As organized by Barbara Haskell of the Whitney and independent curator Sasha Nicholas, the show combined some 60 paintings, drawings and prints by this most outstanding member of the Fourteenth Street School, with another 30 works, ranging from paintings to photographs & even a few film clips, all by other artists of the same generation.
The theme of the show, in addition to the celebration of Marsh, was a tribute to the New York he depicted (after all, the New-York Historical Society is all about New York), and more specifically, to the energy, vitality and resilience evinced by its inhabitants during the monumentally grim period of the Great Depression, when a third of its work force was out of work.
Marsh (1898-1954) had what might appear a mannered approach. His wavy, agitated brushwork and reliance upon muted and/or shrill tones of tempera make for an easily identified – and caricatured – style. However, as this show demonstrated, this style was ideally suited to its subjects, whether crowds of men and women lined up to see the latest flick in the movie palaces of the day (at 20 or 25 cents per ticket), or women shopping amidst hordes of fellow shoppers in Union Square.
Other topics Marsh favored were families clambering over fellow sun-seekers at Coney Island, men and women jamming the stairs and platforms of the subway (also at Union Square), unemployed men lined up for a meal at a soup kitchen, or for a bed in the Bowery’s flop houses, and not least, semi-nude ladies prancing about in the burlesque houses that Fiorello LaGuardia tried so hard to stamp out.
I should warn readers that I am prejudiced by nostalgia here (on July 9, John Tierney in the NY Times Science section did a whole story on how nostalgia for the past is good for you, making the present appear more meaningful and the future, more hopeful). In my case, although my memories of the outside world don’t reach back to the 1930s, in the 1950s Union Square was still a bustling center of specialty stores for women.
I bought a number of bargain-price dresses at S. Klein-on-the-Square there when I was in high school, and, during the summer before I entered my sophomore year in college, I held down a $35-a-week job selling earrings at Ohrbach’s, which in those days was also on Union Square. I rode the subway to & from work, too, and in those days it was even more crowded than it is now, so I can relate to all the nubile young things in Marsh’s paintings.
That said, I would also add that, for all its hokum, Marsh’s optimistic vision of the city was infectious for me, too. Even the painting of what looks like a destitute black man sleeping on the “L” somehow came off as mellow, not tragic. The labels on the individual paintings were the usual sort of earnest, dead-beat socio-babble intended to emphasize the degradation and/or cynicism of the women portrayed.
For instance, the label to ”Ten Cents a Dance” (1933), the picture showing a group of taxi-dancers, being a case in point. It emphasized that the young women offering themselves in the dance-hall at 10 cents a dance were either hard-up salesgirls, or prostitutes, or con artists bent on fleecing innocent men from out of town, but the smile on the face of the most prominent taxi-dancer was so broad and cheerful that I couldn’t help smiling back, and feeling happier, too.
The other painters in the show weren’t quite as lively as Marsh, though the paintings by Raphael & Isaac Soyer, showing groups of individuals rather than mobs, offered a likeably moody change of pace, and Paul Cadmus gave us an haute camp vision of a woman preying upon an innocent sailor on leave. I would have liked to see at least one picture by Isabel Bishop, but I couldn’t find one either on the wall or in the checklist.
The photographers, from Berenice Abbott to Weegee, were uniformly excellent—the only problem being that when they were juxtaposed with Marsh’s photographs, the Marshes were just not in the same league. I can understand why they were there—to show a key part of the preparations Marsh made for his paintings – but they still lowered the general level of the show’s otherwise high standards by a bit.
Finally, it was such a pleasure to see so many pictures of people, after the dearth of them in the three shows I’d seen at MoMA (on Le Corbusier, American "moderns," and Walker Evans). Often in the past, I’ve said that I thought landscapes and/or still lifes looked more “modern” than pictures with people in them, but I wasn’t feeling that way this August….or maybe I just wasn’t feeling the same compulsion to look only at “modern” representational art. So maybe Reginald Marsh is dated – so what?