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New York City's crowded streets and energetic people, its vast population and enormous extremes of wealth and poverty, its towering buildings and technological marvels have marked it as the quintessential modern city since the turn of the century. Artists in particular identified with New York's newness, believing that it embodied the future and celebrated the excitement of the modern urban lives they both witnessed and led. In New York Modern, William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff explore how the varied features of the urban experience in New York inspired the works of artists such as Isadora Duncan, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Eugene O'Neill, Duke Ellington, Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jackson Pollock, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, and Diane Arbus, who together shaped twentieth-century American culture.
In painting, sculpture, photography, film, music, dance, theater, and architecture, New York artists redefined what it meant to be "modern." Rooted in the urban realism of Walt Whitman, Thomas Eakins, and Edith Wharton, New York artists combined the revolutionary ideas and styles of European modernism with vernacular images drawn from American commercial, folk, and popular culture in their attempts to respond to the cacophony of voices and blur of images drawn from the city's bars and cafes, tenements and townhouses, skyscrapers and docks.
Handsomely illustrated and engagingly written, New York Modern documents the impressive collective legacy of New York's artists in capturing the energy and emotions of the urban experience.
Johns Hopkins University Press
— Leslie Camhi
— Serge Guilbaut
— Joel Schwartz
Voice Literary Supplement
From throughout the United States, the pioneering eyes of American artists fixed on New York much as an earlier generation had looked to Paris. Entrepreneurs, entertainers, writers, dancers, composers, and painters discovered in Manhattan unmatched stimulation and opportunity. American artists adopted New York as their own. Impatient with both European aristocratic snobbery and the pretensions of American gentility, New York's first modern artists gloried in a city that harbored enormous wealth alongside unimaginable poverty, suffered fools and charlatans, and scoffed at convention and propriety, all the while honoring accomplishment and creativity. New York's new artists identified with the city's newness, believing it embodied the future and unblinkingly celebrating the grittiness and excitement of a new urban life, but they did so in a confusing, often contradictory array of images.
The Skyscraper Problem
The Times Tower served as a paradoxical symbol of modern New York. Designed by Eidlitz and MacKenzie, the thirty-two-story Times Tower was midtown's first skyscraper. Clad in a retrograde and awkward beaux arts facade, the tower, with its steel-frame construction, high-speed elevators, electrical illumination, telephone and telegraph communications, and powerful printing presses, embodied modern technology. Briefly the highest building in New York, the Times Tower housed the New York Times Company, an exemplar of corporate propriety and power, which controlled publication of one of the world's great newspapers, an instrument of authority and respectability. At night, however, the Times Tower benignly watched over Broadway's boisterous nightlife.
A complex icon of New York, beaux arts skyscrapers exemplified the contradictions of New York's early modern art. Between 1890 and 1914 the skyscraper evolved from its origins as an efficient but spartan office building into a visually striking and elaborately decorated work of art. The skyscraper symbolized willfulness, technological virtuosity, and the triumph of commerce. Until the 1890s, with the construction of George Post's Pulitzer Building on Park Row near City Hall, New York lacked any truly tall buildings. In 1890, the Trinity Church steeple on lower Broadway, at 284 feet, was the highest structure in Manhattan. Enamored with the horizontal orientation of beaux arts urbanism, New York architects had allowed Chicago builders to pioneer the skyscraper.
The development of safe and rapid elevators and electrical lighting made tall buildings possible. Weight-bearing masonry construction, however, placed a practical limit on height. The taller a masonry building, the thicker its lower walls had to be to support the added weight. The sixteen-story Monadnock Building in Chicago, designed in 1891 by Burnham and Root, was the tallest weight-bearing masonry office building ever built, its first-floor walls six-feet thick. An architectural masterpiece, the Monadnock was an economic dinosaur. Apart from the inconvenience of its fortresslike lower walls, weight-bearing masonry buildings proved expensive to build, and their thick walls diminished valuable ground-floor space.
