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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), Study for "Brooklyn Bridge", 1949. Charcoal and black and white chalk on paper. Promised gift of Elie and Sarah Hirschfeld, Scenes of New York City. © 2021 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York


In the immortal words of Comden & Green, "New York, New York, it's a helluva town." The city is currently being celebrated at The New-York Historical Society by "Scenes of New York City: The Elie and Sarah Hirschfeld Collection" (through February 27).  This munificent gift to The Society features 130 works by more than 100 artists. All these works are in traditional media: paintings, drawings, prints, other works on paper and sculpture.


There is something very lovable about the Hirschfelds' insistence on building this exceedingly handsome and extensive collection of views of the Big Apple and its people exclusively in traditional media. True, it does mean omitting star chroniclers of New York in photography from Alfred Stieglitz and Berenice Abbott to James Van Der Zee, but to say truth, New York has had so many star photographers that a whole second collection could be assembled of their handiwork.  Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Hirshfeld might be interested in assembling such a collection, now that they've promised their more traditional collection to The New-York Historical Society.  Or not.


In any event, there's a lot to see in the current show—and not necessarily among the artists whom The New-York Historical Society is most eager to publicize.  The literature accompanying this exhibition points with pride to all the artists who have not previously been represented in the Society's collections, among them Marc Chagall, David Hockney, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O'Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, and Andy Warhol.


As I see it, few of these are the highlights of the show.  In fact, the only names on this  list that I really cared about seeing were Hopper and Lawrence—and if I never see another O'Keeffe, Rockwell or Warhol, that will be too soon for  me.  The best I can find to say about the O'Keeffe which illustrates this review is that it's better than the alternative illustrations that the museum is publicizing on its website (though I also admit that it's really scandalous of me to put off posting this review only weeks before the show closes, though one still has almost a whole month to beat feet over to Central Park West).


This is not to say that there aren't plenty of charming images here – just not necessarily  ones you'd expect.  For example, I am a great admirer of Robert Henri (1865–1929). Although best known for his many portraits, he can claim to be a founder of The Ashcan School with his early 20th century scenes of grimy New York streets. However, here he is represented by a snowy winter landscape, hardly a building or a street in sight. If its title wasn't "Central Park" (1902), one would never know it is a view of the city 


Similarly, Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is famous for his futurist-inflected studies of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In this show he is represented by a work entitled "In the Bronx Zoo." As if to compensate, there is a whole alcove devoted to the city's bridges, especially the Brooklyn Bridge and the 59th Street Bridge.


This alcove leads off a sequence of four areas to the right of the entrance to the show, and has lively pictures by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971), Richard Hayley Lever (1876-1958), Martin Lewis  (1881-1962), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), Preston Dickinson (1889-1930) and an especially sweet work by Steven Katz (b. 1951), as well as (sigh) work by Warhol and O'Keeffe.


The second alcove in this part of the show is devoted to images of skyscrapers, with a small, very black and characteristically chunky Nevelson sculpture in the center, in a vitrine.  One of the nicest things about this show is that it isn't limited to American artists, but includes quite a smattering of foreigners – especially French ones. Gromaire and Dufy of course were French, and so was Jean Fautrier (1898-1964), the tachiste—represented in the "skyscraper" section with "American Landscapes  (Paysages Américains), Rockefeller Center (OM6)."


This skyscraper section is followed by a third small gallery with artwork on the city's parks. In the center of the space was a bench with a copy of the show's catalogue, which is co-authored by Wendy N. K. Ikemoto and Roberta J. M. Olson.  With a sigh of relief, I sank onto the bench and began thumbing through the catalogue.


At this point, my notes get confused.   Re-reading them, I can't be sure whether my notes on this third gallery are a) based on what I saw there, or b) what I read in the catalogue and later saw elsewhere in the show (as all the artists are listed by birthdates in the catalogue, earliest to latest, instead of in the order that they're hung in the show).


Still, I am sure that one drawing hanging in this parks section was by Hockney (b. 1937), and is a view from his window in the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West – done in 2002, two years before the Mayflower was closed & torn down.  I say this because two women were looking at the picture while I was sitting there on the bench, and one was saying to the other that her father had stayed at the Mayflower.


On the other hand, glancing through the catalogue, I could see that views through windows seem to have been a popular subject with the Hirschfelds. I also find a 1958 view through a window onto Central Park from the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue by Chagall listed, and one by a Julia Titsworth (1878-1941) that may have been in the "bridges" section.


