So let’s pick up right where we left off last time in this recounting of my first visit to the Metropolitan Museum in 2020. I had made a beeline to the Jackson Pollocks in the Modern and Contemporary gallery where I hung out for a while just taking in Pollock’s massive canvases. And then I visited Kiki Smith’s Lilith sculpture hanging from the wall in a stair well.
The selection I’ve chosen for Part Two is, in a sense, a little trip to various cities, as art is one of the best ways to travel in our minds when physical travel is not possible.
On my way to the rooftop I happened to pass through the small Gallery 902 where I had to stop and spend some time. The Met has titled this mini-exhibition “The Metropolis”. Here’s what the wall card says about the gathered works:
The growth of global industrial economies prompted shifts in population from rural to urban areas. Consequently, the idea of the metropolis became a powerful symbol of modern life. For many onlookers, including artists, New York was the archetypal modern city, a densely populated, dynamic space that embodied “the new.” The symbolic newness of the metropolis was often distilled in art and design in the form of the skyscraper, which, as it stretched toward the clouds, appeared to be the modern equivalent to the medieval cathedral. … An undeniable sign of human achievement, the modern city could also feel overpowering and dehumanizing.
First up, Nocturne (The General Motors Building at Columbus Circle, 1931) by O. Louis Guglielmi (American, born Egypt; 1906-1956). From the accompanying wall card:
Guglielmi depicts the General Motors Building at Columbus Circle, New York, with a draftsman’s concern for linear detail…Guglielmi felt it suggested life, “I like to evoke the feel of a street, the unseen life hidden by blank walls, its bustle and noise, the mystery of a deserted alley.”
Next up, Berlin Street (1931) by George Grosz (American, born Germany)
In Berlin Street, Grosz depicts several menacing denizens of Berlin against the backdrop of the modern metropolis, a hellish place animated by greed, cruelty, and ghoulish lust. A beggar…sits on the lower left and holds up his hat to a woman, whose garish attire and crude make-up suggest that she is most likely a prostitute. The palette of grays, browns, and blacks further emphasizes the grit and grime of city life.
And now to Paris, with Lelia Caetani (1935) by Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski) (French)
By 1935, when Marguerite Caetani, Princess Bassiano, commissioned this portrait of her daughter Lelia, Balthus had grown tired and resentful of the painting commissions that were his only source of income. Depicted in the elegant Rond-Point des Champs-Elysées in Paris, Lelia is unfashionably dressed and appears considerately older than her twenty-two years. Her limbs are elongated and she dwarfs her surroundings, awkwardly towering over the trees and lamppost. Balthus later called his stylized, unflattering, and even bizarre portraits his “monsters.”
Let’s head back to Gotham with East Side Girl (1928) by Chaim Gross, American.
Following World War I, Gross emigrated from poverty-stricken Austria to NYC, where he rose to fame in the 1930s fore his rhythmic sculptures of acrobats–one of many subjects he derived from the city. East Side Girl, an early work in his career, shows the type of “New Woman” known as a flapper, an identity disclosed by her exposed ankles, bobbed haircut, and fashionable cloche hat. As the work suggests, Gross was a proponent of direct carving, a method that stressed spontaneity in working with natural materials (here, lignum vitae, his preferred tropical hardwood).
And now, four paintings of Gotham Society by Florine Stettheimer. According to a 2016 article by Barbara Bloemink, Director of Fine Arts for Legion Group, Stettheimer was “an acute and opinionated observer of the people and rapidly changing world around her. A feminist, Stettheimer understood the provocative nature of basing her compositions on the rarely seen female point of view as well as the significance of her choice to create an overtly feminine style.”
And according to the Met Metseum, “In this series of four monumental paintings executed between 1929 and 1942, Stettheimer created extraordinary composite visions of New York’s economic, social, and cultural institutions.”
“The Cathedrals of Broadway captures the magical atmosphere of neon-lit theaters, which offered films as well as live performances. As the United States entered the Great Depression, many Americans turned to the world of entertainment to escape reality. Here, New York’s mayor Jimmy Walker throws out the first pitch of the baseball season in a cinema newsreel. An elaborate stage show takes place below the screen, while the names of famous theaters glow around the central proscenium arch. Stettheimer gives little hint of the harsh conditions that confronted many New Yorkers in the 1930s.” (Met Museum)
“The Cathedrals of Art is a fantastical portrait of the New York art world. Microcosms of three of the city’s major museums and their collections are watched over by their directors: the Museum of Modern Art (upper left), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (center), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (upper right). A gathering of art critics, dealers, and photographers of the day, including Stettheimer herself (lower right), appears around the Metropolitan’s grand staircase.” (Met Museum)
“Turning her gaze to Fifth Avenue, Stettheimer treats the spectacles of high society and consumerism with affectionate humor. A newly wedded couple emerges from a church, ready to begin a life of excess and acquisition. Floating above them are the names of New York’s most exclusive shops and food establishments; “Tiffany’s” is spelled out in jeweled letters, and “Altman’s” is shaped from fine home furnishings. At right, Stettheimer and her sisters exit a limousine near Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded Sherman Monument. Like the other three paintings in the series, a gilded frame of the artist’s design surrounds the canvas.” (Met Museum)
“This work [The Cathedrals of Wall Street, 1939] unites various public figures with the major financial establishments of the day, suggesting the close relationship between politics and big business in New York. The reimagined facade of the New York Stock Exchange pays homage to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the financial leaders Bernard Baruch, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. Perhaps as a warning against the temptations of earthly riches and power, Stettheimer adds a group of Salvation Army workers. The artist also depicts herself; she offers a bouquet of flowers to the brightly gilded sculpture of George Washington outside the former Subtreasury Building.” (Met Museum)
We’ll close out this tour with two beautiful works of art: Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale Dine Out (1924) by Guy Pène du Bois and the maple wood and Bakelite Skyscraper by Paul T. Frankl. Once more, here are the museum’s notes on these two works:
By the 1920s, the skyscraper was a symbol of American modernity. Here, Frankl uses maple wood and Bakelite to suggest the jagged, upward-reaching outline of a New York skyscraper. By breaking with the constraints of the past, this towering architectural form expressed the excitement and optimism of a new era.
Pène du Bois’s portrayals of New York’s high society between the wars frequently record the telling body language of his protagonists. This commissioned work depicts Chester Dale (a wealthy investment banker and prominent art collector) and his first wife, Maud (a painter and writer), seated stiffly in the fashionable Hotel Brevoort.