The arrival of the twentieth century saw New York City become firmly established as the capital of the American art world, a position it still occupies today. Artists from all over the world come to New York for inspiration, feeding on the vibrant energy of the city and channeling that through their creations. As a result, the city as a subject matter has been repeated in several different movements throughout the history of American art.
What’s so special about New York?
New York’s life as a port city, an immigrant destination, financial center, industrial power and a cultural stew of all of the above has provided artists with an unending supply of visual and emotive experiences. Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, when New York was hitting its stride as America’s premier metropolis, artists were turning their attention to the dual narratives of the city’s booming expansion ever upward and the vibrant, hectic and colorful life lived down on its streets.
New York artists’ earlier veneration of the sylvan expanses they’d visit upstate was pushed aside by the more muscular activities taking place on the pavement outside their studio windows. Their fascination with the churn of the city, with its daily dramas of struggles and triumphs, its constantly changing skyline being built up and knocked down and built up again, the beauty of its textures and colors in the glow of its millions of lights, continues among artists today. This thirst for New York imagery is shared both by museums and collectors. Thus, ACA’s inventory of twentieth and twenty first century New York art remains much in demand.
The New York Realists, also known as The Eight and popularly as The Ashcan School, kicked off early twentieth century art’s celebration of New York with spirited scenes of street life in immigrant and working class neighborhoods. Among the artists influenced by this oeuvre was Francis Luis Mora. Mora, an immigrant from Uruguay, brought tenderness to his images, a delicacy of vision even when portraying the hardiest urban activities. His watercolor, “Passing of a Landmark,” depicting laborers and dray horses at the demolition of a building, captures this sensibility. The palette of soft browns at once expresses both the burly activity of labor and the pathos of things lost to the urgency of progress. Today, Mora’s work continues to be the subject of major museum exhibitions and publications, and is a staple of ACA’s program.
The melting pot of hard times
By the 1930s, the price of that boisterous progress was the crash of the American economy, resulting in the Great Depression. New York, however, never lost its spirit for life or its determination to challenge hard times. Reginald Marsh boldly expressed the former, while Edmund Yaghjian gave voice to the latter. Marsh’s confidently strutting women, buxom burlesque queens, and good-time Charlies at the city’s night spots and beaches, exude a zest for everything the big city has to offer, even in hard times. Yaghjian’s point of view was more somber, though no less loving of New Yorkers and their skyscraper environment. His palette is darker but shimmering, his gathered crowds quietly determined to survive.
For all of its steel and stone power, New York is just as often graceful. August Mosca captured the city’s elegance in images influenced by the complexity of Cubism and the energy of the Futurists of his native Italy. His 1945 drawing “Brooklyn Bridge and Environs” weaves the filigree of the iconic bridge into the commercial razzmatazz of the city around it. Mosca’s paintings, drawings and prints remain popular with collectors, and his work is represented in important museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
New York in its post-World War Two years continued to grow outward from Manhattan into the far reaches of the boroughs. Jack Levine’s 1950 work “Euclid Avenue,” expresses the flavor of post-war Brooklyn. Two of the borough’s characters—one young, one old—gab on the street, the borough’s numerous churches behind the stern observers of Brooklyn’s street life. The tension between Levine’s Social Realist sensibility and his loose, expressive brushwork give his images the edgy energy of New York itself.
Like Levine, Doug Safranek celebrates the poignancy of New York’s more intimate moments: the interplay at dusk between a neighborhood movie theater marquee and an overhead elevated subway train; a summertime crowd sharing thrill rides and a seaside bench in Coney Island, their shorts and tee shirts as colorful as Brooklyn’s fabled carney. Working in the ancient medium of egg tempera, Safranek’s exacting images exist in elegant balance between the city’s gritty dynamism and the tender moments of its inhabitants. ACA’s exhibitions of Safranek’s work are consistently well attended, and his appeal to collectors remains strong.
Joseph Peller explores what he calls the “essential incident;” that moment when the city and its people reveal their innermost truth. Peller renders the haunting, emotional moments of New York, whether it’s an elegant crowd in a dimly lit after-hours nightspot, an early morning street where the buildings themselves seem to be slowly waking up, or the dance of ships and cranes in New York Harbor. Peller’s work is widely exhibited and his stunning vision of New York remains of continuing interest to collectors.
New York City, ever growing, always reinventing itself, always creative in its bones, continues as a source of inspiration for those courageous artists arriving daily to try to make their way in this formidable city. This courage to endure the challenges of succeeding here, together with the sensitivity to recognize New York’s secret and intimate moments found nowhere else, gives these artists’ work energy, strength, and a confident vitality.
Courtesy Ann Aptaker, ACA Galleries