PRINT May 1969

New York Seen

The essay below, impressions of New York by Fernand Léger, is reprinted from Cahiers d’Art, Vol. 6 Nos. 9–10, 1931. The translation is by Henry Geldzahler, Curator of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For Sara Murphy

THE MOST COLOSSAL SPECTACLE in the world. Neither cinema nor photography nor journalism has tarnished that astonishing event, New York at night seen from the fortieth floor. This city has resisted all the vulgarizations, all the curiosity of men who have tried to describe it, to copy it. It retains its freshness, its unexpectedness, its surprise for the traveler who sees it for the first time.

The steamer, losing speed, quietly changes perspectives; we look for the Statue of Liberty, the gift of France; it’s a modest little statuette, forgotten in the midst of the port at the foot of this new audacious and vertical continent. We don’t see her, she has in vain raised her arm as high as possible. It is useless, she declares, like a woman who keeps vigil over enormous moving objects, over forms which, unconcerned and majestic, overshadow her . . .

Six o’clock at night. The steamer progresses slowly. A mass as straight, high and elegant as a church appears in the distance, enveloped in pink and blue fog, soft as a pastel, compacted in the gothic style, projected toward the sky like a challenge. What is this new religion?

It is Wall Street which dominates this new world from its great height. After a six day crossing through fluid, elusive, moving and supple water, we arrive at this sheer mountain, this work of men which, slowly, extricates itself, becomes clearer, becomes explicit with its diagonals, its systematic fenestration, its metallic color. It rises violently above the level of the sea. The boat turns . . . it disappears slowly, its contours shining like armor.

This is the apotheosis of vertical architecture; a bold arrangement between architects and unscrupulous bankers, driven by necessity, an unknown elegance, unwilled, becomes explicit in this geometric abstraction. Narrowed into two metal angles, these are numerals, numbers that rise stiffly to the sky tamed by warping perspective . . .

A new world! . . .

. . . Brooklyn! Its massive docks, in shadow and in light, bridges with projecting vertical, horizontal and oblique lines . . . The birth of New York in light that increases bit by bit as we make our way into the city . . . New York with millions of luminous windows . . . How many windows? What German will figure out this original statistic?

Surprising country where the houses are taller than the churches, where the window washers are millionaires, where soccer games are played between prisoners and police!

The beauty of New York in the evening is made up of these uncountable illuminated dots and of the infinite play of flashing neon signs.

The severity of the architecture is broken by limitless fantasies of colored lights. The great spectacle begins when we arise, and this radiant vision has something special about it which no artist, no matter how great a genius, has set down, and which no set designer has yet captured. No one has “fixed the game.” This moving theater piece is played by buildings inhabited by tenants like you and me. The thousands of lights that stun us, reveal people who work modestly at their ungrateful daily tasks. This gigantic architecture is strictly functional and rational; the vertical thrust is economic.

Stories have piled up because the terrain is limited and expensive and cannot be extended; the scaffolds have risen through necessity. There is no romantic sentiment in all this, not the shadow of misplaced pride. All this astonishing orchestration is strictly utilitarian. The most beautiful spectacle “in the world” (in English) is not the work of an artist.

New York has a natural beauty, like the elements of nature, like trees, mountains and flowers. There lies its force and its variety. Wanting to make artistic use of such a subject is madness. We can modestly admire and that’s all.

At the center of this complex and organized life is a personage indispensable to this limitless city; that leading actor, the telephone. It is a member of the family. The American child makes it his toy; he drags it after him like a doll, a doll that talks, rings and laughs. It is an uninterrupted chain, like a string of mountain climbers, that links up this whole rapid, busy world.

. . . If one day the system were to die suddenly, there would be no one at its funeral, because we wouldn’t know the day or the hour of the services!

New York and the telephone appeared the same day, on the same boat, to conquer the world.

The mechanical life is there at its apogee. It has reached the top, gone past the mark . . . crisis!

American life is a series of adventures thrust optimistically to their conclusion.

