychologically or emotionally incisive. Sometimes it’s art of advocacy. We’ve gathered a small selection of art that in one way or another reflects the significance of work in our lives, grappling with the tolls it takes, the gifts it gives, and its relationship to a good and honest and fair way of life – precisely the things that Labor Day memorializes. Several of the works are in the permanent collections of Oregon museums. A pair of public outdoor works can be found to the north, in Seattle and Centralia, Washington. And we’ve pulled one photograph from the collections of the Library of Congress in the nation’s capital. 6th Avenue Subway Construction, New York City, for instance, celebrates the workers who build the brawling, muscular cities where so many of us live. And as a bonus, it’s an early work by Gordon Gilkey, who went on to become a Monuments Man, rescuing European art from Nazis during World War II, and then became a legendary teacher, collector, curator, and artist in Oregon: The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection forms the core of the Portland Art Museum’s superb collection of prints and drawings.

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