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Thursday, August 18, 2011

New York, New York! at the Hyde Collection

Andreas Feininger - Brooklyn Bridge 1940s  gelatin silver print
The show New York, New York! The 20th Century, on loan to the Hyde Collection from the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., is designed to be a crowd pleaser - and, judging from the reactions I witnessed on a recent weekday visit there, it is - but it is also a worthwhile show for any serious art viewer who may or may not care about the theme but will be thrilled to have a chance to see these 60 or so excellent pieces from the Norton's collection.

When you enter the show, you are struck by a clever (actually, too clever) subway-style design scheme to the exhibition, which starts with an appropriately understated audio track of screeching train sounds and a large wall emblazoned with the tiles and signage typical of mid-century New York City subway stations. The one work of art at the entry is a large and graphic black-and-white photograph taken in 1941 by Andreas Feininger under the elevated train at Division Street; potent in its structure of steel, sun, and shadow, the photograph sets the course for this show: not so much that it will be about New York, but that it will feature a lot of art that describes the atmosphere of the place as much as its physical details.

Though the rest of the exhibition space is painted a conservative dark maroon, the subway theme carries through in the form of text panels with the black background, primary color dots, and Helvetica type you still see all over New York's rail system. While these provide useful information, they look odd and distracting here. The show is organized around several sub-themes: On the Waterfront, Avenues and Streets, Tall Buildings, Parks and Recreation, and On the Town, which help to give it form as it spans a good deal of history - both of the city and of art.

Childe Hassam - Melting Snow 1905  oil on canvas
In addition to a great proportion of photographs (27) and prints (add another 8), the exhibition features a range of paintings from the late 19th century to the late 20th, and five somewhat lonely sculptures, four of them in bronze (or plaster with a bronze patina). Fans of photography will recognize many of the names included here - Paul Strand, Edward Steichen, Weegee, Diane Arbus, and other giants are represented by fine, sometimes famous, examples of their work. Equally, there are first-rate photos by some lesser known practitioners, such as Bill Witt, Jerome Liebling, George Tice, and Feininger, whose five prints in the show are really terrific.

Thinking about Feininger, I wonder just how many of the other artists in this show came as immigrants - after all, New York is the world's destination, a place that perfectly exemplifies the ideal of the melting pot and the fresh start. One fine piece among the excellent graphics on view seems to purposely capture that experience - a sketchy lithograph by the Austrian master Oskar Kokoschka that depicts the Statue of Liberty from the water. Surrounded by an ocean of white space, the black-crayon drawing perfectly embodies possibility. It is worth noting that the artist was already past 80 when he made the piece and, though he was never an American, he changed citizenship more than once in his life, and lived out his last decades in Switzerland, perhaps enjoying his own restful neutrality.

More central to the theme of the show are a number of paintings in it by artists associated with the Ashcan School, including George Luks, Edward Hopper, Everett Shinn, and others in the same vein, such as Reginald Marsh and John Marin. These and others offer elements of social commentary - my companion's pick of the group is an acidic study of upperclass gallerygoers by William Gropper - but most focus on the weather, smoke, snow, fog and the sea of humanity that fills and refills New York every day, rather than depicting specific individuals.

Edward Hopper - August in the City 1945 oil on canvas
The works that best exemplify these different moods of the city are about equally distributed among the photos, paintings, and graphics - almost too numerous to mention, standouts include a marvelous color lithograph in the form of an accordion book by Eugene Feldman; exacting etchings by Armin Landeck from 1934 and John Taylor Arms from 1925 that render light and texture to perfection; Childe Hassam's classic of American Impressionism from 1905 titled Melting Snow; and a sweeping photographic overview of a chunk of the Bronx by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao.

Other particularly special paintings in the show include a terrific vertical mural piece by Stuart Davis; the Hopper, titled August in the City, where, in the deep summer's absence of any humanity, a statue stands in for his typical figure at the window; several John Marins; and a frenetic bit of expressionism by Mark Tobey. Altogether, for me this experience was not so much about New York as it was a great excuse to see a wonderful show of a century of art.

The main problem with the exhibition is its title - because now I can't get that damn song out of my head! It's a great song (personally, I prefer Liza's rendition to Frank's) but, well, you know what I mean about ear worms.

New York, New York! The 20th Century continues through Sept. 18. It originated at the Norton Museum of Art in 2009, and continues on tour, stopping next at the Katonah Museum of Art. The Hyde has organized a full slate of activities around the exhibition, including a week of 9/11 tenth-anniversary events - please see the museum's website for details.

Rating: Highly Recommended
Eugene Feldman - New York West Side Skyline 1965  fold-out book

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