All has been dared, all tried; its accomplishments are definitive. Naturally the mass of architecture had to put them to the test. All that is visible is important. Architecture and light are at the poles of their plastic expression; in the baroque it becomes monstrous.

New York and Atlantic City have movie theaters that are difficult to describe if one has not seen them; an improbable accumulation of all European and Asiatic styles; a chaos of the colossal to strike the imagination, to advertise, to do more than is “done”; the monstrous in the “too much.”

Useless staircases, incalculable numbers of employees to stun, attract and trap. That is the goal of all this vertigo which leads to disgust and to Beauty.

I like all this overflow of spectacle, all this uncontained force, even this malignity in error. It’s very young. Smilingly swallowing a sword, cutting a finger because it’s filthy . . .

Finally, that’s America. Naturally, if I stop to think I catch sight of dramas prowling about this exaggerated dynamism, but I have come to look and I’ll continue.

Letters thrown into mail chutes on the fiftieth floor heat up with friction and catch fire as they arrive in the lobby. It will be necessary to freeze the chutes—too cold, they’ll arrive in snow.

Everybody smokes in New York, “even the streets.” Young girls have told me that smoking during a meal is distracting and keeps you from gaining weight, an unexpected relationship between the cigarette and elegance.

. . . In daylight New York is too severe; it lacks color and if the weather is grey it becomes a city of lead.

Why not color the buildings? In the country of inventions what kind of gap is this?

Fifth Avenue, Red—Madison, Blue—Park Avenue, Yellow? Why not? And the lack of grass? New York has no trees. Medicine decreed a long time ago that green, specifically, is the color indispensable to life; we must live in color. It is as necessary as water and fire.

. . . Clothing manufacturers could be forced to produce a series of green dresses, of green suits . . .

Every month the dictator of color will decree the monthly or quarterly colors; the blue quarter; the pink fortnight! Trees will be walked through the streets for those who cannot get to the country. Moving landscapes decorated with tropical flowers, dragged slowly by plumed horses.

TWO O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING, haphazardly in the streets . . . the cheaper section . . . Avenue A or B . . . an enormous garage full of trucks, all identical, in rows of six, polished as if for a parade, like elephants, the light steady. Nothing is moving; I go in and look around . . . a ridiculous sound of little bells . . . to the back on the left I discover a harnessed horse. The only living thing in this iron silence . . . What pleasure to touch him, to see him shudder, to feel his warmth. This animal took on such value by contrast that I was able to register all the sounds that a horse in repose can make; tiny sounds, never changing; I heard his breathing . . . delicate movements . . . his ears . . . his black eyes . . . a white spot on his forehead . . . his waxed shoe and the knee that trembled every once in a while.

THE LAST HORSE STILL IN use for transport. He will be shown off in a store window on Sundays and children will be astonished that Napoleon conquered the world mounted on that.

Visiting the architect Corbett with Kiesler. He is one of the biggest builders of American edifices. A big good-natured man, tall and flexible . . . Housing twenty thousand people in a building, he tells me, is his current project. Don’t you think the solution is a question of height? No, it’s more complicated, it depends on elevators. To maneuver this army vertically! To lower them every day to the four dining rooms that are twenty meters underground . . . Making all this work smoothly at rush hour.

In a matter of seconds, not more; to get them outside without stopping traffic . . . Six months of work. Ten specialized engineers have still to solve the problem.

A specifically American problem, they are unbeatable in thinking things out in series and in numbers. Starting with figures to create a comfortable unity . . . New World!

THEY NEVER SEEM TO LINGER over anything; life is incessant and fast.

Destroy New York? They would rebuild it differently. And what terrific targets these buildings would make! Demolish New York! It’s not possible that Maréchal Petain was tempted for a second or even half a second. What a great jog for a gunner! We’re not talking about a war, are we my General? At Verdun I was under orders, that was sufficient, but for the love of the sport, for the love of the profession! The Americans would be the first to applaud and then what would you see? A bit later a new city would be erected, can you guess of what? I’ll tell you a thousand times! Of glass, of glass!

