Exhibitions: Williamsburg Murals: A Rediscovery

Untitled (right panel of a pair), From the Williamsburg Housing Project Murals

Paul Kelpe’s murals were designed for a wall space interrupted by a doorway and support columns. The intricate compositions incorporate a multiplicity of flatly painted geometric forms—lines, circles, triangles, rectangles, and trapezoids, some with curved or cut-off edges—with abstract surface patterning suggesting bubbles, stripes, or grids.

Kelpe’s axial layering—unusual among New York’s abstract artists—was inspired by Russian and German constructivism, especially works by Kurt Schwitters, Wassily Kandinsky, and El Lizzitsky that he viewed during his student years in Hanover, Germany. After emigrating to Chicago in 1925, Kelpe eventually made his way to New York, where he worked for the WPA and became active in the American Abstract Artists group. Later, he worked as an art history professor before retiring to Austin, Texas, in 1969.

Of the five Williamsburg murals currently on view, Kelpe’s were the only ones that were rescued intact; the other three had been painted over long ago, well before their rediscovery in 1990.