Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 26, 2016
Carmenita Higginbotham The Urban Scene: Race, Reginald Marsh, and American Art University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015. 224 pp.; 36 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $79.95 (9780271063935)

The Urban Scene: Race, Reginald Marsh, and American Art is a visually astute, well-researched account of this important American artist as a discerning observer of the changing nature of urban life in the first decades of the twentieth century. Carmenita Higginbotham seamlessly merges theoretical insight, social history, formal analysis, and primary sources in service of an argument that delivers a welcome challenge to settled wisdom on the cultural production of this period. The book is significant because of the author’s command of a wide range of secondary literature and ability to extrapolate and further develop conceptual formations that are especially pertinent to the explication of visual culture, particularly as they are brought to bear on representations of race. A scholarly project undertaken with clarity and precision, The Urban Scene is an important and innovative contribution to the literature on American culture and art during the interwar decades.

As Higginbotham states in the introduction, the book concerns itself with “urban audiences looking at raced bodies” (3) and “the cultural work performed by racial representation” (5) in picturing the public spaces of the modern city. By broadening our understanding of Reginald Marsh’s racial subject matter, Higginbotham does more than alter the discursive frame around the artist. Her thesis—that Marsh’s images of integrated urban spaces are simultaneously emblematic of modernity and provocative representations of the destabilized racial and gender boundaries that result from it—is a persuasive account of how people experienced cities in the early twentieth century and how viewers navigate visual constructions of them. She successfully demonstrates how Marsh’s paintings map the integrated public spaces of the city, from mass transit to Coney Island, raising questions about presumptive boundaries and the rules of interracial contact.

Higginbotham draws responsibly on extant scholarship and also goes beyond it. There is a great deal of literature on the discourse of “whiteness” as a mechanism to enforce deeply guarded distinctions between ethnicity and race in the context of immigration and assimilation. As Higginbotham points out, in the early twentieth century this discourse ensured that some populations enjoyed privileged access to a shared national identity and superior social standing while others were denied it. But her work joins the growing body of scholarship that seeks to disengage the visual production of these years from the standard tropes of simplistic cultural nationalism and identity politics, including Jacqueline Francis’s Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012) (click here for review). Through these images, Higginbotham’s specific contribution is to demonstrate how “black figures acted as substantive cultural and visual markers” (3) that “came to frame anxieties about urban culture, specifically regarding the impact of African Americans on New York’s turbulent social landscape” (7).

Higginbotham is well served in these discussions by carefully honed skills at visual analysis and a broad engagement with both the primary sources and secondary literature on this period. Representation is weighed against the critical record and the social forces that shaped the artist’s reception and production. She maps the pictorial genres in which Marsh worked and to which he made substantive and highly original contributions. Through this study we better understand Marsh as a modern American artist interested in the complexity of racial identity and the instability of urban space. Comparative references to the work of Marsh’s peers extend the study of intersecting social and aesthetic issues into the urban scenes of artists such as John Sloan, Palmer Hayden, Thomas Hart Benton, and Archibald Motley.

The assertion that black bodies occupy and destabilize urban space in Marsh’s dance hall, subway, street, and beach scenes is well supported through close readings of iconic images such as Why Not Use the “L”? (1930), Pip and Flip: Twins of the Yucatan (1932), Negroes on Rockaway Beach (1934), Tuesday Night at the Savoy Ballroom (1930), and Belmont Hotel (1933). Higginbotham develops rich discussions around these representations that merge ideas about sexuality, class and race privilege, and patterns of social interaction and social engineering. In the aggregate, this a compelling explication of the urban black body as a complex signifier that derives its meaning and power through a construction of difference heavily dependent on specific contrasts and contingencies.

