What are you looking at?

Christine Stansell

New York in the late 19th-century never registered on anyone’s mind as a rival to London or Paris. But in the first two decades of the new century, it established itself as a pre-eminent metropolis for Europeans as well as Americans, an emblem of onrushing modernity which, for some, surpassed even Paris. ‘More than any other city in the world it is the fullest expression of our modern age,’ contended the cosmopolitan exile Leon Trotsky, who bided his time there for a few months in 1917. New York City had become a subject in its own right – newsworthy, sensational, visually entrancing.

It was the good fortune of the painters subsequently dubbed the ‘Ashcan School’ to arrive in the city just as this cultural ascendancy was beginning. These artists – George Luks, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, John Sloan and George Bellows – had all (Bellows apart) started out in the 1890s as newspaper sketch-artists in Philadelphia. Drawn together by the magnetic preaching of Robert Henri, a slightly older painter who had returned from art school in Paris to his native Philadelphia feverish with the spirit of Left Bank aesthetic revolt, they coalesced into a dissident brotherhood dedicated to an art which championed the contemporary and democratic elements of ‘real life’ and opposed the desiccated and imitative art of the establishment. Henri knew that the action was in New York – the major galleries and museums were there, as well as the National Academy of Design. He hoped for an all-out assault: ‘the big fight is on,’ he exulted, as the rest of his group, by 1904, followed and reconvened. In New York, they gained new recruits, including the young and brilliantly promising Bellows.

The realists saw themselves as a virile avant garde doing battle with a weak, effeminate and derivative American painting. Philadelphia had not provided the material with which to mount an assault, but in New York they found their great subject. They hit the news in 1908 with a well-publicised secession from the National Academy exhibition, pitched cheekily by Henri as a latter-day, American Salon des Refusés. Although the dissidents’ show received plenty of warm critical notice, public outrage at the ‘low’ subject-matter of some of the paintings – poor people, prostitutes, slummy street scenes – served the group as well or even better, casting them in the role of courageous revolutionaries.

Others in town were vying for the mantle of the avant garde, notably Alfred Stieglitz’s circle around Gallery 291, who were heavily influenced by Continental developments in painting. The realists sought something different: an American Modernist idiom shaped by native traditions of realism and fidelity to the particular and local. Over time, their enterprise would fail to win them a place in the Modernist tradition, while the impact of the 1913 Armory show – America’s first look at Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism – turned Stieglitz into an exemplar of the New York avant garde. Even at the time, a few critics complained about what seemed to be an idea of the ‘painting of modern life’ that was stranded between Impressionism and an emerging experimental art: ‘Surely it is not “revolutionary” to follow in the footsteps of the men who were the rage in artistic Paris twenty years ago.’ Never shown in Europe and seldom in the United States, these paintings – always interesting, sometimes splendid – have unfortunately been treated as the expression of a provincial aesthetic sensibility too unschooled in the transatlantic art scene to understand how passé it was to base an idea of avant-garde painting on now discredited notions of incident, narrative and figuration.

Metropolitan Lives, a finely illustrated and argued exhibition catalogue for a show held in Washington and New York, seeks to rescue the realists from the ranks of the cautious and imitative. By removing the paintings from purely formal considerations and placing them within a broader field of vision where art and society come together, the authors help us to grasp what was aesthetically innovative and socially heterodox in the work. Certainly, the realists represented a sharp break with 19th-century Anglo-American conventions of seeing cities, which derived from an imaginative geography laid out by fiction-writers, philanthropists and the writers of urban guidebooks, with their powerful notions of two ‘halves’ and sensationalised rambles among ‘high life’ and ‘low’. Originating with Eugène Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1842), books like Doré and Jerrold’s London: A Pilgrimage bred generic counterparts in New York – Sunlight and Shadows of New York Life, for example, or How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis’s amalgam of reform sociologising and voyeurism. These books provided a ‘tour’ of the city conducted by a narrator/flâneur, a gentleman with the cachet to gain admission to the sites of the swells but also the courage to venture as well into the dark, dangerous neighbourhoods of the ‘other half’, where, the story claimed, few of the respectable dared to go.

