How To Look at a City

Something in the air gives Culturebox the sense that the city is about to vanish as a cultural subject. Suburbs are where most Americans live and vote. Suburban imagery dominates our visual lives. When city fathers revitalize their ailing centers, the result generally has the scale and feel of an open-air shopping mall. The avant-garde has replaced its noir fashions with backyard leisurewear. Arty movies (American Beauty, Happiness, The Ice Storm) and cutting-edge photography (the work of Gregory Crewdson and his followers) address themselves to suburban, not urban, life.

Click on image to see enlarged version

(Click on images to see enlarged version.)

At least that’s the thought that came to mind recently when Culturebox visited the show of contemporary New York photography at the Museum of the City of New York. The galleries here are filled with familiar, if accomplished, genre pictures. There are the street scenes set on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There are the postcards from the city’s outer limits–the monumentalist forms of the urban jungle at a Queens Plaza elevated train and a moonscape-like highway interchange in Flushing. There’s the constructivist elegance of the urban infrastructure, the glazed eyes of the woman trapped in the soul-deadening world of art commerce, the ghostly evocations of abandoned warehouses.

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Luckily, right now you can also see a show that offers a fresher take on the city, perhaps because the city was a much newer topic when these works were made. The story of American urban art begins not with photography (even if it seems to have ended there) but with the kind of paintings that would eventually make such photography inevitable. Some of these are the small, genteel, and ever so slightly melancholy canvases of painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), which are currently on display in the Brooklyn Museum.

When people think of Chase, if they do, they generally think of a painter of portraits and beautiful Long Island seascapes, but this show, curated by Barbara Dayer Gallati, a Brooklyn Museum curator who happens to be a Chase expert, focuses on the years between 1886 and 1890, when he became one of the first American painters to take snapshots, as it were, of city life. Chase’s contemporary Childe Hassam, did so as well, and, Click on image to see enlarged version some have thought, to better effect. But Hassam’s eye was never as idiosyncratic or as personal as Chase’s. Hassam preferred the long view, Chase the scene of almost domestic female tranquility found in the public domain. The majority of Chase’s urban canvases combined figure painting with landscapes, featuring women sitting, walking, or posing in city parks.

It’s hard for us to understand how many taboos these female urban pastorals flirted with violating when they were first displayed. In the mid-1880s, parks were a relatively new addition to the geography of American cities (Central Park opened to the public in 1858), and middle-class women were just beginning to enjoy the social privilege of venturing out alone. Chase, organizing his empty landscapes around solitary women, almost all of them dressed in white and gazing discreetly into the middle distance, was preaching a message of bourgeois urban improvement. He was borrowing from the vision of his near-contemporaries, Central and Prospect Park designers Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who saw parks as a means of assimilating the masses, of teaching them to be cleaner and more disciplined citizens. Nineteenth-century parks, like 19th-century women, were thought to be a civilizing force. Chase’s parkscapes had a sort of circular predictive logic: By painting idealized respectable women into parks, he suggested that parks would turn cities into places where real respectable women could freely roam.

But the city hadn’t been entirely gentrified in 1887, when Chase painted In Brooklyn Navy Yard. By placing his female figure in the middle of a terrain (the Naval commander’s gardens) traditionally thought of as male, Chase was leading his viewer to a series of tense questions: What was she doing all by herself? Was she on her way to an assignation? Would she be harassed or molested? Click on image to see enlarged version Would her seemingly innocent stroll result in a loss of respectability?  In The Nursery (1890), set in Central Park, a woman leans forward in a most unladylike fashion, staring at the viewer and cavalierly dangling a bunch of flowers. Her pose hints at an even more ominous outcome than is likely in In Brooklyn Navy Yard. Everyone knew you weren’t allowed to pick flowers from the Central Park nursery.

Chase’s choice of style aligned him with an international avant-garde associated with the very latest in modernity and urbanity. Trained as a student in the dramatic gestures and contrasty colors of the Munich schools, Chase chose to paint these canvases with the mildly apparent brushstrokes and light-charged plein-air palette of the French Impressionists, thereby becoming the first American to work in that mode. Later in his career, Chase would be criticized for being excessively realistic–for being too much like, as one of his detractors put it, a camera. But in some ways it was he and his French counterparts whom the camera had already come to imitate. Not for him or them the aerial eye that previous urban painters had posited in order to Click on image to see enlarged versionobtain an overview of a city’s teeming commercial activities and architectural and social complexities. Canvases of Chase’s such as In the Park–A By-Path (1890), with its long stone wall along the left side of the painting, gave viewers the city from a human perspective, the way a man with a camera might see it. In so doing, Chase blocked the possibility of grasping the park in its entirety, of making final sense of things.

Perhaps Chase’s most American quality was that he liked to explore urban locales no one had thought to look at before. The incident that prompted the Brooklyn Museum to put on this lovely little show was Gallati’s discovery that a series of Chase paintings believed to depict Prospect Park in fact were set in an obscure corner of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood called Tompkins Park, now Von King Park, also designed by Olmsted and Vaux. (Sadly, Culturebox doesn’t have slides of these to show you.) Chase was driven to paint these pictures by an exigency Gallati also uncovered through clever detective work: Chase’s painter’s model, Alice, had conceived their child before he got around to marrying her, and the by the time they did wed, she was one day from giving birth. The two of them left his Manhattan apartment on a tide of gossip and innuendo and took up residence in his parents’ house just around the corner from Tompkins Park for the summer. The sun-dappled Tompkins Park paintings are some of the most serene and hopeful visions of civilized urban life Culturebox has ever seen. In one of the most moving, A City Park (1887), a woman looks directly at the painter, hinting perhaps at a certain resentment at his having disturbed her morning reverie but also possibly at an almost improper amusement and interest. There’s a mystery and intensity and yet an unbroachable distance between the observer and observed that the clichés of today’s street photography have somehow eroded, as if by looking too often and too banally, we have lost the power really to see our fellow citizens.

Photographs of: Communicant, Grand Street, Brooklyn, 1996; Freedom Fighters of the Lower East Side; Queens Plaza #4, Dutch Kills, Queens; Flushing Creek Near College Point Blvd.; Interior, High Bridge Tower, Manhattan, 1995; The Drawing; from a series NY Trespassing © 2000 Museum of City of New York; In Brooklyn Navy Yard; The Nursery © 2000 Manoogian Collection; In the Park © 2000 Bornemisza Collection. All rights reserved.