Sex, Modernism, and New York

Sex is the story in Turning Out the Light (1905). A smiling woman kneels and leans across the bed with one hand on the gas lamp valve and the other holding up her soon-to-be-shed nightgown. Beside her, a man watches and waits, hands behind his head, anticipating what’s not said in the title of John Sloan’s etching. As in other prints in Sloan’s “New York City Life” series, Turning Out the Light captures a private moment of ordinary people doing ordinary things. But these pictures were far from ordinary in the American art world. They were revolutionary and were part of a new style: a gritty realism of urban scenes.

A similar art revolution had occurred fifty years earlier in France, where the painter Gustave Courbet and the political cartoonist Honoré Daumier fathered a new Realism, much in contrast to the prevailing idealistic style. In Courbet’s tradition-shattering painting The Stone Breakers (1849–1850), two ordinary men in rough clothes are building a stone road. They are painted life-size, without sentiment or idealization, neither heroic nor pathetic. In contrast, Daumier took liberties with the human figure, frequently distorting the features of the targets of his cartoons (e.g., a scowling judge or an obese priest). The distinctive feature of their art was that neither showed any mercy: people were there to be seen, with warts and all, busy with their mundane lives. This was dramatically different from the formal portraits, landscapes, and representations of ancient legends that had dominated much of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art.

The torchbearer for the new American Realism was Robert Henri, a painter and teacher who studied in France, made frequent trips there, and was much influenced by European Realism. Despite the spelling of his name (which was Americanized in pronunciation to HEN-rye), he was not French. His mother had adopted the name after his professional gambler father was indicted for manslaughter. A change of surname and a move from Denver to the East, eventually Philadelphia, provided a fresh start.

Nor was Henri a printmaker. His only effort in this medium was the tiny Paris Street Scene (1904) with the familiar mansard roofs, horse-drawn carriages, broad avenues, and leafy trees favored by so many Parisian artists. Henri’s little scene, more Impressionist than Realist in style, was etched ten years after he’d made a similar drawing on a trip to Paris. But it was Henri’s Realist paintings, and his teaching, that led to the new American school.

In Philadelphia, Henri met young newspaper illustrators who would form the core of this new school, later called the Eight, and in time, the Ashcan School, a reference to rough reality. Its most prominent members were the painters William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn, and the painter and printmaker John Sloan. They all adopted Henri’s doctrines and approach, and a new style was born: “…less effete, less genteel, more energetic and inclusive of the range of modern experience.”

John Sloan was well suited for the new American Realism. As a teenager in the 1880s, he had been fascinated by an illustrated edition of Rabelais, and immediately “found within himself a taste for earthy, erotic humor that he would never lose.” This taste was reflected in some of his newspaper illustrations, to the discomfort of his editors. With Henri’s guidance and friendship, Sloan abandoned the life of a salaried illustrator, moved to New York (where Henri had moved in 1900), and became a full-time artist. Henri, Sloan and their fellow “Eights” were not welcome to exhibit at the National Academy of Art, but they got some notice at private galleries, and Sloan’s New York City Life etchings were reviewed positively in the press.

Turning Out the Light was the only overtly erotic image in the “New York City Life” series, but there is a sense of sex in many of the prints. Children stare and snicker at a corset on a manikin in a store window. A peeping Tom on a tenement rooftop spies on a partly dressed woman combing her hair. Unmade beds are prevalent. In Roofs, Summer Night, apartment dwellers have carried their mattresses and pillows to the roof, seeking cool air and sleeping communally on a hot night. Man, Wife, and Child is an intimate family scene of a friendly wrestling match. Sloan’s characters are far from beautiful; they have plain looks and wear plain clothes (and very plain underclothes). This was indeed a new American art.

Sloan’s art fit well with our personal surroundings, once we’d exited the subway from Wall Street and returned home to Greenwich Village. My wife, Reba, had an apartment in the Village when we first met, and I’d longed to live there since the 1950s, when I’d prowled its bookstores and attended plays in tiny theaters while my ship was in dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Our first home was on Cornelia Street, and with its Italian bakery, small restaurants, coffee shop, frame shop, and artists’ lofts, it could have been a setting for a Sloan print. We were in love and in love with the Village, so it’s no wonder that two more Sloan prints became our favorites.

A few steps from our door was Washington Square and its Washington Memorial Arch, memorialized in Sloan’s Arch Conspirators (1917). Atop the arch, a group of six people have brought balloons, beverages, and candles, built a small fire, and are enjoying a mid-winter picnic. Among those present are the artist Marcel Duchamp (wearing a hat and standing at left), the actor Charles Ellis, Sloan with his ever-present pipe, and the instigator of the adventure, the poet Gertrude Drick, who preferred the name of “Woe,” claiming she always wished to say “Woe is me.” This intrepid group of bohemians had broken into the structure and climbed an internal stairway on a mission to liberate the Village by declaring secession from the United States and the evils of big business and small minds. Their proclamation called on President Woodrow Wilson to provide protection to the new country of Greenwich Village as one of the small nations he so passionately defended as he led America into World War I. Fortunately for us, Wilson ignored the petition, the Village remained American, and we owned a quintessential token of our home “town.”

