NEW YORK CITY — “Well-bred people are no fun to paint,” said Reginald Marsh (1898–1954); accordingly, they are conspicuously absent from his canvases. Well-bred and from an affluent family, he was fascinated by the seedy side of New York City life, whether bums in the Bowery, strippers at burlesque shows, streetwalkers, shoppers or Coney Island musclemen and bathing beauties.
With their exaggerated human forms and blatant sexuality, Marsh’s images offer intriguing glimpses of the diversity, energy, motion and vitality of the city. A master craftsman, he delineated uniquely modern American themes in styles and techniques appropriated from the Old Masters.
“Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York,” on view at the New-York Historical Society through September 1, showcases the manner in which this keen-eyed observer brought to life the popular spectacles and teeming streets of Depression-era Gotham. Guest curated by esteemed Whitney Museum of American Art curator Barbara Haskell and art historian Sasha Nicholas, this first Marsh retrospective in two decades comprises 60 paintings, drawings and prints by Marsh, plus another 30 artworks by contemporaries to put his oeuvre in context.
“No other artist matched…[Marsh’s] ability to communicate the overwhelming but exhilarating chaos of the city and the impressive vibrancy of its inhabitants,” observes Haskell. “By means of choppy, calligraphic brushwork and densely packed compositions that exude a lusty physicality, Marsh presented the agitated motion and tumultuous disarray of the city as an antidote to the isolation and psychic fragmentation of modern life.”
Born in Paris, Marsh was the offspring of two well-to-do painters. Two years later, the family moved to Nutley, N.J., and then to Mount Vernon, N.Y. Thanks to a wealthy grandfather, who made a fortune in Chicago meat-packing business, young Marsh attended Lawrenceville and Yale, where he worked on the Yale Record and met lifelong friend William Benton, later a senator from Connecticut, founder of Benton & Bowles advertising agency and avid Marsh patron/promoter.
Graduating from Yale in 1920, Marsh studied at the Art Students League under such impressive faculty members as John Sloan, George Luks and, most importantly, Kenneth Hays Miller.
As a staff artist for the New York Daily News, The New Yorker and other periodicals, he trolled the streets of Manhattan, gaining inspiration from burlesque shows, storefront windows and advertisements and teeming Coney Island.
Marsh’s art was characterized by a satirical approach to depicting what would otherwise be the city’s most tawdry subjects. Miller encouraged him to focus on buxom women, telling Marsh, “Sex is your theme.” Indeed, about one-third of the artist’s oeuvre depicted burlesque performers.
While enrolled at the Art Students League, Marsh met sculptor Betty Burroughs, whose father was a painter and curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They married a year later. (Marsh divorced his wife in 1932 and married painter Felecia Meyer.) Marsh’s early painting efforts were rewarded in 1924 with his first solo show at the Whitney Studio Club.
In 1925–26, traveling abroad for the first time since infancy, Marsh encountered masterpieces of baroque art and eagerly copied paintings by Gericault, Delacroix and Rubens. “What attracted Marsh to these artists,” says Haskell, “was their depiction of masses of bodies, mostly nude, flowing together in a tumult.” It was a style that matched his “exhilarating but overwhelming” response to Gotham.
Hooking up again with his old instructor Miller, Marsh was encouraged to incorporate intense, sketchlike brushstrokes into his paintings, while synthesizing form and design qualities typical of the baroque era with the immediate, gritty life of New York City. Renewed studies at the Art Students League with Thomas Hart Benton inspired Marsh to choose the “undulating baroque rhythms of the Midwesterner’s Michelangelo-inspired art over the static, evenly painted compositions of Miller,” according to Haskell. Benton also introduced Marsh to tempera, which became his favorite medium for years.
Departing from Miller’s austere classicism, Marsh began to crowd his Big Apple compositions with figures, infusing them with a sense of chaos, frenzied activity and overindulgence that added vitality to each piece. Moving to a studio on 14th Street overlooking Union Square placed Marsh in the midst of a lively neighborhood teeming with office workers, sales girls, shoppers and radical groups rallying for social change. Here he indulged his lifelong preoccupation with people.
After the stock market crash of 1929 resulted in devastating poverty throughout the city, Marsh focused on survivors of Black Tuesday. “This world [of poverty],” he explained, “had greater human and pictorial value than respectable society.” Although his artwork was empathetic, Marsh himself was emotionally aloof from his subjects, an outsider/voyeur who set himself apart from his underclass subjects.
In the 1930s, recognized as one of America’s leading realists, Marsh was commissioned by the US Treasury Department to carry out two important New Deal art projects: a pair of frescoes for the US Post Office in Washington, D.C., and 16 panels for the New York Customs House, depicting the daily life of the city’s shipping industry.
Soon returning to his favorite motifs, Marsh painted works like “Lucky Daredevils (The Thrill of Death),” 1931, characterized by garish colors, excessive details, awkward poses, ludicrous costumes and colorful advertisements.
Marsh returned repeatedly to favorite locations, working on the spot with sketchbooks and taking photographs for documentation. In his studio he translated his particular view of the city into complex, energized compositions of movement, plastic form and line, favoring egg tempera, watercolor and Chinese ink for their immediacy, fluidity and translucence.
