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Review: Shapiro's 'The Muralist' combines art, history in a bold portrait

When you look at the chaotic drips of a Jackson Pollock painting or the intense fields of pure color of a Mark Rothko canvas, your first thought might not be that both grew out of a government program.

In the 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration, commissioned some 10,000 artists all over the nation to teach, research and create art.

In her new historical novel, The Muralist, B.A. Shapiro imagines a story based amid the birth of abstract expressionism, America's first original style of art, and the real-life friendships of some of the young artists who worked on FAP projects in New York City in the late 1930s and early '40s. Not yet famous but bursting with talent and ambition, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were all there in those years.

Shapiro links them all with a fictional artist, Alizée Benoit, who is the main character of The Muralist. The book alternates between two time periods: Alizée's life in New York in 1939-40, and the present day, when her great-niece, an art researcher named Danielle Abrams, embarks on a quest to discover what happened to her mysterious ancestor.

According to family lore and two paintings that seem to be all that is left of her work, Alizée was a brilliant, innovative young painter and an influence on her later-famous friends — but she disappeared without a trace in 1940, and her work has been forgotten.

Danielle, who works for Christie's auction house, accidentally discovers pieces of canvas, apparently cut from a larger painting, hidden on the backs of newly-found works that may be by Krasner, Pollock and Rothko. She sees a similarity to her great-aunt's surviving work and is determined to track down the truth about the woman who was "the reason I studied art in the first place."

In the chapters that tell Alizée's story, we learn that she had plenty of secrets. Born in the United States to French Jewish parents, Alizée was sent back to France along with her brother, Henrí, after their parents died in a horrific accident, to be raised by their uncle and aunt.

Alizée returned to the United States to pursue her art career, but in 1939 the rest of her family is still in France and becoming ever more fearful under the shadow of Germany's growing power under Hitler. Alizée swings from the euphoria of discovering her artistic powers (and carrying on an affair with Rothko) to the distress she feels as her aunt, brother and cousin send her increasingly desperate letters imploring her to help them get visas to join her in the United States. Living hand to mouth on her FAP stipend, Alizée struggles to figure out some way to rescue them.

And then Eleanor Roosevelt shows up at the warehouse where Alizée, Krasner and other artists are working on a mural project. A serendipitous meeting between the first lady and Alizée will set in motion a series of events that link art, politics, American isolationism and Alizée's increasingly fragile mental state.

Shapiro, whose last novel was The Art Forger, has written about artists before, and she grounds this story in the biographies of the leading abstract expressionists and the history of that movement. Most vivid among those characters are Krasner, who is Alizée's close and supportive friend and a strong female counterpart to the boys' club around them, and Rothko, whose own struggles with severe depression make him sympathetic to Alizée's emotional turmoil.

Shapiro also weaves into her story some of the more shameful aspects of U.S. history in the years just before the nation entered World War II, including the anti-Semitic activities of Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, who blocked as many as 190,000 visas for Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, and the tragic story of the SS St. Louis, a ship bearing more than 900 German Jews, who were refused entrance to Cuba and the United States and forced to return to Europe, where many died in Nazi concentration camps.

Even Alizée's artist friends reflect the intense isolationism common among Americans in those years before Pearl Harbor; indeed, the abstract expressionists take it a step further in their rejection of political content in art. When Alizée and Rothko go to see Picasso's great antiwar painting Guernica, Rothko says, "It's good, I'll give him that. ... But propaganda has no place in art."

Shapiro keeps her story moving at a brisk pace as she cuts back and forth between Alizée's life and Danielle's reconstruction of it. It's a portrait in bold strokes, and one well worth experiencing.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

The Muralist

By B.A. Shapiro

Algonquin Books, 352 pages, $26.95

Meet the authors

Inkwood Books presents Happy Hour with Tim Johnston, left, (Descent) and B.A. Shapiro (The Muralist), in conversation with Times book editor Colette Bancroft, at 7 p.m. Friday at the store, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.

Review: Shapiro's 'The Muralist' combines art, history in a bold portrait 12/30/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 2:10pm]
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