For decades, New York City has held an allure for artists, not just because it's the country's most bustling metropolis, but because that's where so many artists live and work. If you're going to make art out of something, what could be easier than what's right outside your window?
Four exhibits in Connecticut, on the walls now or coming soon, focus on artists' renditions of The City That Never Sleeps, one at the turn of the 20th century, one mid-century, one in the postwar era and one in the modern day.
Yale University Art Gallery
In the dawn of the 1900s, New York City was growing like it never had before: growing in population density, in confidence and in diversity, spurred by massive immigration. Humans, industry and buildings multiplied exponentially, outward as well as upward, as New York established itself as the most robust, the toughest, the mightiest of cities. "Fine artists and illustrators were there, recording life around them, giving visual form to the quintessential moments of life," said Mark D. Mitchell.
Mitchell is the Holcombe T. Green curator of American paintings and sculpture at Yale University Art Gallery. An exhibit he curated at the New Haven museum, "It Was a New Century: Reflections on Modern America," is dominated by pieces influenced by French impressionism, which celebrate the city in all its burgeoning beauty, and social realism, which accentuate the grit, everyday reality — and often poverty — of urban existence. All 58 pieces in the exhibit were loaned by one collector.
Childe Hassam's "Avenue of the Allies" is one of the former, an image of a Manhattan street lined with all the flags of the nation's World War I allies. "This was the first time this was done, the draping over of every building with the flags. You see the street, the streetcars, the pedestrians, but also the sun-drenched brightness of the avenue," Mitchell said. "It grounds you in a place, just as Claude Monet was doing with the French cathedrals and in the streets of Paris."
Other images — Everett Shinn's "Washington Square Arch," Guy Wiggins' "Old Trinity" and two renditions of Armistice Day — reflect this image of a complex city full of energy and promise. Renditions of New Yorkers at leisure, both working- and leisure-class, enhance the feel of a multidimensional population with time for both toil and play.
Other artists recreated less sumptuous scenes, of working-class people on the Lower East Side, their darker homes stripped bare of ornament, as they work or live humbly, but nonetheless full of life. "You sense the vibrancy of the communities, not pitying or condescending. These poor communities were the defining communities of their time. ... It's the cradle of American life and identity. These are the communities that make the American vision of itself possible," Mitchell said. "'Rags to riches' was a widely embraced self-perception. In this environment, the future energy and growth of the country emerges."
The exhibit strongly represents the sport of boxing — as seen in the energetic and muscular lithographs of George Bellows — as a metaphor for the urban struggle, in both its demonstration of strength and its potential for greatness. "There's a lot of social conflict and subtext happening here ... about race relations, immigration. ... The ring was a public representation of these hidden conflicts," Mitchell said. "There was also the issue of the working class. Boxing gave them a way out, a path to respectability."
"It Was a New Century: Reflections on Modern America" will be up until June 4 at the gallery at 1111 Chapel St. in New Haven.
Fairfield University Art Museum
Adolf Dehn created paintings and lithographs all over the country, but his images of New York City "are a tone poem of love for the city," said Philip Eliasoph, a Fairfield University art professor and author of the upcoming book "Adolf Dehn: Midcentury Manhattan." An exhibit based on that book is now on the walls at Fairfield University Art Museum.
The pieces, which range from 1925 to 1960, focus on three aspects of Manhattan: the Harbor and East River, his beloved Central Park and up-close perspectives on specific places, such as the United Nations, Stuyvesant Park, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
Eliasoph's research, and his heart, are dedicated to the "left behind" figurative and representational artists who were forgotten in the postwar era when Abstract Expressionism took over: Paul Cadmus, Colleen Browning, Stevan Dohanos, Henry Koerner, Robert Vickrey and Dehn.
"Their art was no longer in accordance with the brave new world of the postwar atomic age," Eliasoph said. "It was more than just a style heresy. It had become politically incorrect."
Dehn's images are charming. Dehn depicted Central Park in all seasons of the year, dotted with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, playing children, cavorting dogs, a scene of idyllic peace and prosperity. Dehn's waterfront scenes emphasize the muscle and grit, but softly, still with a sentimental glow all around.
Most important, Eliasoph said, Dehn's images capture Manhattan during a time in history before the old skyline was drastically transformed by countless skyscrapers. "So much of this has been lost. The city just plunged ahead," Eliasoph said. "To me it's heartbreaking. The skyline of midtown has been ruptured egregiously."
Fairfield University Art Museum — formerly known as the Bellarmine Museum of Art — is at 1073 N. Benson Road. The exhibit will be up until April 7. fairfield.edu/museum.
Windsor Art Center
William Butcher and Jacob Murphy wander the streets of New York together, looking for photographic inspiration. Their approaches are different. Murphy takes snapshots on the sly, usually unseen by his subjects. Butcher finds homeless people, sits down with them, gives them water and pocket change and talks to them, sometimes for as long as two hours. Then, if they give him permission, he takes portraits of them.
Windsor Art Center, 40 Mechanic St., presents "The Human Condition: New York City Humanity," work by Butcher and Murphy, until Feb. 25.
Butcher, a Suffield High graduate, gets up close to his downtrodden subjects, seeing every gray hair, wrinkle, freckle. His special focus is their eyes, and often he goes back into the photo and enhances the eyes with reflections of what they are looking at. "Eye contact is important to him. Most of these people are invisible. He makes sure they are not invisible. He sees them," said Christine MacClintic, who curated the exhibit.
His approach is both intimate and heartbreaking, zeroing in on the humanity of the people he meets. But he only meets them once. "He's gone back a few times to find them, but he hasn't been able to," MacClintic said.
Murphy's snaps are often more lighthearted: teenagers playing under the Brooklyn Bridge, a man feeding pigeons in Washington Square Park, sweethearts smooching in Union Square, a lost woman at Penn Station, four girls crossing a street in an "Abbey Road"-like formation. Others are unintentionally funny, such as two photos of men in business suits scowling as they walk down the street. These men obviously were having bad days, but it's difficult to sympathize much, when one compares them to the homeless folks on the other side of the gallery. windsorartcenter.org.
"Street Smart: Photographs of New York City, 1945-1980," work by Larry Fink, Herman Leonard, Leon Levinstein, John Shearer and Garry Winogrand, will be at Bruce Museum, One Museum Drive in Greenwich, from Feb. 18 to June 4. The photographers focus on the era when New York became a hub of cultural activity as well as activism, including feminist and anti-war protests, race riots in Harlem and the Stonewall riots. brucemuseum.org.