Our other Village print by Sloan is Snowstorm in the Village (1925), the view from Sloan’s studio at the time, looking north up Sixth Avenue with the elevated train tracks — the old “El” — below and the brick Jefferson Market building complex at upper right. For New Yorkers, especially the likes of us, who came from elsewhere and adopted the city as home, the El held romantic notions of New York City past, as immortalized by Ogden Nash: Oh El, thy era is o’er; I am glad that thou are no more; But I’d hold myself lower than dirt Weren’t I glad that once thou wert.

The Jefferson Market Library is the current inhabitant of the brick tower and related buildings in the image. This structure, dating to 1875, was a courthouse, the site of Harry Thaw’s trial for the murder of architect Stanford White, later dramatized in the movie The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Mae West was tried there and convicted on obscenity charges. The inmates of the connected women’s prison subjected passersby on Greenwich Avenue to shouted taunts. Thankfully, the prison was razed and turned into a garden in 1973. But this environment was all part of John Sloan’s life and a new art style.

Sloan’s prints were attractive to us as collectors on several grounds. First, they were the forerunner of the new American Realism, which influenced American art through the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, Sloan made many prints in large editions, so they were available at low prices — mostly under $2000 in the 1980s, and not a lot more today. We liked that his prints were often narrative, such as Arch Conspirators, and that they depicted our home, Greenwich Village, in both spirit and appearance — freedom of lifestyle set in a slightly shabby environment.

The Armory Show: Modernism and Prints
Right on the heels of American Realism came another new style: Modernism, again an import from France. The famed Armory Show opened in New York in 1913 and brought Abstract, Cubist, Expressionist, and Fauvist art to a large audience. The public was shocked by, and dismissive of, the new and challenging art at the Armory Show, perhaps best exemplified by Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (famously described by one critic as “an explosion in a shingle factory”). John Sloan worked on two committees that aided the show, and he offered five of his etchings and two paintings for display. One of the etchings sold: ten dollars, a handsome price at the time. But Sloan never took to Modernism.

Many other artists were fascinated by the new styles, and eager to see the art in person. John Marin, who began his career studying art at traditional academies on the East Coast, lived in Europe from 1905 to 1911, where he wholeheartedly embraced Modernism. When he returned to the U.S., Marin affiliated with the dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his Photo-Secession gallery, known as “291” after its Fifth Avenue address. Stieglitz’s 291 was the first commercial gallery to exhibit prints that could be called Modernist, showing such French artists as Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, and Picasso. Into this exalted company came John Marin.

Marin found his greatest inspiration in the architecture of New York City, its bridges and skyscrapers. Watercolor was his preferred medium, particularly for seascapes, but in 1913 he had a burst of interest in etching, producing prints of the city, including several versions of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Woolworth Building, at the time New York’s tallest.

Woolworth Building (The Dance) (1913) is Marin at his best. The skyscraper appears to sway, an illusion frequently created when one looks straight up the side of a tall building as clouds pass overhead. In Marin’s image, people and trees slant in an opposite direction than the building, and everything seems to move. The tiny humans at ground level, dwarfed by the massive structure, seem almost threatened by the building.

Like John Marin, Louis Lozowick did not require the Armory Show to be introduced to European Modernism. Born in the Ukraine, Lozowick studied at the Kiev Art Institute until he and his family immigrated to New York in 1906. He subsequently studied at the National Academy of Design, got a degree from Ohio State University, traveled around the United States, and returned to Europe, spending two years in Berlin. There he became a member of a Modernist circle that included artists affiliated with the Bauhaus, a short-lived (1919–1933) but highly influential school of art, architecture, and design. Its founder, Walter Gropius, stated that one purpose of the Bauhaus was to “…create the new building of the future…that will one day rise toward heaven as [a] crystalline symbol.” He was describing what came to be called the International Style of architecture, a minimalist approach that made the Neo-Gothic style of the Woolworth building look ornamental. These same characteristics are found in Bauhaus-influenced art, which came to be called Constructivist — hard-edged, geometric imagery that often featured architecture or elements of machinery. Lozowick returned to the U.S. in the early 1920s to start a career as an artist and stage set designer.

New York (1925), Lozowick’s most famous print, is typical of his Constructivist-influenced art — lights shine from skyscraper windows, and a lighted El train circles the city. The buildings and train are represented in reduced and simplified form, as if all of New York had been recreated as an International Style model city.