This is their latest invention. Engineers have found a way of making glass with cottage cheese, a method cheaper than concrete. Imagine the problem! All the cows of America at work on the reconstruction of the capital!

New York transparent and translucent with levels of blue, red, yellow! An unparalleled fairyland with the light let loose by Edison transfixing everything and atomizing the architecture.

The cheaper sections are beautiful at all hours. There is crudity and a great variation of materials. Russian, Jewish, Italian and Chinese sections; Third Avenue Saturday night and Sunday, it’s Marseilles!

Pink hats for Negroes. Store windows where you see a bicycle suspended above a dozen eggs, each planted in a row in a bed of green sand . . .

Plucked poultry hanging against the light, on a black background . . . danse macabre!

LIFE IS HEAVILY ORNAMENTED and thus infinite value is given to everything that is for sale.

The way the unemployed walk around. Nothing but their slower pace distinguishes them. Crammed into open spaces, elbow to elbow, they do. not talk among themselves. These crowds are silent; the individual remains isolated, he does not communicate, he reads or he sleeps!

WALL STREET IN DAYTIME has been over-described, but you must see it!

Wall Street at night, at two o’clock in the morning. A dazzling dry moon. Silence is absolute. Nobody is in these narrow streets throttled by the violence of slashing lines and of sharp perspectives multiplied infinitely to the very sky. What a sight! Where are we? A feeling of loneliness oppresses you as in an immense necropolis. Footfalls resound on the pavement. Nothing moves. Reduced to nothing at the center of this forest of granite stands a tiny cemetery with tiny tombstones, so humble, so modest, death becoming small before the exuberance of life which surrounds it. The land for this small cemetery is surely the most expensive in the world. The “business men” have not touched it. It remains like a staccato pause, a cesura in this living torrent . . . Solving the problem of death, the ultimate problem!

Wall Street is sleeping. Let’s continue our walk . . . I hear a constant feeble murmur. Is Wall Street snoring? No, it’s a drilling machine which harmoniously begins its work, like the work of a termite. Not a sound! It’s the only part of New York that really sleeps. The numbers of the day must be digested, the additions, the multiplications, the abstract financial algebra of these thousands of individuals, straining over the great problem of gold. Wall Street sleeps deeply. Let’s not wake it. Thirty meters underground, in the rock, lie the steel vaults of the Irving Bank. In the middle, strong boxes with shining and magnificent locks, as complicated as life itself, a guard station where several men stay awake. Ultra sensitive microphones bring them the slightest sounds of the street and the sounds that can be heard under the steel arches of a modern bank. A fly in the air . . . They can hear it flying . . . An old Negro strolls the street softly singing an old melody of the South. The song rises, gets lost among the buildings but it also descends through the microphones which underground discreetly register the old song of the South.

Wall Street isn’t asleep . . . Wall Street is dead. I walk past the little cemetery again. These aren’t the greatest banks in the world! No, these are the proud tombs of families of great millionaires. Here lie the Morgans, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies. Like new Pharoahs they have constructed their pyramids. They will be buried standing up, like demi-gods; and, as these modern giants become legendary and immortal, thousands of windows will be scooped out so that the people may know that, perhaps, they are not dead, they are breathing, that they will return once again to astound the world with new gigantic concepts.

Wall Street is the image of an audacious America, of this people which is always in ferment and which never looks back.

New York . . . Moscow.

The two poles of modern activity . . . Contemporary life is concentrated there . . .

Only there do they dare to make the dangerous experiments from which all will profit.

New York . . . Moscow!

Moscow . . . New York!

Paris merely watches!

George Duhamel went to America; in his valise were his concept of the average Frenchman and, next to it, in the same valise, were his slippers. Maybe he was unable to use them, and that put him in a bad mood. They still don’t use them here. That is why American women have pretty feet and are queens. You should never be annoyed with a locomotive which in coming by at 100 miles an hour makes your hat fly off your head.

Fernand Léger