The solution lay close at hand. Prior to the Civil War, Chicago builders had pioneered their famous balloon houses, constructed of lightweight two-by-four pine framing. The balloon frame enabled Chicago contractors to build inexpensive but strong and durable wood-frame structures from standardized milled lumber. Pressed to provide businesses with inexpensive downtown space, Chicago architects used steel frames to adapt balloon construction to tall office buildings. The external walls remained masonry, but structural steel cages, encased in terra-cotta for fire protection, bore the weight. The exterior walls were really non-weight-bearing, masonry curtains much like the clapboards on Chicago's balloon frame houses.
In 1883, George Post designed New York's first metal-framed structure, the Produce Exchange at 2 Broadway. Technically sophisticated, the four-story Produce Exchange was a low-rise building, not a skyscraper. The breakthrough in New York skyscraper construction did not come until Post's 1890 steel-framed Pulitzer Building. The Pulitzer Building launched the age of the New York skyscraper and with it the architectural debate that critic Montgomery Schuyler called the "skyscraper problem."
The skyscraper problem, according to Schuyler, was that the building's function could not be expressed by conventional architecture. As an engineering masterpiece, the structural steel cage was efficient, simple, and economical. By distributing weight throughout the structure rather than down the external walls, builders could construct buildings as high as they wished. Except for the first floor, however, each story of the skyscraper served the identical function of office space, and each floor consisted of identical steel-cage construction. Beaux arts-trained architects resolved the problem by treating the skyscraper as an analogue to the classical column, with a base, a shaft, and a capital. This allowed architects to design the first several floors as a single entity, to group the middle floors into a second architectural expression, and to combine the upper floors into a crown. In creating a unified structure that conformed to classical notions of symmetry, the beaux arts strategy expressed the unique quality of a skyscraper, its verticality. But such an expediency deceived viewers. It failed to articulate the function and structure of the building. More disturbingly, it equated classical columns with modern office towers.
Montgomery Schuyler judged Cass Gilbert's neo-Gothic Woolworth Building a masterpiece. Built in 1913 on the southwest corner of City Hall Park, the Woolworth Building overlooked the Pulitzer Building, McKim, Mead, and White's Municipal Building, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Gilbert's eight-hundred-foot-high Woolworth Building, which towered over nearby St. Paul's Chapel, restated the tension between historicist decoration and modern function. In designing the world's tallest building, Gilbert demonstrated the unmatched drama of the mature skyscraper. Schuyler acknowledged its beauty and virility: "What an 'uplift' there is in that sudden, rocket-like shooting of the white and channelled shaft. There is no point of view from which it comes in wrong." But clad in neo-Gothic detail, the Woolworth Building harked back to a precapitalist, Christian world rather than heralded a modern New York.
Visualizing the New
Schuyler clearly continued to think as a Victorian. In contrast, New York's new painters felt at one with the city's newness. But like Schuyler, they too only partially broke free from nineteenth-century patterns. Urban realists George Luks, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Bellows, and William Glackens, together with their mentor Robert Henri, formed New York's first circle of modern painters. Unlike New York architects, they rejected beaux arts academicism in favor of a more expressive urban realism. Led by Henri, they painted New York's working-class life, its slums, its sexuality, its prostitution, and its violence. In challenging the beaux arts notion of art as refined and uplifting, they unmasked the hypocrisy of late-nineteenth-century Victorian culture. Public professions of Christian charity, the sanctity of womanhood, and political democracy notwithstanding, Gilded Age New York had reeked of racism, religious bigotry, class prejudice, and sexual exploitation. Like their literary contemporaries Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane, Robert Henri and his circle portrayed life as they experienced it in New York, not as academic aesthetes sentimentalized it.
Painter Guy P ène du Bois recalled, "The Henri class at the New York School of Art was the seat of sedition among the young.... Henri set the class in an uproar. Completely overturned the apple cart: displaced art by life, discarded technic, broke the prevailing gods as easily as brittle porcelain. The talk was uncompromising, the approach unsubtle, the result pandemonium.... Life certainly did that day stride into a life class. For me, at least, it also strode into America." Despite an unsettled childhood in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Robert Henri received a classical education. At the age of twenty-one, he gained admission to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, months after Thomas Eakins had been dismissed from the same academy. The Pennsylvania Academy, nonetheless, continued along the lines set down by Eakins. Thomas Anschutz, an Eakins student, replaced him on the faculty, teaching painting in the Eakins manner.