I bought New York in 1971, an acquisition that reveals the state of the market for early twentieth-century American prints at that time. The leading salesman in our firm, like me enthused by our senior partner’s interest in prints, was a budding collector. He lived in New Jersey, not far from both the South Orange home of the Lozowicks and Milburn, where Mrs. Lozowick worked in a frame shop. Our salesman, never shy, approached Adele Lozowick about buying some of her husband’s prints. Apparently Lozowick did not have a regular dealer, so Mrs. Lozowick agreed, selling him a lot of fifteen prints, including New York, for $580. I was lucky to buy New York from him for his purchase price of seventy-five dollars. It was recently on offer at the New York Print Fair for $125,000. This is an extreme example — my experience was a fluke, and rarely repeated — but it suggests how little appreciated, valued, and collected American prints were forty years ago, particularly those by a forgotten artist.

As I read Hilton Kramer’s reviews of gallery exhibits in the Friday Times — Kramer was art critic for the newspaper — I knew where I’d be the next morning: the Witkin Gallery. Quoting Kramer, “If you have never heard of the late Kyra Markham (she was Theodore Dreiser’s mistress)…there are some pleasant surprises awaiting you in this show.” I’d never heard of Kyra Markham, and this was all I needed to know.

When I arrived at Witkin, I learned something else. The gallery described Markham as a “Fantasist,” a style new to me, also called Post-Surrealist, or Magic Realism, or in today’s vernacular, Surrealism Lite. The image was real (no Dalí drooping watches), but not quite real, just the artist adding a touch of personal fantasy, or juxtaposing real objects in an unreal order.

According to the Witkin brochure, Markham was “a large woman, dynamic, strong-willed, vigorous, hardworking, fascinating to watch…” Not lacking in confidence, she turned away from art school and, in 1913, began acting with the Chicago Little Theatre. She met Dreiser when she was twenty-one, and moved with him to New York, where they lived together for three years. Exasperated with his infidelities, she ended the relationship, and resumed her acting career in Provincetown, where friends from Greenwich Village had founded the Provincetown Players.

For much of her life, Markham alternated between the stage and the easel (and lithographic stone). Her self-portrait tells all: a veiled Lady Macbeth, (1935), with a strong jaw, large eyes, and a hint of ample bosom. The fantasy: Markham transports us to Macbeth’s Scottish castle, complete with flaming sconces on stone walls and looming parapets.

The discovery of Kyra Markham and Fantasy, and what it led to, is a typical collecting story: one discovery leads to another. Armed with what I learned at the Witkin Gallery, I went on a search for other artists of this style, and started to notice fantasy in work by artists not associated with the style.

Enquiries to dealers uncovered Enigma (The Mirror), 1937 by Helen Lundeberg, who, compared to Kyra Markham, was an overt Fantasist. A few years younger, and a continent apart, Lundeberg turned from creative writing to art. At art school in Pasadena, California, Lundeberg was inspired by her instructor Lorser Feitelson, and they partnered (and later married) and created a style they called Subjective Classicism. Lundeberg describes her art as “…the effort to embody, and to evoke, states of mind, moods, and emotions.” In his compendium on American lithographers, Clinton Adams describes Lundeberg’s work as “a personal universe of magic and mystery” and cites Enigma as “unsurpassed in its haunting authority.” Common objects — a chair, shell, torn paper, wood board, and a mirror reflecting a light bulb, all sharply realistic but bearing no relationship to each other — are carefully arranged like a classic still life. Enigma, indeed, provokes the viewer to wonder. This is very close to conventional European Surrealism, but “purged of its weirder overtones,” according to critic William Wilson, with the realistic portrayal of commonplace items.

All of Wanda Gág’s art could be considered fantasy, far removed from normal reality, and rarely a straight line. Buildings, furniture, and small objects curve, warp, and bend. Critics have attributed this feature to Gág’s love of nature, especially plants, which appear throughout her imagery, swirling and growing wildly. She loved the outdoors, as her diaries reveal: “I want to tear off all my clothes and lie among the grasses.” After a much-hated stay in New York City, Gág lived in the country, in rented farmhouses, some very ramshackle. She “took to the simple life, walking barefoot in the woods and swimming naked in nearby lakes.” She wrote extensively about her uninhibited and vigorous sex life: “It is not a matter of morality to me, it is a matter of health and art.”

My favorite Gág print puts fantasy atop her already fantastic renderings. In Lantern and Fireplace (1931–32), a scene inside a neighbor’s home, the lantern creates a fantasy light. But even more fantastic, the fire is both inside and outside the fireplace. Fantasy flames climb the chimney exterior, creating an even warmer feeling.

Thanks to Kyra Markham and Witkin Gallery, I was alert to fantasy elsewhere, and I would find it often.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, David. R. Godine, Inc., from Small Victories: One Couple’s Surprising Adventures Collecting American Prints by Dave R. Williams. Copyright © 2015.