NEW YORK — Not far from Times Square I walked west from Eighth Avenue on a recent afternoon to view a mural I had noticed on several occasions but never truly paused to appreciate.
This artwork, mounted on the front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center, at 310 W. 43rd St., is a rarity: a monumental social-realist narrative of labor union progress bustling with human figures rendered in colorful glass mosaic that harks to the technique’s roots in Byzantium.
The mural’s arresting central image depicts two hands, one Black and one lighter-skinned, exchanging a leaflet inscribed with a quotation from abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there can be no progress.”
“We are very proud of being a labor organization and a social justice union,” said George Gresham, the president of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, which commissioned the 1970 work for a sheltered recess built into its 15-story headquarters. The artist, Anton Refregier, frames the central image with vignettes of members at work, on strike, attending classes and at play.
The hands are beautifully modeled as are the characterful faces of his multiracial figures, reflecting the membership of the union which has represented health care workers since 1932 and with its current 450,000 members remains the largest health care union in the nation.
This pageant’s vibrancy appears undimmed, though the mural itself awaits an uncertain fate. In June, 1199 SEIU moved to a loft building at 498 Seventh Ave., just a few blocks away. A developer intends to demolish the old headquarters to build a 33-story apartment tower.
And therein lies a tale of rescue — of a kind — and inspiration.
In 2018, the union’s leadership asked star architect David Adjaye to shape the lobby and public areas on three upper floors of its new headquarters. (The office spaces were designed by Gensler.) They were taken with Adjaye’s work on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. (His expansion of the Studio Museum in Harlem is in construction) Though 1199 SEIU was a small project for his firm, Adjaye took it on because, as he puts it, “I admire their social commitment.”
Though trained and originally based in London, Adjaye was born in Ghana. Given major museum and library projects in Africa, he recently set up shop in the capital city of Accra. “It’s the city of my parents but I never spent much time here,” he said in a video chat. “I’ve just moved the whole family here.”
“The way I usually work is to dive into the history and trajectory of the organization and the physical history,” he explained. In examining the King Labor Center he fell for the mural, with its bond to 1199’s aspirations as well as to Refregier’s embrace of the social justice mission in much of 20th-century art.
Refregier was born in Russia in 1905 and immigrated to the United States, where he studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and with artist Hans Hofmann. He spent most of his career in Woodstock, New York, and found his artistic voice with the Roosevelt administration’s Depression-era Federal Art Project.
He gained notoriety for a set of 27 murals, titled “The History of San Francisco,” which he painted in the lobby of a post office. It drew ire from fearmongering anti-communists for portraying some of the city’s worst excesses, including an image of a white man beating a defenseless Chinese laborer during anti-Chinese riots. The work is now a protected landmark.
On a visit to the SEIU mural, Adjaye found, “It had a power, and was a relic of hope from the 1960s and ’70s.” He and Gresham agreed to relocate the mural to the new space. “I wanted it to register as material memory in the new building, a kind of cultural sustainability.”
Stephen Miotto, a glass artisan based in Carmel, New York, was one of the experts consulted. He recognized the work immediately because he had taken over the studio of his godfather, Carlo Rett, who created the original work with his two partners.
In high school Miotto had been invited to help with final cleaning of the work when it was being installed in 1970. He knew that it was cemented onto the concrete-block wall behind, and that to move it the entire wall would have to be removed intact and somehow installed in the new location. “It was too hard,” he said.
He offered to replicate the mural for the new building, and the union hired him. His Miotto Mosaic Art Studios, working with partners in Spilimbergo, Italy, used similar techniques and much of the same glass tiles that Rett had used.
Though he is no household name, Miotto’s work is ubiquitous in New York since he has executed artists’ tile work in some 50 MTA subway stations. One of his favorites is Xenobia Bailey’s “Funktional Vibrations,” a cosmology in a rainbow of colors at the 34th Street-Hudson Yards station of the No. 7 line.
In the Refregier mural, colored glass tiles were individually cut to follow the lines of the drawing. In this way tiles depict the contours of a face, follow the curving strands of hair, and bring a naturalistic drape to a bedsheet held up by a nurse behind a reclining patient.
Miotto traced the original in place and cross-referenced it with photos he had taken to make sure he had not introduced errors of color or shape. The tiles were laid facedown in irregular sections like jigsaw-puzzle pieces, then grouted together. Then the sections were fitted together on-site in the new headquarters lobby so carefully that no borders are visible.
Reproducing the mural unlocked for Adjaye an idea for bringing the rich history of the union into the new headquarters using similarly monumental form. Gresham had shared with Adjaye a trove of photos from the union’s history of hard-fought battles to improve the lot of members.
Instead of framing them and hanging them on the wall, Adjaye decided to turn the photographs into large-scale artworks — at floor-to-ceiling mural scale. He knew of the tile factory Cerámica Suro, in Guadalajara, Mexico, which has frequently worked with renowned artists, and asked its owner, José Noé Suro, if his studio could reproduce those photos in tile at the desired scale. Yes it could, by digitizing the images and transferring them to the glaze on 2-inch square tiles.
The technique is less painstaking than Miotto’s but still demanded extraordinary sensitivity, since digital artistry had to be applied to reduce the blur that naturally occurs when images are magnified to such a degree.
Printing the photos at huge scale on tiles evoke a sense of permanence, “as if the images had always been there,” as Adjaye put it.
Now the reproduced Refregier greets visitors entering the glass-walled lobby of 1199 SEIU. It lines the sidewall of an atrium carved out of the three upper levels of the union’s offices. The lobby is not long enough to accommodate the full length of the Refregier so a vignette of health workers at their jobs was mounted separately. Its elegantly intertwined figures, dressed in white, face the elevators and so can be appreciated up close.
“It disappointed the hell out of me that we couldn’t show the whole thing together,” Miotto said.
As the visitor ascends by stair or escalator past the Refregier, each floor unveils walls lined with new photo tileworks, their exuberant humanity exploding out of their gridded surfaces — in dramatic black and white, contrasting with the chaste colors of the Refregier.
The 80-some images are riveting, with swarms of people shown at job actions and political protests featuring important figures from Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson, from Stokely Carmichael to the Jewish pharmacists who founded the union. The photos pay homage to civil rights and Vietnam War protests, AIDS activism, Black Lives Matter, and the rights of immigrants and the LGBT community. From a union that was in its early years largely Black and Puerto Rican, 1199 is “the United Nations now,” Gresham says.
A three-story-high image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the union draws this pageant together. Adjaye likens it to a caryatid, a statue that held up roofs in classical architecture.
King’s centrality reflects a yearslong relationship with the union that he called his favorite. He delivered a version of his famous “The Other America” speech to the membership at Lincoln Center, saying, “I would suggest that if all of labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years, our nation would be closer to victory in the fight to eliminate poverty and injustice.” He was assassinated April 4, 1968, just weeks later.
Although some services have been available at the new headquarters since July, most members haven’t yet seen it because of COVID-19 restrictions. (Nor does SEIU have plans to admit the public, for now.) Gresham feels this unfurling of union history could be cathartic for the many workers who find themselves on the front line of the pandemic.
“The inspiration for our new headquarters was to show our members this legacy, the shoulders we all stand on,” he said. “We don’t want that to get lost.”