The idea of city life that this literature encouraged translated into an iconography of ‘types’: the upper-class dandy and the lady of leisure, their fashion-plate surfaces a foil for the rags of the pitiable poor of the ‘abyss’, as neighbourhoods like the East End of London and New York’s Lower East Side were termed. Ethnicity, occupation and differentiated vices provided variety: there was the hook-nosed Jew, the drunken Irishman, the prostitute, the newsboy and the ‘street Arab’. These types and the ecological niches in which they were situated were more or less interchangeable from Paris to London to New York: the visual elements of the ‘rookeries’ of the East End could be substituted, with a few modifications, for the vice-ridden dens of New York’s Five Points.

The New York realists broke up this moral geography, not by sentimentalising the ‘other half’ – one common strategy – but by refusing to subscribe to an iconography of the great city in which rich and poor were eternal oppositions, fanning out from Old World to New. Abandoning transatlantic formulas, they sought to convey the specificities of New York as landscape and habitation, capturing the ways in which the city required – indeed, enforced – the polyglot mixing of people and classes, the admixture of ‘types’. A Glackens drawing of Washington Square on a winter day shows little bourgeois families, their children dressed head to foot in the latest matching coats and hats and towing gleaming sleds, passing by clutches of immigrant women on the park benches nursing babies, an elderly female drunk taking a snooze and a gang of neighbourhood toughs consumed by a fierce snowball fight. Glackens retained the city type as a central pictorial element, but he rendered his types in a different manner.

Others – most strikingly Sloan – abandoned types altogether. In a modest painting of fishermen on a dock, a black man turns to speak to a man sitting beside him. He is the only black in the line of shabbily clad figures, but the interest is less in ‘the Negro’ than in the tonalities of a city-bred companionship of strangers unrolled along the big, dim natural space of the harbour dusk. Even when the subject was the Lower East Side, quintessential site of ‘lowlife’, the realists were, at their most interesting, ‘engaged in the task of showing layers of human interaction’, rather than in painting the customary signs of degradation through comportment (slouched posture), physiognomy (beetling brow) or dress (rags) characteristic of the older code. George Luks’s Hester Street (1905) follows the confabulations of market-goers back into a faceless crowd. Buyers and sellers are all nattily dressed: an Americanised swell with a cigar surveys the scene, a top-hatted peddler gravely demonstrates a toy before a group of properly turned-out children, a fashionably dressed young mother confers with a butcher.

Women in public places – on the streets, in theatres and parks – had fascinated Modernists since the Impressionists: in Victorian moral geography, the woman who moved in the public world freely and alone was a prostitute; respectable women, rooted in the home, ventured out on the streets heavily covered and strictly chaperoned. In the second half of the century, the growing presence of women who violated these understandings was a powerful emblem of the disruptive forces of the ‘new’. Sloan, in particular, produced some of his finest work out of his preoccupation with the ambiguous female presence, paintings which refused to affirm that the old visual clues to a woman’s identity – a hat and veil or the lack thereof, bright clothing, rouge – could reveal anything meaningful. A pair of gaudily decked women stroll past a fountain in Sunday Afternoon in Union Square, leaving a trail of gazers in their wake: two modestly dressed women on a bench whisper about them, a line of appreciative men stare. Sloan himself, an energetic walker in the city, practised an inquiring rather than an ethnographic voyeurism: a glimpse from his studio into a back window of a tenement led to Three a.m. (1909), in which two young women share a late-night chat. One, sleepy and risen from bed, lights a cigarette at the stove; the other, who seems to have just come in, sits at the table with a cup of tea and talks animatedly, her dress unbuttoned and a gaudy feathered hat set down beside her. The painting provokes the obvious sexually-tinged question – why are these women awake in the middle of the night? – but the inquiry co-exists with Sloan’s wonder at the city’s capacity to afford its own kind of inconclusive intimacy, established through the frames of two windows.