Henri adopted the Eakins-Anschutz creed that art should reflect life rather than rarified aesthetic ideals or upper-class taste. Under Anschutz's direction, Henri painted in Eakins' tradition. He studied anatomy, performed vivisections at the nearby Jefferson Medical College, worked extensively in the life classes, and developed a strong painting technique. Anschutz had a gift for directing students to everyday, unrefined subjects. After two years at the Pennsylvania Academy, Henri felt he had learned all that it had to offer and left for a three-year stay in Paris. He lived on a five-hundred-dollar-a-year allowance provided by his family. "There is a charm to this Bohemian life," he wrote home. Attracted to the impressionists, he disliked the postimpressionist work of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Rousseau. In 1891, on his third try, Henri passed the admissions exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but, disappointed with the Ecole, he returned to Philadelphia later that year.
In Philadelphia, Henri accepted a teaching position at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and joined the Charcoal Club, an art cooperative formed by John Sloan to provide artists live models without the expense of academy tuition. Henri assumed leadership of the Charcoal Club and gathered a nucleus of students who included, besides Sloan, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, George Luks, Stirling Calder (father of sculptor Alexander Calder), and Edward Davis (father of painter Stuart Davis). Self-consciously antiacademic, the members of the Charcoal Club read Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Gilman Norris, Hamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, and especially Walt Whitman, discussing the relevance of their writing to art. The members of the Charcoal Club studied painting with Anschutz, and some knew Eakins and Whitman personally. Sloan, Luks, Shinn, and Glackens worked as illustrators for Philadelphia newspapers, which required them to produce quick sketches from notes, heightening their awareness of the details of urban life.
In 1900, Henri moved to New York, hoping to secure commissions to paint portraits for the city's wealthy families. He took an apartment on East 58th Street, accepted a teaching position at a private girls school, and painted cityscapes. Having secured work as newspaper illustrators, William Glackens and George Luks had preceded Henri to New York and introduced him to painters Arthur Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast. Davies' studio, above the Macbeth Galleries at 450 Fifth Avenue, became a gathering place for painters, as did Henri's studio. With Luks and Glackens, Henri regularly lunched with the art critics of the New York Sun at Mouquin's and the Café Francis.
In 1902, William Macbeth offered Henri a solo show. The same year the New York School of Art, directed by Douglas Connah, recruited him as a painting instructor. Henri quickly became the premier teacher at the New York School of Art, overshadowing its previous star, William Merritt Chase. Henri communicated his intensity to his students, especially the male students. Henri sustained a lofty and compelling vision of art. He demanded that his students look to themselves and life for inspiration. "Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them," he admonished. "We are not here to do what has already been done. I have little interest in teaching you what I know. I wish to stimulate you to tell me what you know." Henri vehemently rejected the idea that painters should merely create accurate representations of external reality. He insisted that artists must draw on their experiences: "Faces are not permanently beautiful to us, nor are landscapes.... No thing is beautiful" -- clearly an anti-beaux arts attitude.
In 1909, following a dispute at the New York School of Art, Henri set up his own school, the Henri School of Art, at 1947 Broadway in the Lincoln Arcade Building at Lincoln Square, just northwest of Columbus Circle. Elected in 1906 to the National Academy, Henri never abandoned his antiacademic attitude. Even while a member of the National Academy, he organized independent exhibitions and an insurgent art movement, all the while trying to liberalize the exhibition policies of the National Academy.
In the spring of 1907, Henri's patience ran out. The jury for the National Academy Spring Annual rejected the work of several of Henri's protegés -- Luks, Sloan, Glackens, and Rockwell Kent. When the jury refused to alter its judgments, Henri withdrew his own paintings and declared in a statement published in the Sun, "I believe in encouraging every new impulse in art. I believe in giving every American artist a chance to show what he can do, no matter whether he abides by the conventions or not. I do not believe that these exhibitions every year should be of selected pictures, but rather of something broader in its scope, something that will reveal the true progress of art in America." Infuriated, the National Academy ceased appointing Henri to its juries and refused to elect to membership any of his nominees.