He hit his stride in 1932, zeroing in on dehumanizing aspects of city life, like the cheerless, gray, cavernous bowels of subway stations. In “BMT Fourteenth Street” he showed crowds heading to and from the subway. Art historian E.P. Richardson once observed of Marsh’s urban canvases, “They are somber pictures, grim in feeling, harsh in style, but they have emotion and style.”
“Hudson Bay Fur Company” features voluptuous models wearing the company’s wares in a Broadway store window. A fascinating Marsh photograph of cold-eyed manikin busts wearing women’s hats — priced 19 cents to 69 cents — in a Fifth Avenue store window is surprisingly unnerving.
In “Flip and Pip,” crowds of garishly garbed, curvaceous young women jam the entrance to a circus sideshow in front of a billboard touting a sexy-looking duo, “Flip & Pip — Twins from Peru.” Marsh made full use of signs, as here, to amplify his visual commentary. Loiterers and stylish women converge in “Twenty Cent Movie,” a stagelike image with a profusion of signs.
Venturing uptown in “Harlem, Tuesday Night at the Savoy,” the artist painted a swirling mass of African Americans presumably waiting to enter, with one white woman and apparently her sailor boyfriend as part of the crowd.
Benton, Marsh’s close friend from Yale, who collected the artist’s work and acted as an informal dealer, once said, “I like Marsh’s paintings for the same reason that I like Marsh. I like their lustiness, vitality, their marvelous craftsmanship, their love of life, their verve and zest.” Those sentiments were echoed by critics who described Marsh’s works as “things of strange allure,” “swirling,” “tumultuous,” “sumptuous and sexy” and “grossly satirical pictures of unbuttoned sexuality.”
Marsh’s fascination with the spectacle of burlesque shows is exemplified by “Star Burlesque,” in which male spectators ogle the statuesque, scantily clad, voluptuous performer who strikes an erotic pose. A gaggle of leggy dancers in abbreviated costumes perform in front of an orchestra and well-dressed male patrons in “Minsky’s Chorus.”
Returning often to themes around his studio, Marsh depicted a jumbled mass of animated women and men crowding around store windows and sidewalk vendors in “In Fourteenth Street.” Animating details include a workman on a ladder, a vintage automobile, a young African American lad holding a sign touting “Permanent Waves $1.75” and a woman wearing sandwich boards offering “All Items 10 cents.”
Marsh’s photographs of musclemen building human pyramids and doing flips on the beach at Coney Island helped supply details for his celebrated scenes of throngs of people cavorting on or literally piled up on the sands. For Marsh, a master draftsman, Coney Island offered the world’s best life-study class in both form and content, and he painted bodies that were fleshy and filled with sexual energy. He drew figures in classical poses, “but there was no doubt what his pictures were about: you can almost smell the sweat, the cheap beer and the boiled hot dogs amidst the jostle of mingling bodies,” say art historians John Carlin and Jonathan Fineberg.
In “Coney Island Beach,” a tempera on board, all manner of bodies in skimpy bathing suits are so crammed together in a pile of sweaty humanity that beach and ocean are all but invisible. Amid the merriment, the headline on a discarded Daily News reads “U.S. THREATENS SOVIET RUSSIA,” suggesting that, for the moment at least, the frolicking crowd has little concern about world tensions.
From 1931 on Marsh was included in most major national exhibitions of American art and was considered a top contemporary artist. By the late 1940s, his New York was fading away. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was forcing burlesque halls out of the city and the el was being dismantled.
Undaunted, Marsh continued to paint through the postwar 1940s and early 1950s, even though his scenes of bygone New York were out of date. Over the years, his works won plaudits from critics and were collected by prestigious museums, but private collectors were generally uncomfortable with their “brutal honesty and uncompromising realism,” in Haskell’s words, and he made few private sales in his lifetime. Yet, as honest snippets of America’s past, Marsh’s art has enduring appeal.
Throughout the exhibition Marsh’s striking work is shown alongside paintings, prints and photographs of such contemporaries as Isabel Bishop, Paul Cadmus, Edward Laning, Miller, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Walt Kuhn, Isaac and Raphael Soyer, Ben Shahn, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Lisette Model and Weegee. Together they offer complex and contrasting visual images of New York in the turbulent 1930s.
In 1954, aged 56, Marsh suffered a heart attack and died in Dorset, Vt.
Reginald Marsh loved New York and its people, and he found the city, even at its tawdriest, filled with good spirits. His lively, often dramatic depictions of modern city life number among the most vivid artworks on that subject. A great chronicler of old New York, he captured the spirit of his time and place like no other.
Offering timeless glimpses into a world that has vanished forever, Marsh communicated the sheer energy of urban crowds, but rarely individualized people psychologically. Rather, male or female, rich or poor, white or black, they remain subordinated to the spectacle of modern life.
The fully illustrated, 176-page catalog, edited by Haskell and containing essays by five Marsh authorities, is published by the historical society in association with D Giles Limited; it sells for $55, hardcover.
The New-York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West. For information, 212-873-3400 or www.nyhistory.org.