Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 12, 2007
Rebecca Zurier Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 418 pp.; 12 color ills.; 149 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780520220188)
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From its first words, “Picture this,” Rebecca Zurier’s important new book offers readers vivid visual and intellectual insights into both Ashcan School images and the modern culture of urban New York in which they developed. Beginning with a lively evocation of the details in John Sloan’s Hairdresser’s Window (1907), Zurier analyzes the rapidly developing processes of representation, display, and active looking that shaped the city’s changing cultural milieu from the late nineteenth century into the first decades of the twentieth. What did it mean, she asks, to live in a culture of newly exciting visual spectacle provided by street advertising, printed media, cinema, and the fashionable, awkward, or eccentric self-representation of New York’s throngs of inhabitants, who both absorbed and contributed to the vitality of this increasingly scopophilic culture? How was this culture of images further shaped by working-class women and men of varied ethnic groups who claimed a new presence as American citizens, articulated through visually coded signs of identity? Zurier links these developments to Ashcan School works through their shared engagement in representational practices that she labels the “city on paper,” a visual record developed through multivalent forms of representation. This changing body of modern urban imagery formed the basis for a “thematics of sight,” Zurier argues, within which Ashcan artists sought to construct a “semiotics of authenticity” that would persuade viewers of the vital truths of these artists’ perceptions (4).

By framing her delineations of the Ashcan artists’ specific interests, strategic material, and thematic choices within the larger social contexts of New York’s changing urbanity in the early twentieth century, Zurier has constructed a richly textured scholarly narrative that substantially deepens our understanding of Ashcan works. She draws on previous scholarship (including her own essays in the exhibition catalogue Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York [Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, 1995]), as well as recent research that moves beyond art-historical studies to include work on urban modernity, print reproduction technologies, sociology and crime studies, literary studies, and more. This expansive perspective is similar to contemporary studies in American art published by the University of California Press, such as Ellen Wiley Todd’s The New Woman Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (1993) and Wanda Corn’s The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935 (1999), which present their analysis in accessible, engaging language while drawing significant theoretical insights from wide-ranging cultural and social studies.

The richness of Zurier’s book results from the way in which these multiple strands of analysis are interwoven in the introduction and the three chapters that make up part 1, “The Setting.” They are then developed further within studies of individual artists in parts 2 and 3, which present separate chapters on Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, George Bellows, George Luks, and John Sloan. One governing motif Zurier introduces to describe these artists’ viewpoints is the figure of the “mobile observer”: the man (or woman) out on the streets who is deeply engaged with looking as a form of social activity in the new urban metropolis. Challenging the objectifying stance of the traditional French flâneur, Zurier proposes that the Ashcan artists as well as other urbanites in New York participated in a culture of looking associated not only with distanced aestheticism but also curiosity, enthusiasm, and concerns with social reform. Taking up a Whitmanesque stance of embracing diversity and the unfamiliar, the Ashcan artists, she argues, remodeled flanerie from a form of looking typical of the wealthy, disinterested observer to a practice accessible to anyone with eyes and the wits to enjoy what was visible in the changing city.

A second concept to which Zurier returns repeatedly is the importance of assessing the material aspects of Ashcan style, manifested in works that range from studies and prints to finished paintings. She shows that drawing, rather than the bravura brushwork associated with most Ashcan artists’ facture, was the key to their shared stylistic vocabulary and pictorial interests (11). Derived from the newspaper and illustration work that these artists depended on commercially, the characteristic qualities of their particular drawing styles served to intensify the sense of urban life observed on the spot and truthfully conveyed. However, this ideal of immediate responsiveness, also central to Robert Henri’s influence on the group, needed modification to produce convincing paintings of urban cultural realities. Each artist eventually broke with Henri’s goals of unmediated response to perceptual experience, Zurier argues, because conveying the complexity of social, political, and class identities demanded more than a purely intuitive visual language. While the democratizing openness of urban sociality shaped their choice of subjects, carefully structured compositional designs and distinctive viewpoints conveyed both the fragmentary and intense qualities of that experience; transient, incomplete views and peculiarly intimate themes were combined with a plethora of visual details to persuade viewers of their authenticity.