I say this for it's entitled, "From my Window," is dated ca.1930, and appears to be the same picture that came up for auction at Bonham's not too long ago.  If it is the same picture, it's a view eastward from the 44th Floor of the Chrysler Building, and definitely shows the high-rise buildings of midtown east – and the 59th Street Bridge in the distance.


For some  reason, this parks area of the Hirschfeld exhibition also includes some work by abstract expressionists – though this is a tough sell, as by definition the abstract expressionist were  not into representational painting. Still, Franz Kline is included in this show not only by a small black-and-white abstract but also by three of his much earlier views in and around Greenwich Village, where he lived.  These are solid, workmanlike pictures.


Mark Rothko is also represented by an early view from 1937 of people waiting in a subway station, in shades of gray and other muted colors.   His palette here is entirely different from the radiant reds and yellows that characterize his best mature (abstract) work of the late 1940s and early 1950s.  It does anticipate the dull grays and other dark colors of the late 1960s, Rothko's palette during the last, very unhappy years of his life – and in its own right, it's quite an appealing little picture.


I wish I could say the same for the Willem de Kooning on view here, but it didn't appeal to me, consisting as it does of violent and incoherent schmears of bright colors on a page of newsprint. It is called "Untitled (New York Times)" and was done ca. 1976.   Sure, it's an abstract but that doesn't necessarily make it a good painting.


The fourth alcove to the right of the entrance is filled with paintings and other images of characteristically New York people. It also has some pop art by Peter Max and Arman inspired by the Statue of Liberty, but that took second place for me to three people-oriented images.


First I might mention the small but touching Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), showing a group of down-and-outers eating in the Great Depression at a "Harlem Diner"(1938).


Second is the huge but hilarious paper collage that occupies an entire wall and is by Red Grooms (b. 1937).  It depicts Seventh Avenue between 22nd and 21st Street, NYC, and was done in 1987.  Grooms's style is cartoony, like so much other pop art, but somehow I forgive him for it – maybe because what he does with it is so creative. Roy Lichtenstein is hackneyed and clichéd by comparison.


Third in this gallery is a stunning black-and-white ink drawing by Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003), the caricaturist famous for his portrayals of celebrities and other Broadway stars.  Originally made for a two-page spread in Life magazine, this drawing depicts "A Night at the '21' Club" (1953) in riveting detail -- from the couple entering with the aid of a tip to the doorman to whatever is going in the bar on the lower floor and in the dining area up above. Delightful!


The greatest number of pictures in "Scenes of New York City" embellishes the great hall of The New-York Historical Society -- where I have often so much admired its peerless collection of Hudson River School landscapes. But I find I have quite exhausted my vocabulary of superlatives, so I will just leave it to my readers to go and enjoy all the wonders of that Great Hall for themselves.


Among other admirable artists they will find there are the impressionists William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902), the studio painter Leon Kroll (1884-1974), the social realist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), and the hyperrealist Richard Estes (b. 1932).  But my own favorite mingles reality with a delicious dose of fantasy.   Or does it? You be the judge.


The picture is an oil painting entitled "Greeley Square."  It is by Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962).  He is best known as the author and illustrator of "Madeline"(1939), but also worked in hotels in his youth and wrote about them most amusingly in short pieces for magazines like The New Yorker. He later collected these short pieces into books, and they are pretty funny, too (I used to have a copy of one called "Hotel Bemelmans" but I loaned it to somebody who never returned it)


Anyway, "Greeley Square" purports to depict that small triangular patch of parkland just south of the intersection of 34th Street, Sixth Avenue and Broadway (Herald Square is to the north, and the two together form a "bowtie" arrangement). Bemelmans shows the statue in Greeley Square, which is of Horace Greeley, a 19th century editor and publisher who founded the New York Tribune (in the old days, many newspapers had offices in this neighborhood).


In back of the statue, one may see the staircase leading up to the Sixth Avenue El, complete with ornate little Victorian turrets on the tops of its stairway posts and more turrets on the station's roof. Behind that one may see a building which is probably a department store – though I'm not sure which one (it's a little too far south to be Macy's, but I'm not sure the store just south of Macy's was already Saks 34th Street).


The catalogue for "Scenes of New York City" gives a date of c.1958 for this picture.  This may be because the listing for what looks very much like this painting at the Doyle auction house website for 2016 records only one previous exhibition of it.  This was in a show at the Museum of the City of New York from October 14, 1959 to January 3, 1960.


But wait!  In 1958, the Sixth Avenue El no longer existed!  It was torn down in 1939 to make way for the Sixth Avenue subway. Was this painting made back in the 1930s or are we looking at a 1950s Bemelmans dream or fantasy of little old New York?


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