Object of the Month

Title: Cold Steel
Artist: Carl Hoeckner (1883-1972)
Nationality: American, b. Germany
Date: c. 1935
Medium: Lithograph
Credit: 1995.50.24

Carl Hoeckner was born into a family of artists in Munich in 1883. Motivated by his father’s advice to embrace the value of commercial arts in America, Hoeckner immigrated to Chicago in 1910 and became an illustrator for the Armour Meat Packing Company and Marshall Fields. During this time he aligned himself with other progressive artists active in the city’s avant-garde movement and together they began several anti-institutional art initiatives like the Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists. However, after World War I, Hoeckner’s artistic motivations shifted as he described in a 1937 interview with the Chicago Daily News: “My art aims, up to the outbreak of the world war were the search for and the expression of beauty. During the war I became interested in truth—in bitter truth and the struggle of life in general.” Driven by this passion, Hoeckner joined the John Reed Club, a radical art group dedicated to inciting social and political change.

This motivation to question and criticize capitalism and war is evident in Hoeckner’s gruesome Cold Steel. In this lithograph we see a group of nearly identical, highly muscled industrial workers laboring eerily in unison. Beneath the workers is a row of soldiers with guns and bayonets, who are likewise identical in their expression and stance. The torsos of the laborers are exposed, leaving them unprotected against the giant metal machines that surround them. By visually portraying the vulnerability of the workers bodies, Hoeckner parallels the violence of industrial labor with war. The uniformity of both the workers and the soldiers furthers this comparison as both groups are devoid of individuality and seem to become machines themselves. All together, the work criticizes the social conditions of the time as it emphasizes the oppression of the laboring class and the sufferings of war. 

Cold Steel will be on display at the Block Museum in the winter 2014 exhibition The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940.