Unchastened, Henri and John Sloan marshalled their forces. In early April, Sloan and Henri met with Glackens and then with George Luks, Arthur Davies, Ernest Lawson, Everett Shinn, and Maurice Prendergast. These eight agreed to publicize the works that the National Academy had excluded by holding an independent exhibition the following winter. Arthur Davies approached William Macbeth to use his galleries, and Henri and Sloan handled the exhibition details. On May 15, the New York Sun publicized the upcoming exhibition: "Eight Independent Painters to Give an Exhibition of Their Own Work Next Winter: A group of eight painters who have been expressing their ideas of life as they see it in quite their own manner, and who therefore have been referred to as 'the apostles of ugliness' by a larger group of brother artists who paint with a T square and a plumb line, have formed themselves into a body, it was announced last evening, without leader, president, or formal organization."
The Eight, as the exhibition came to be known, opened on February 3, 1908, in the Macbeth Galleries. The response proved greater than anyone had anticipated. John Sloan calculated that nearly three hundred visitors came in every hour, filling the two small galleries to overflowing. Macbeth estimated the total attendance at about four thousand. Sales -- two by Henri, four by Davies, and one each by Lawson, Shinn, and Luks -- exceeded two thousand dollars. Vanderbilt heiress Gertrude Whitney bought four paintings, the beginning of her collection of contemporary American painting, which later served as the core for the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Eight Exhibition, endorsed by the Sun, gained its participants extensive public exposure and notoriety. Despite Henri's disclaimers that each artist offered a distinct vision, the Eight shared many common themes. All painted in representational styles, and all, except Henri, shunned academic techniques. Prendergast portrayed lively scenes with bright colors and crude shapes; Davies painted mythical arcadian canvases in a flattened style, reminiscent of the Japanese print, while Sloan, Glackens, Luks, and Shinn presented earthy urban subjects -- workers, tenements, street scenes, bars, and brothels. Compared with Parisian postimpressionists, however, the Eight painted in a conventional manner.
Unfavorable criticism centered on the coarseness of subject matter and stylistic "crudeness." Typical was an anonymous review published in Town Topics: "Vulgarity smites one in the face at this exhibition, and I defy you to find anyone in a healthy frame of mind who for instance wants to hang Luks' posteriors of pigs or Glackens' At Mouquin's or John Sloan's Hairdresser's Window in his living room or gallery.... Bah! the whole thing creates a distinct feeling of nausea." The unqualified support of James Huneker and Frederick Gregg in the Sun and Mary Roberts in the Craftsman offset the negative comment. In a summary of the reviews of the exhibition, the art editor for Current Literature concluded that "all eight of these painters are dominantly concerned with the portrayal of American life here and now."
John Sloan's Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street expressed the spirit and the intent of the Eight. Using vibrant but somber colors, Sloan captured a moment in the heart of New York's notorious Tenderloin district, with Times Square distantly outlining the horizon. He portrayed a disheveled, heavy-bodied, careworn woman, clothed in a simple and tattered white dress, crossing Sixth Avenue and carrying a growler of beer. Staring at her intently, two gaily dressed and attractive women stand on the pavement behind her. In the background, in front of a theater advertising a girlie revue, two men appraise the women standing on the street below them. In the background to the left, arm in arm, a couple scurry away under the Sixth Avenue el. Without censure, Sloan presented a middle-aged women who had once, very likely, looked as gay and attractive as the two young prostitutes who view her with such concern and interest. Sloan found much of the new New York at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 30th Street -- commerce, technology, men and women, entertainment, sexuality, joy, and sadness. He painted a compelling but neither uplifting nor pretty picture.
At the time, the Eight seemed the beginning of a new movement. Henri hoped for an annual independent show. Due to previous commitments, however, Macbeth could not sponsor a second independent show the next year, frustrating Henri's effort to create a permanent secession from the National Academy. Undiscouraged, in 1910 Sloan and Henri, at the suggestion of painter Walt Kuhn, organized the Exhibition of Independent Artists in a vacant building at 29-31 West 35th Street, near Penn Station. More inclusive than The Eight show, the Exhibition of Independent Artists included the work of 103 artists, half of whom were students or former students of Henri. Despite favorable publicity and attendance, little work was sold, effectively ending Henri's secession.
