When There Were People

Photo by Jack GouldDid you know they used to paint about politics? Yes, they did! They painted people with picket signs being dispersed by cops on horseback, people trudging through snow and the Great Depression, people living their rococo lives in opera boxes, fiddling while New York burned. There have actually been several eras, my friends, in which average people felt they had a vested interest in political issues and outcomes, and painters painted it!

"In the City: Urban Views 1900-1940" at the Orange County Museum of Art, from New York's Whitney Museum of American Arts' collection, is a roughly chronological exhibition of realistic canvases and a few sculptures from the gently romantic turn-of-the-century Ashcan School to the grimy Social Realists who dominated after Wall Street's crash through to the peopleless modernity of crowded 1940s skyscrapers, which themselves seem anthropomorphized, crowding one another for enough light and space to grow.

Realism, of course, would fall out of favor for a short while (50 years or so, despite brief stints in the Warhol and Hockney '60s and in Peter Alexander and Don Bachardy's 1970s LA) after 1940, before making its comeback so tyrannically this decade that anything nonrepresentational painted today might as well be placed in a time capsule to be opened in the 22nd century.

In "In the City," alienation segues into bawdy desperation, which morphs into agitation and oppression, which then gleams into eerily Ayn Randian futurism. Unmarred high-rises, packed together like crooked teeth, could be the cover art for The Fountainhead.

But the exhibit starts gently—even happily—with Maurice Prendergast's Central Park, 1901, a chunky watercolor depicting the top-hatted class in horse-drawn carriages. It moves quickly from the well-to-do living society pages to Edward Hopper's Summer Interior, in which a woman, nude from the waist down and creamy like a Renoir, sits abjectly on the floor by her bed, alone—and then to Stuart Davis' The Back Room, which is piled with kegs and men with green faces who look like Jim Carrey in The Mask. A Negro man plays the drums. Another Hopper, the gray Solitary Figure in a Theater, is placed next to Thomas W. Dewing's gorgeous Lady in a Green Dress, whose Daisy Miller-ish subject's obvious wealth is like a license to display sexuality. All these paintings, crowned by George Luks' 1905 The Little Gray Girl, who may as well be dying in a doorway (isn't that how "The Little Match Girl" ends?), segue effortlessly from gay and laughing wealth to stricken underclass in an evocative if unintentional juxtaposition of "haves" and "everyone else."

In the teens and '20s, as in Louis Lozowick's Pittsburgh and Abraham Walkowitz's Cityscape, we begin to see steeply rising, vertiginous skyscrapers, their pure, manly strength sometimes menacing and sometimes subverted by an almost Fat Albert-like animation. People run giggling through the streets, flirting with servicemen and "drunk as flappers," as Kurt Andersen says in his new novel, Turn of the Century. Scenes like John Sloan's Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street, from 1928, constitute the only time this exhibit shows happy people of the middle class having a good time, and one gets the sense many of these chipper girls will be putting out this evening, while over them, the El train disappears into an indigo and violet sky. It's as happy about the future as Walt Disney's long-dismantled Carousel of Progress. Guy Pne du Bois' Fete Champetre shows a verdant field (for polo, perhaps?) filled with stylish fat girls whose salmon tank dresses reflect onto their round arms. A woman with her wide back to us holds a bunch of balloons as round and dense as a giant raspberry, and the fluid curvilinear forms and saturated fairy-tale colors somehow evoke James and the Giant Peach. But in only a year, the stock market will crash.

We move quickly through gorgeous documents of the era's bread and circuses: boxing matches, aquariums, moving pictures and carnivals. And then come Social Realist tracts like Reginald Marsh's Death Avenue (11th Avenue, home to New York City's meat district), the progress of smokestacks and locomotives obliterating the futures of the hunched men walking through the gritty cold.

Marsh is also responsible for one of the more shocking pictures in the exhibit. Minsky's Chorus, from 1935 (the heart of the Depression), features big-breasted dancing girls in costumes that look like bras and those Dolphin shorts from the '70s, undulating pendulously. Their bodies are fantastic, their legs encased in garters, and their faces slathered with pancake makeup and false eyelashes. His Ten Cents a Dance is happy, despite its desperate gaiety. A vivacious, wide-eyed blonde, dumb as a golden retriever and just as likable, leans on a partition, her huge bazooms and round belly poured into a slinky silver dress. The colors are muted, the light faded, and our heroine is jammed into what might as well be a cattle car with too many other taxi dancers to count. But one senses she'll make her money, have a good time and pay her rent, even if the others don't.

Paul Cadmus' Shore Leave is equally decadent, with the pinks and oranges of a Michelangelo and the bulbous asses of a Tom of Finland. Women and men cruise and pile on one another like a giant game of Twister. In the background, two men pick each other up.

But from the scandalous, the exhibit moves to the faceless. As the '40s begin, the artists abandon their novelistic depictions of people for cold but booming faades; it's as if the Depression and the war that followed hurt so many so much that we couldn't look at vulnerable humans anymore. The cities grow, strong and proud, and their inhabitants and their struggles are not only irrelevant but also invisible. It's all in the geometry, the angle—and the once proud (feminine) curve is replaced in toto with the masculine straight line. This part of the exhibit, while firm and architectural, is sterile and frightening. A little would have gone a long way. Let's blame Europe, shall we?

"In the City: Urban Views 1900-1940" at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. Through Jan. 23. Free.


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