What makes this book so interesting, beginning in part 1 and then woven into Zurier’s deft handling of the artists’ biographical histories in parts 2 and 3, are her vivid excursions into the contemporary issues and pictorial techniques that grounded the artists’ conceptions of what constituted interesting subjects and what means were most suited to their depiction. In the first three chapters, Zurier sets the stage for the Ashcan School artists’ observant responses to urban phenomena. She discusses the complexity of advertising in New York that reflected the diversity of the city’s economic endeavors; the drama of visual display expressed through the advertising that appeared in business signage, window displays, and various print media; and the array of visual stimulation provided by tourist guides, postcards, demonstrations, parades, dance halls, amusement parks, theaters, and restaurants, as well as by individual citizens through their fashionable clothing and “conspicuous personal display” (52). All these venues offered many enticements to “looking with propriety” (66). At the same time, this very visual excess prompted campaigns for reform and censorship, whose effects Zurier considers as part of the spectrum of possible ways of “looking” at the urban spectacle. The focus on “visual scrutiny” as a “common preoccupation” of urban life (45) leads her to consider links to American literature, particularly the works of Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, and other realist writers who embraced the complexity and vitality of American culture at the turn of the century.

Zurier traces her conception of the “mobile observer” back through both verbal and visual sources, from its roots in the ironic stance of eighteenth-century travel accounts to the tourist reporters who published lively popular discourses in cheap periodicals in the nineteenth century, along with urban journalism, horror stories, ethnographic studies, and reformist accounts of how the “other half” lived that were popular both in the United States and Europe. She proposes that the Ashcan artists faced the challenge of deciding whether to locate themselves as outsiders/spectators (the flâneur’s approach) or insiders/participants in relation to the diversity and drama of visual modernity (102–103). These intellectual trajectories take us well beyond prior discussions of the artists’ primary education in newspaper work or their fascination with immigrant social life, although Zurier also investigates those more typical aspects of Ashcan School work. Each of these topics is taken up and explored in intriguing detail, often reappearing in a slightly different guise in subsequent chapters whenever relevant.

The chapters on individual artists provide nuanced biographical narratives, stressing the influences of education, travel in Europe, and involvement with newspaper illustration or other forms of commercial art that were necessary for survival but also shaped the ways in which each artist drew on earlier experience once he was situated in New York and working independently. But they also go well beyond biography, attending to each artist’s material choices of media and thematic options, as well continuing to link their works to broader questions about what it meant to engage with urban experience at a particular moment of culture and history. Discussing Henri’s goals, Zurier explores issues related to his stereotyping of characters and problematic engagement with forms of racialized discourse that were fraught with bias. In the chapter on Shinn, she introduces the question of how standards of pictorial truth changed from minutely described detail to lack of finish as the signifying quality of direct observation. Her investigation of Glackens begins with a discussion of his highly admired techniques for representing crowds, and then turns to an analysis of cartooning and the problem of identifying social types through visual traits and characteristic attitudes, along with the question of whether artistic interest in sites that were outside the artists’ own neighborhoods constituted a celebration of local diversity or an outsider’s fascination with what seemed exotic and different. Images of children by both Bellows and Luks provide Zurier with an opportunity to consider how children of the poor were represented in both cartooning and social-reform publications, and how censorship campaigns against violence and obscenity were problematized by class discrimination and bias. In her discussion of Bellows’s fight pictures, she returns to the question of how artists positioned themselves as outsiders or insiders, noting Bellows’s attention to the visual self-display of the crowd while including his own self-portrait, in the audience but at its edge, in several paintings.

