Both the art and the political worlds will miss Charles Keller, a great artist of the 20th century. Keller, who seamlessly melded art and politics both in his work and in his life, passed away Aug. 21 at the age of 91.
Keller’s assistant, Michael McBrearty, remarked that Keller’s style could “be stingingly satiric, but always humanistic.” Referring to famous drawings Keller did of workers constructing Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue subway line, McBrearty said, “He excelled in depicting workers laboring together in their environment.”
Keller was born into an upper-middle-class family in Woodmere, Long Island. A love for art ran in the family. Keller’s father had himself wanted to become an artist, but due to the financial necessities that came along with raising a family, which included Charles and his three siblings, he took an opportunity available to him to become a manufacturing entrepreneur.
Money was not a problem for Charles; his father’s manufacturing success saw to that. He therefore had time to become “a bit of a Bohemian,” as Estaño, Keller’s friend and fellow artist would say. Charles was able to devote his time to painting and lithography.
But, according to McBrearty, “Even though Charles never had to work a day in his life, he worked more than most people.” Indeed, Keller’s energy was often astounding. Though at one point he lost sight in one eye, he continued his artwork.
In 1994 — at the age of 80 — Keller taught a course at the prestigious Parsons School of Design. Other schools at which he taught include Vassar and Hofstra University. His own education took place at Cornell University in the early 1930s and New York’s Art Students League from 1937 through 1941.
In the 1940s Keller was part of an artists’ community in Union Square, where he shared a studio with Harry Sternberg, whom he assisted on murals, including for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Keller later reminisced that it was during this period that he learned to “mix yellow ochre with the facts of life.”
Keller’s stature in the art world commanded respect. His work has been exhibited often since the 1940s. He was part of many art shows, from New York to Rome to the Soviet Union, with more than 20 devoted entirely to his work. Currently collections of his work can be found in nearly 20 venues, including the British Museum, the Library of Congress, the Juilliard School and the Charles Keller Studio in New York City (charles.keller.com).
None of this gave Keller an overblown ego, however. He never found it below him to do things other artists might not have wanted to do, such as illustrate children’s books — which he did for several years for Rand McNally.
Though he himself was never short of funds, the Great Depression of the 1930s vividly pointed out to the freethinking Keller that the current profits-before-people system could never work for the vast majority of humanity. He was horrified by the misery inflicted on working people by the capitalist system. At the same time, Keller became enamored of the rising working-class movement. During that period, he became convinced that a new type of society, socialism, was necessary.
This newfound conviction prompted Keller in 1940 to join the Communist Party USA. He never left the party, spending nearly 70 years fighting for a socialist USA. This was reflected in his art, and he became a well-known figure in New York’s social-realist art movement.
“He represents a long working-class tradition of Communist artists who committed themselves to activism,” CPUSA Executive Vice Chair Jarvis Tyner said. “He was a real party activist.”
Keller had a long history with the CPUSA, especially its publications. He was art editor of the party’s famous cultural magazine New Masses from 1945 through 1948. Under the pressure of McCarthyism, the magazine folded, but was later replaced by March of Labor, where Keller also served as art editor. Keller stayed on until 1951, when the magazine moved its offices to Chicago. In those years, before computers and the Internet, Keller was unable to edit the art section from New York.
In his political life, entirely interwoven with his artistic and personal life, Keller worked with such luminaries as Pete Seeger. The introduction to a book of his cartoons was written by Michael Parenti, the well-known political author.
Keller also had his battle scars: His car was attacked during the notorious riot in Peekskill where fascists besieged a Paul Robeson concert. Later, in the 1950s, due to his association with the CPUSA, Keller’s passport was revoked by the State Department, and he was unable to travel abroad until 1960. At that point, Charles left the U.S. to live in Italy. While there, he co-chaired, along with Gore Vidal, an organization of Americans opposed to the U.S. aggression in Vietnam.
Besides being a painter and printmaker, Keller was also known for great sense of humor and his cartooning. This, along with his strong Communist political convictions, made him a treasure to the People’s Daily World, this publication’s predecessor. From 1977 through 1988, Keller routinely contributed political cartoons.
Keller never wavered in his support for the Communist Party. From 1940 until his passing, even while residing in an assisted-living facility, Keller rarely missed a meeting of his party club. He always carried several PWWs with him and was critical of party members who did not.
For years, Keller worked as the art curator of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies, which has now been moved to the Tamiment Library in New York City. At the Reference Center, Keller would often go above the call of duty, organizing artists and art shows to raise money for the center’s operation.
Aside from his contributions to the political world and art scene, Keller will be remembered for his extraordinary personality.
“He was a wild character to an extent,” Estaño noted. He recounted an anecdote in which Keller, who was as well-loved by his family and often considered a “favorite uncle” type of person, gave a child relative a duck as a gift. “The mother was horrified to have a duck in her home, but the child was delighted, and so was Charles! He was like a kid himself sometimes.”
Tyner concluded, “Charles will be very much missed. He had a very real presence in the party’s national center. He was a good comrade and we’ll miss him very much.”
A memorial for Charles Keller was held in New York City on Dec. 29.
Keller is survived by Martha Keller (the artist known as Marthe Keller), Kathryn Keller Rule and Daniel Keller, and by his former wife, Judith Keller, and three grandchildren.