Mapping the City
June 3 - September 25, 2011
New York City at the turn of the twentieth century was rapidly transforming into the quintessential modern metropolis. A symbol as well as a product of its time, it embodied the forces of chaos and dynamism, industry and technology, diversity and expansion. The printmakers and photographers working in New York City between 1900 and 1935 mapped this changing landscape.
Under the tutelage of the painter Robert Henri who taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the New York School of Art, artists like John Sloan, George Bellows, and Edward Hopper made New York City life one of their primary subjects. Their prints are urban vignettes expressed in a manner at once spontaneous, gritty, playful, and direct. Capitalizing on the booming business sector, this generation of printmakers made their livings in the fast-paced commercial world of newspaper illustration and advertising, a practice as influential to their work as the august history of fine art for its lessons in quick sketching, caricature, and expressive simplicity.
A second circle of New York City artists was dominated by the legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz, a self-appointed cultural arbiter and gate-keeper. As dealer, curator, and editor—he ran the small, powerful Gallery 291 and produced an art journal called "Camera Work"—Stieglitz promoted emerging American artists such as the painter and printmaker John Marin, whom he also patronized, alongside the work of the European avant-garde. Stieglitz encouraged Marin to break with realism in order to convey an experiential sense of life in the city. In his own photographic work, Stieglitz pursued a vision of the city that was both haunting and picturesque.
The artists represented in "Mapping the City" were participants in as well as keen observers of New York City life—they are residents and explorers, and their work re-traces their steps through the urban landscape. More broadly, it maps human experience, solitary and shared, on an urban grid —the anonymous crowds at boxing matches and burlesque shows, the women at the windows of tenement buildings, the clusters of pedestrians at street corners. But the work also maps the urban grid in terms of lived experience, and the particular forms of perception the industrial cityscape allows: Manhattan seen from the roof of a skyscraper, or bisected by the whir of rapid transit. The portrait that emerges is of a city constantly generating both new sights and new ways of seeing.
Image credit: Edward Hopper. American, 1882 – 1967. “Night Shadows.” 1921. Etching on off-white wove paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm G. Chace Jr. (Beatrice Ross Oenslager, class of 1928).