Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 6, 2017
Sarah Kate Gillespie, Janice Simon, Meredith E. Ward, and Kimberly Orcutt Icon of Modernism: Representing the Brooklyn Bridge, 1883–1950 Exh. cat. Athens: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2016. 126 pp.; 42 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780915977956)
Exhibition schedule: Georgia Museum of Art, September 17–December 11, 2016
Installation view, Icon of Modernism: Representing the Brooklyn Bridge, 1883–1950, Georgia Museum of Art, 2016 (photograph © 2016; provided by the Georgia Museum of Art)

The forty works featured in Icon of Modernism: Representing the Brooklyn Bridge, 1883–1950 illustrate the influence that the imposing New York architectural landmark has had on modernist artists of varying stripes since its completion in 1883 to just after the Second World War. Included are a mix of paintings, works on paper, and photographs executed in several modernist styles from American Impressionism to Surrealism that depict the bridge from key vantage points. In fact, in the accompanying exhibition catalogue curator Sarah Kate Gillespie identifies three distinct categories of bridge imagery, the first being “views of the long sweep of the bridge; second, a focus on the towers; and third, a scene viewed through the bridge’s grid of cables” (12). Regardless of medium or style, the works in the show more or less adhere to these three types of views, permitting ready comparisons across time. Gillespie further examines the impulse of artists to depict the bridge as reflecting a desire to celebrate its modernity or alternately as a critique of modern urban life and its technological wonders.

The Georgia Museum of Art may not seem the most likely venue for an exhibition focused on this iconic New York landmark, but at the heart of this show is an unexpected local story. Descendants of bridge builder John A. Roebling for many years made their home in Athens, Georgia. This little-known connection is both a strength and weakness of the show, offering an intriguing rationale for the exhibition that at times can seem slim. I found myself wanting to know more about the Georgia Roeblings, but the show’s focus on the bridge’s iconography offered little insight into this connection. This was not unwarranted, as the Roeblings offered more of a pretext than a subject for Icon of Modernism since none of the works in the exhibition came directly from the family. Yet the museum has collected a good number of works featuring the Brooklyn Bridge because of its long-standing relationship with the Roebling family, and it is worthwhile to see these images contextualized within the broader exhibition with some well-chosen loans. In this way, the show does not so much stake out new territory as provide an opportunity for a southern audience less familiar with the bridge to learn more about its iconic status among modern artists.

The museum’s handsome catalogue builds upon preexisting studies of the bridge and its history by historians David McCollough, Alan Trachtenberg, and Richard Haw. Unfortunately, this historical material is not especially well integrated into the exhibition, which hews to an iconographic approach and does not refer explicitly to the history of the bridge itself. While a rehearsal of the bridge’s origins arguably extends beyond the high-art focus of the show, I found that the groups of students that I took to see the exhibition missed the point of why the bridge itself was important. This could, perhaps, have been rectified with a text panel and even the inclusion of some earlier print or periodical images to precede the works in the show. This would also have bound the exhibition and its catalogue together more neatly as such popular representations of the bridge are discussed in an essay by Janice Simon. These quibbles aside, anyone familiar with the bridge encountered a rich harvest of material for their consideration in the handsomely installed galleries.

These consisted of four rooms of unequal size. The largest and first gallery included the earliest works, starting with William Louis Sonntag’s watercolor and tempera Brooklyn Bridge (ca. 1895), but also ranged up to 1949 with the inclusion of two studies of the bridge by Georgia O’Keeffe. The bulk of the works in this gallery were done in oil, but other media were also included, especially toward the far wall of the gallery, which led to a smaller more intimate gallery filled with photographs. Included in the first section of the large gallery were impressive oils by Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson, and Jonas Lie. Many of these images represented impressionist and realist tendencies that contrasted with the later more fragmented modernist views seen in the final two galleries. Yet the first gallery also included the works of modernists who are a bit harder to classify according to strict stylistic categories. For example, on the opening partition wall of the exhibition visitors were greeted by Ernest Lawson’s tonally muted Brooklyn Bridge (1917–20), while on the back side was Louis Lozowick’s vibrantly colored and slightly abstracted Painting Sketch No 2—New York (1922). The transition between the pair was jarring yet seemed to present two sides of the same coin as the dates of the works are so close. Representational distinctions throughout the show were not strictly temporal but reflected coexisting artistic styles, permitting the bridge to be seen differently at roughly the same moment. Because artists of the same period treated the bridge so differently, the show did not rely on an insistent chronological arrangement. This mostly served the exhibition well as most of the fragmented and abstracted works were hung together in the final two galleries. The outlier here was O’Keeffe, whose sketches of the bridge’s Gothic towers, hung not far from the Impressionists and Ashcan School artists, instead of with kindred spirits like John Marin and Joseph Stella.

The small photography gallery following the large initial space served as a transition between the two modernist painting clusters. In this gem-like room the photographs were able to sing, especially in the section that focused on Walker Evan’s collaboration with Hart Crane on the latter’s poem The Bridge (1930). Gillespie’s catalogue essay on photography and the Brooklyn Bridge connects with and expands upon the works in this section and on those photographs included in other parts of the exhibition. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the show was to see photographs and works on paper so neatly integrated into the exhibition, at times holding their own against the big oils in open defiance of traditional hierarchies.

The final two galleries highlighted the most abstracted views of the bridge in the exhibition, with work by Marin and Stella serving as focal points. The Marins clustered together helped to illustrate the evolution of his approach to the bridge—from more traditional early views from the 1910s to the abstracted images of the 1930s—during which Marin scholar and catalogue author Meredith E. Ward suggests the bridge “came to stand for the city itself, a cipher of urban life and an iconic symbol of American promise and progress” (61). Opposite the Marins hung a wall of works on paper by artists less well known, including several striking images by émigrés that touch on the impact of the bridge on newcomers to the city. A twilight aquatint view of the bridge and city by Czech artist Tavík František Šimon offered a startlingly different impression of the bridge from a vantage point on the bridge itself making use of the gridded cabling as a screen for this urban view.

The final room featured works influenced by Surrealism, such as O. Louis Guglielmi’s The Bridge (1942), which incorporates fantastic imagery such as a violin bridge positioned near one of the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. Chinese American artist Yun Gee’s Wheels: Industrial New York (1932) offers a critique of modern urban life with its complex whirl of imagery in which the bridge is but one stylized component, its gothic towers rendered nearly unrecognizable. To this mix was added photographer Weegee’s punning Striking Beauty, showing the bridge and city view ruptured by a lightning strike (1940). While this might seem the end of the trajectory, the gallery continues with Stella’s work. Made in the 1910s and 1920s, they take the viewer backward chronologically and unlike the Marins seem a bit weak, being comprised almost entirely of studies. Since the room offered a possible alternate entrance to the exhibition, the placement of Stella’s work might have been intended to draw the eye of visitors from the connecting gallery, but it would have made more sense to reverse the order of the room and conclude with Weegee and the Surrealists. The lack of a big Stella did not mar the show, but it did make the section devoted to him a bit less impressive. Kimberly Orcutt’s excellent essay about Stella’s bridge pictures helped to fill this gap.

A bonus of the exhibition was that it fed into a related student-curated show called Man’s Canyons: New York City on Paper. These works helped to expand the New York theme, if stepping away from the bridge, and allow for continued study of the urban subject. In all, the exhibitions offered a welcome opportunity to see works by major New York artists and consider the role that the iconic Brooklyn Bridge played in American modernism.

Akela Reason
Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Georgia