By 1910, Henri's influence had already ebbed, his avant-garde status eclipsed. Young painters returning from Paris found the work of Henri and his friends quaint, not revolutionary, when compared with the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who had opened a small gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue to promote progressive American artists, considered the Eight's work retardaire, not worth exhibiting. Henri, discomforted by postimpressionists, called them "strange freaks." Such a reaction was rare. Henri continued to paint and to teach as before, encouraging young painters to experiment and to seek out fresh visions while adjusting himself to his increasingly secondary role in New York's modern movement. Modern in outlook, Henri considered art a means to enrich life, never simply an end in itself. His understanding of art as a creative, open-ended enterprise attuned to the surroundings of the artist put American painters in touch with contemporary life in New York. In sustaining the realist tradition, Henri and his circle reformulated it in explicitly urban terms, but in execution his work was closer to academic painting than to postimpressionism.
Pioneers of Modern Dance: Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan
Trained as academic painters, Robert Henri, John Sloan, and New York's other urban realists discovered artistic inspiration in the freewheeling atmosphere of Times Square and all that it represented in the city. Modern dance, however, was a child of Broadway, and no academy existed to teach aspiring American dancers. A handful of French and Italian ballet masters offered classes in New York, Philadelphia, and other large cities, but no organized instruction existed. The Metropolitan Opera's corps de ballet was almost exclusively European. In the absence of dance academies, Americans who wanted to become professional dancers turned to Broadway's dance revues, chorus lines, and leg shows. Fickle and often leering, Broadway audiences nonetheless provided American women an opportunity to dance professionally, if only as entertainers.
In the wake of the American renaissance, Americans associated gentility with the fine arts. Upper- and middle-class women were encouraged to become artistic, which meant learning to play the piano or the violin, taking up embroidery or needlepoint, or dabbling in poetry, painting, sculpture, and ballet. The feminization of American high culture, however, did not lead to professional opportunities for women in the arts beyond teaching piano or giving dance lessons in their homes, usually to young, almost always female, children. As in most other fields, in the arts, only men became professionals. The career patterns of Art Students League graduates documented a double tracking for men and women art students. From 1876 to 1914 women constituted an overwhelming majority of Art Students League enrollments. Yet while more than a hundred male Art Students League graduates became recognized painters or sculptors, only two female students succeeded as professional artists. The faculty was exclusively male. For American women, the arts offered only avocational possibilities.
A few American women achieved professional artistic standing. Sculptor Harriet Hosmer and painters Mary Cassatt and Cecelia Beaux pursued successful careers in the arts. But they lived in Europe as expatriates, daughters of wealthy families, exempted, in part, from prevailing sanctions against professional women and from the need to make a living from their art. Edith Wharton and a few other American women writers sustained productive professional careers. With the exception of Wharton, however, none supported herself exclusively on her writing. Such individual exceptions highlight the general pattern. In late-nineteenth-century America, the arts offered women no professional opportunities in painting, sculpture, or music. But, for women unconcerned with gentility, the commercial stage did. On Broadway, as actors, comedians, acrobats, dancers, animal trainers, or strippers, hundreds of women performed as professional entertainers....
Excerpted by permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright c 1998 The Johns Hopkins University Press
List of Illustrations
Prologue: Before the Modern: The New York Renaissance
1. Times Square: Urban Realism for a New New York
2. Paris and New York: From Cubism to Dada
3. Bohemian Ecstasy: Modern Art and Culture
4. New York Modern: Art in the Jazz Age
5. Rhapsody in Black: New York Modern in Harlem
6. Modernism versus New York Modern: MoMA and the Whitney
7. True Believers on Union Square: Politics and Art in the 1930s
8. Behind the American Scene: Music, Dance, and the Second Harlem Renaissance
9. New York Blues: The Bebop Revolution
10. Homage to the Spanish Republic: Abstract Expressionism and the New York Avant-Garde
11. Life without Father: Postwar New York Drama
12. Renovating the Modern: Monuments and Insurgents
Johns Hopkins University Press