In her final chapter, which focuses on Sloan, Zurier argues that his works most particularly take up a storytelling trajectory whose goals and difficulties exemplify the Ashcan School artists’ efforts to locate themselves both within and outside of this fascination with the new visuality of New York’s urban culture. This allows her to return once again to the questions that ground her entire study, questions about how artists constructed codes of visual legibility and spectatorial authenticity through their self-positioning in relation to their subjects. She emphasizes that Sloan’s process of creating pictorial narratives differed from that of his peers; he rarely utilized a sketchbook, but worked largely from memory to construct emotionally engaging yet distanced scenes that epitomized the satisfactions and tensions inherent in modern spectatorial interchange. Citing the array of scholarship focused specifically on Sloan’s depictions of women, which have limned his role as ranging from engaged observer to voyeuristic exploiter of the open windows and rooftop communality that reflected the exigencies of working-class urban crowding, Zurier avoids legitimating either position. She argues instead that this diversity of readings demonstrates the richness of Sloan’s thematic choices and their potential for interpretive exploration, and she connects his interests to the ideal of “looking without shame” that was celebrated in Whitman’s poetry. Providing readers with a newly complicated rendering of Sloan’s complex motives and responses to what he perceived of women’s experiences, Zurier also displays her understanding of the importance of gender in early twentieth-century social life by noting throughout the book the newly visible public presence of women in urban New York and the contributions of women writers, travelers, and social critics to discourses of urban modernity.

In her discussion of Sloan’s significance, Zurier considers several pictures in detail in order to compare them to related works by other artists and to link his pictorial interests to recent concepts of narrative theory used to characterize literature by Dickens and Balzac, among others. One notion that seems particularly resonant is the concept of “double time structuring,” which allows the viewer to appreciate something in the picture that is not yet apprehensible to the people portrayed (275). Sloan’s images also frequently include carefully selected visual elements that convey important information to an observant viewer, and Zurier links this quality to tenets of literary realism that required each detail to express important contextual cues to a scene’s importance. Nevertheless, she finds that Sloan’s pictures provided “stories without endings,” an ambiguity that frustrated some of his contemporaries. She quotes parts of this criticism, but argues that the ambiguities and lack of closure inherent in many of his works denote “the limitations of the knowledge that urban visuality could provide” (302). Both artist and viewer, she suggests, ultimately have to accept the mystery that lies behind even the most complex significations of visual display.

Throughout Picturing the City, Zurier weaves Ashcan School works back into the larger cultural conflicts and debates of their era, as visual aspects of modern life took root in urban experience and the “culture of looking” became a national characteristic. She seeks to reposition the practice of looking at the world with desire and interest as a provocative social phenomenon in early twentieth-century urban life, one grounded in a vital rather than passive form of spectatorship, which acknowledged “strangers with interest rather than apprehension or distaste” (18). Although she notes that there were many aspects of urban life not included in Ashcan School works, at their best they proposed a new kind of engaged looking that enriched the experience and knowledge of the city for its inhabitants, whether artists or ordinary citizens.

With its lively and complex analysis, Zurier’s book makes an invaluable contribution to Ashcan School studies, building on but going substantially beyond the essays in Metropolitan Lives. Its organization works well except for the perplexing editorial decision to title part 2 “The Artists” and segregate the chapter on Sloan into part 3 with no explanation. Its pages offer a wealth of fascinating comparative illustrations of contemporary architectural photography, urban monuments, cartoons, different modes of portraiture, reportorial news drawings, and artists’ sketches and compositional diagrams. As is typical of most university press publications today, the illustrations are in black and white with the exception of a small center section of color reproductions, making this reader even more grateful for the largesse of color plates in the earlier catalogue, funded by the Smithsonian American Art Museum through a sequence of special gifts. The wide-ranging bibliography, mirroring the expansive approach of the text, will be useful to scholars and students alike. Overall, Picturing the City is an outstanding example of the important work being done by Americanist scholars who combine deeply engaged social and cultural studies, nuanced discussion of individual artists’ ideas and interests, a discerning eye, and a gift for vivid prose to knit these together. Beginning and ending with incisive descriptions of visual experience, Zurier’s study offers provocative, deeply thoughtful insights into what it meant to live in an early version of the culture of spectacle that we still inhabit today.

Helen Langa
Associate Professor, Art History, Department of Art, American University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.