I must admit: I was not terribly excited about reviewing “Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York’s Rivers, 1900-1940,” the Norton Museum’s latest exhibition. What’s the appeal, I thought, of viewing painting after painting of the Brooklyn Bridge, billowing smokestacks, and rolling rivers that helped connect the five boroughs at the dawn of the 20th century? It didn’t sound sexy, and I thought I wouldn’t relate to it.
I’ll be the first to admit when my skepticism turns out to be wrong, however, and this was certainly one of those times. The exhibition’s geographic and chronological scope may be limited, but the styles and textures and commentary hidden within the same Industrial Age icons present a vast spectrum of American art—not all of it painted by Americans, by the way, a trend that parallels the onrush of immigrants that flooded the city and helped build the very structures these artists depicted.
The first painting in the exhibit, Gifford Beal’s “On the Hudson at Newburgh,” is staggering yet conventional—a patriotic vision of America on the brink of World War I, with a baby-clutching mother standing on a sidewalk overlooking the flag-waving pomp. It’s a work of beauty that could have been a still from a John Ford film, but the painting is more of a preamble to “Industrial Sublime,” a vision of largely unspoiled land before the encroachment, for better or worse, of industry. The rest of the exhibition explores the impact of industrialization on art and on society, looking at it from every angle, and almost always with oil on canvas.
The way the exhibition is curated, the early vistas take a largely romantic view of the skyscrapers standing like gleaming sentinels over the great bays, capturing the crepuscular light hovering on the newly bustling city. John Follinbee’s interpretation of “Queensboro Bridge” is blanketed in snow and overcast sky, in a glacial and beautiful rendering of New York in winter. In Robert Henri’s “East Village Embankment,” dots of snow flutter down as puffs of smoke from the tugboats seem to freeze in the air. Jonas Lie’s “Path of Gold” finds just that—a stream of golden sunlight—forming a wending line through a waterway, in a representation so vivid you just want to jump in and swim alongside the boats.
These are gorgeous visions, but they’re all cut from a similar cloth, until you get to Ernest Lawson’s “Hoboken Waterfront,” a grand, bold explosion of color and manipulation of scale that presents the essence of this rapidly developing time as literally larger than life.
From then on, it seems that anything goes, and this is where “Industrial Sublime” is most gratifying: presenting the various ways artists look afresh at the same imagery. Lawson’s “Railroad Track” manipulates color, offering a pastel-heavy visualization of train tracks that is rooted in French impressionism. Daniel Putnam Brinley’s “Hudson River View” looks like nobody else’s; it more resembles a Delft factory in Holland. Reynolds Beal was dubbed the “American Van Gogh,” and you can see the resemblance in the brazen use of color and the roiling character of his clouds in “Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge,” another uniquely colored evocation. Oscar Bluemner’s “Harlem River,” meanwhile takes an angular, cubist approach to his subject. John Sloan’s “Hudson Sky,” mounted as part of a mini section on environmentalist art in the age of industrialization, is an almost tactile vision, but it’s a magnificent escape to the past, showing us that for some artists, the way to deal with industry was to ignore it.
By the time we get to Georgia O’Keeffe, the exhibition has left the reservation of photorealism; her “East River Charcoal,” painted from her residence on the 30th floor the Shelton Hotel, is closer to an X-ray skeleton of the river than a lifelike seascape, and the primitive-style brush strokes of John Marin’s “Docks at Weehawken, Opposite New York” forgoes realism altogether, while still capturing the essence of industrial bustle.
Finally, the show shifts gears again, from increasing abstraction to subtle polemicism, with the artists using their canvases for social commentary. The sweeping romanticism of the early works give way to Arnold Hoffman’s untitled painting of Weehawken, in which the grid of trains rumbling through nature begins to look oppressive. Glenn Coleman’s “Empire State Building” is painted at a high angle, gazing up at the gleaming, phallic skyscraper while focusing equally on the ramshackle edifices it dwarfs, in a class-conscious piece betraying the artist’s socialist leanings. Junius Allen’s “Storm Over the Hudson” is a work of urban bleakness, with the glory and hope of a burgeoning industrial city fading into economic depression.
Lest it end on a downbeat note, if you go through “Industrial Sublime” in the order I did, the last painting you’ll see is Cecil Crosley Bell’s “Welcoming the Queen Mary,” a rollicking maritime image of boats full of visitors sloshing in New York Harbor. We’re back to a land of promise and opportunity, it seems—the last word in a fascinating exhibit that dutifully looks at a busy region, and a busy time, from every possible angle.
“Industrial Sublime” runs through June 22 at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission costs $12 adults and $5 children. For information, call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.