The new propensity for self-conscious theatricality that emerged in the early years of the century mixed in ensuing decades with the loquacious speech of various immigrant groups to create a culture of everyday, semi-public performance – comedic, pathetic, histrionic – which would become a Manhattan specialty. For the realists, the dialectic of the watcher and the watched moved ceaselessly. At fires and traffic accidents, crowds gathered as they always had at the sites of calamities, but the realists made the crowds themselves their subject. Bellows’s boxing paintings, fraught with muscular action and carnage, transform the sports illustration from a ‘view’ into a study of collaboration between the fighters, ringside promoters and gaping spectators. In Shinn’s Footlight Flirtation, an actress confounds our expectations by gazing out beseechingly at an audience where two people are leaving and one is putting on her hat in preparation.

But that New York gaze also serves a domesticating function which, over time, bequeathed a nostalgic aura to the paintings. Unlike later New York Modernists, the realists were uninterested in the soaring verticals of the city or the Cubist rhythms that played so well to the international avant garde. It was downtown, with its brownstones and low tenements, that captured their eye. Their aesthetic was based on the low line of the streets, the highly-articulated series of rectangular buildings, festooned with signboards, striated by the horizontals of window lines and cornices and the diagonals of fire escapes, which could stretch up and back to the vanishing point or across the background as a stage drop. In the next generation, Edward Hopper thickened those lines of brownstones into monuments that invoked abstraction, as in the memorable Sunday Morning, where the silence of a series of façades transposes a literal representation into a study of form.

With the earlier painters, however, the sketched line dominated, giving the architectural elements in the street paintings a rickets feel, an odd melding of flimsiness and materiality compounded by the jumbles of goods lying about in the markets, on the docks, in piles on street corners. Since the perspective is usually at street level, the light is often artificial, and more often gas than electric, casting a welcoming glow over the principals on the sidewalks – in contrast to the lurid, acidic sheen which would become the signature of alienation and estrangement in the work of Hopper and Reginald Marsh. This was not sleek, high-powered Manhattan, the city of soaring towers and the big money, nor was it lonely, grim Manhattan, city of modern anomie. It was, rather, a place which for all its indecipherable nature was oddly homey, lyrically real: the ground for a particular engagement between shifting casts of characters who, if only for a moment, admitted one another’s scrutiny – admiring, amused, empathetic, contemptuous by turn. The aesthetic slipped unnoticed into popular culture, where it served as the paradigm for innumerable movieset designs which denoted Manhattan. But in serious New York Modernism this tradition virtually disappeared, re-emerging only sporadically – for example, in the grand and hilarious panoply of Red Grooms’s three-dimensional Ruckus Manhattan (1975).

The revisionists of art history often try to insert their candidates in a genealogy of great painters. These writers, however, emphasise the Ashcan School’s relation to ‘ways of seeing’ (which the art both absorbs and helps to create) and the visual activity which forms a penumbra around the work. They ask us to consider a moment when not only the forms, lines and colours of other paintings were registering in the eyes of the artists, but when a booming culture of visual display – on signboards, in newspapers, illustrated magazines, greeting cards, advertising handbills, in the anarchic pageantry of the streets – was unfurling before them. Art critics are generally wary of such sociologising approaches, which use paintings as illustrations of historical themes and ignore formal issues. Several recent maligned exhibitions in the US provoked widespread complaints of the deadening effects of a documentary habit of mind on any appreciation of aesthetic invention and play. Metropolitan Lives does not always avoid the pitfalls: there are sections where the images are lined up alongside the social history (paintings of shoppers in the context of the growth of department stores, and so forth). Indeed, sometimes it appears that every kind of sight is invoked except that of other painters.

Still, this collaboration of two art historians and a cultural historian, executed in a field fraught with suspicion of such endeavours, attests to the possibilities of conversation between the disciplines. The writers open up the question of how paintings and drawings take shape from social materials and direct our attention to the role of vision in city life. Well written and produced, the book revives the significance of the realists and forces us to see them as progenitors of a foreshortened, rather than a failed line of Modernist experimentation. It also asks us to consider the aesthetic implications of a remarkably amiable moment in the history of the most cantankerous and democratic of modern cities when, as the authors put it, ‘ “what are you looking at?” did not always translate into fighting words.’