A supporter of unions, Fasanella spent years researching and depicting the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike, a landmark in the history of the labor movement. (Estate of Ralph Fasanella)

“I didn’t paint my paintings to hang in some rich guy’s living room,” Ralph Fasanella once said.

There’s an irony to that nose-thumbing dismissal, seeing as it targets the very people whose wealth and generosity (and, it must be said, quirky taste) probably made possible Fasanella’s exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where that quote runs across the top of one wall. Though the self-taught painter (1914-1997) labored in obscurity for 25 years before his 1972 “discovery” by New York magazine, one large Fasanella canvas — and there are several here — not long ago fetched $364,000 at Sotheby’s auction house.

Fasanella, who would have been 100 this September, is being feted with “Lest We Forget,” an exhibition whose title refers to a mantra of this lifelong lefty. That title — more of a rallying cry, really — is meant to honor the common laborers who teem by the hundreds, even thousands, in his dense, panoramic vistas of his native New York and other metropolises. (Several paintings depict a landmark 1912 strike by textile workers in Lawrence, Mass.)

These artworks pay homage to blue-collar sacrifice while simultaneously implying criticism of the powerful. They’re also an effective evocation of a grand struggle.

Considering Fasanella’s populist politics, which are often articulated in the newspaper headlines he painted into his pictures, it’s no wonder that a small selection of his work is also on view in the lobby of the AFL-CIO headquarters downtown.

Fasanella was anything but subtle. Having begun painting in the 1940s as a way of exercising his arthritic fingers, Fasanella bucked the trend of nonobjective, apolitical abstraction. For him, art was a way to leave not just a mark but maybe also a bruise.

The artist, often compared to Grandma Moses, bristled at having his work called primitive. And his paintings, though rendered in a childlike style and often conflating events from different decades, also boast sophisticated graphic sensibilities. They break up the expanse of the urban landscape with cutaway views that offer peeks inside dollhouselike apartment buildings. Fasanella’s pictures betray both an understanding of the clockwork machinery of the city and the private, psychological states of its residents.

Though “Lest We Forget” is the main show, the AFL-CIO display is worth a visit for a deeper look at Fasanella’s practice as an artist. Yes, there are examples of his labor-themed panoramas, yet a couple of the paintings are, surprisingly, intimate portraits. Based on sketches Fasanella would make on the back of newspapers, these unusual images startle with a degree of psychological insight that the artist is not normally credited with.

The story behind the work

To call Ralph Fasanella unsubtle is not to say he’s easy to read.

In addition to the “Where’s Waldo?”-like bustle of most of his pictures — which feature renderings of President Richard Nixon, accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and other historical figures side by side with anonymous nobodies — there are contradictions that are difficult to unravel.

Several of the artist’s canvases pay homage to his Italian immigrant father, Joe, whom Fasanella seems to have both reviled and revered. Even as a child, Ralph was forced to work long hours delivering ice on his father’s horse-drawn wagon. Tensions between the two led Ralph to drop out of school as a young boy, and the fights between father and son put Ralph in reform school by age 11. By his teens, Ralph’s mother, Ginevra, had taken the kids and left Joe, who found his own apartment before moving back to Italy in 1954.

Begun in 1948, a series of four paintings called “Iceman Crucified” depicts Fasanella’s father nailed to a cross. Obviously, the symbolism can be read as alluding to the martyrdom of the working man, though the artist’s embrace of Catholic ideology was compromised by the abuse he said he endured while in the church-run reformatory. In one of the paintings, begun after Fasanella’s father returned to Italy but before Joe’s death in 1961, the Christlike image is a meditation not merely on his father’s sacrifice but also on the artist’s own suffering.

The Story Behind the Work

— Michael O'Sullivan