The book is structured topically, with each chapter building from the analysis of key images. Marsh’s paintings are placed in conversation with a variety of other media, inclusive of graphic art, photography, and contemporary cartoons. She begins with an introductory chapter on Marsh, “The Urban Artist.” This general biographical and critical account is followed by “Reading Public Spaces,” which considers images by Marsh and other artists of mass transit and the spectacle of mass entertainment provided by sites such as Coney Island. In the chapter entitled “Girl Watching in the City,” High Yaller (1936), Marsh’s depiction of a stunning contemporary black women walking down a Harlem street, serves as a point of departure for observations about the politics of the female body in the urban landscape, in particular the bodies of black women that served as markers of race as well as sexuality and class.

The chapter “The Art of Slumming” revisits the familiar ground of popular entertainment and racial interaction during what has become known as the Harlem Renaissance. While the thesis that white artists and intellectuals were “slumming” in Harlem during these years is not particularly original, Higginbotham adds fresh insights into the well-worn clichés about primitivism that often dominate these discussions. She locates the practice of picturing Harlem in earlier visual traditions derived from progressive social reform impulses to expose the conditions of urban poverty. Higginbotham then notes that by the 1920s these political motives gave way to an understanding of Harlem as a relatively safe place to engage in transgressive experiences centered on its much sought-after nightlife. The social spaces of Harlem as constructed in Marsh’s paintings are neither slums nor reifications of a strictly segregated universe, but rather dynamic, familiar signifiers of a sophisticated, fluid culture steeped in modernity and animated by the possibility of interracial contact.

Similarly, Higginbotham’s observations about caricatures and stereotypes in racial representation, while familiar, demonstrate sensitivity to the complex functioning of these images. Her comparative remarks on Motley’s works are especially instructive. While she generally engages scholarship in a productive way, her use of recent literature on jazz and visual culture in this chapter seems somewhat perfunctory. Conversely, the analysis of the social and racial dynamics at the Savoy provides unique insight into a cultural landscape that has been carefully scrutinized by generations of scholars. Especially engaging are the comparisons she draws between these representations and Marsh’s paintings of dance marathons; in this context, both emerge as far more complex images.

At times Higginbotham’s argument is somewhat weakened by an instrumental collapsing of the interwar decades that does not always recognize important differences between them. These distinctions are sharpened in the final chapter, “Seeing Poverty,” which deals with representations specifically focused on the collective experience of the Depression in contrast to the perception of poverty as a pervasive condition for certain kinds of individuals. The bums and vagrants that occupy Marsh’s paintings before and after the onset of the Depression are differentiated by the need to redefine poverty in relation to the concept of work and the meaning of the black male body in the urban landscape.

Belmont Hotel, for example, populated as it is with various African American male “types,” is not a classic breadline image; it is rather an image of simple loitering. As Higginbotham argues, the men “appear too upright and too self-possessed to be regarded as poignant urban spectacles, and they act neither eager for nor appropriately ashamed of their need for public relief” (144). As such, they also appear less deserving than their unemployed white counterparts for whom not working is an unnatural, tragic condition. Images of southern blacks working in rural contexts were far more acceptable to Marsh’s audience insofar as they detached the black male body from the humiliating circumstances of widespread white urban unemployment. These were more easily positioned within “popular liberal discourse as exploited workers who suffered systematic victimization” (150). The author aptly demonstrates that Marsh worked within a wide range of representational possibilities, suggesting both ambiguity and ambivalence toward the black male body as a subject. In the aggregate, however, these images of African American men “provided the middle class with a modern aesthetic vocabulary for urban poverty that was spatially isolated and directed away from white urbanity” (169).

One might quibble with some of Higginbotham’s readings of various images, but her observations about the rhetorical and denotative function of select visual details in Marsh’s urban scenes will without question change the way people look at this body of work. The assertion that Marsh depicts a city fundamentally altered by the presence of the black body in ways that embody simultaneously progressive modernity, anxiety, and transgression is vigorously argued and convincing. Overall this is an impressive achievement.

Mary Ann Calo
Batza Professor of Art and Art History, Colgate University