New York

“Paintings Of The Thirties”

Midtown Galleries

“Paintings of the Thirties” was a kind of class reunion in which pictures that had been originally shown in the Midtown Galleries during that decade returned to celebrate the gallery’s 42nd anniversary. If there was a unifying rubric for the artists themselves it looks like a social urgency that only got regionalistic in order to exercise its deeper and more general populism. The most interesting artists seen here were Isabel Bishop, Paul Cadmus, and William C. Palmer.

I had not before realized the pains to which Bishop must have gone to produce her distinct Old Masterism of facture (even though her antique “underpainting” looks like it’s on top), without compromising her commitment to the nitty-gritty of 1930s life. In fact, in the art of Bishop and others there seems to be an attempt to confer upon even down-on-the-heel everyday life the dignity and honor of bourgeois “Great Art.” That is much more complicated, I think, than simply an Ashcan hangover, and considering how the pictures were to continue to be collected and valued, it is even unexpectedly subversive.

Paul Cadmus is a notable figure painter, especially of the male, and preferably of the young male. Like Whitman, he seems most interested in the beauty of active young men. Women seem included out of a triple necessity: so that in their own coldly exaggerated eroticism they may account for the turning on of the guys, so that the sexiness of the guys will remain within the sphere of virility (hence, all the more attractive), and obviously so as to protect the artist. I don’t mean that Cadmus—or Whitman, for that matter—was being cowardly. He seems instead to have been insisting in artistic terms on the general human value of what he saw—something like what people used to call sublimation. This did, in fact, raise an issue of general consequence for sex and sexism in the West: that what was once so easily described as beauty has essentially to do with the loveliness of the human body, and preeminently the male body. In Greek art the female body is hardly more than an extra added attraction. Plenty of art (and even literature) depends on this viewpoint, including the special appeal of workers’ bodies (and Nijinsky’s too) for Rodin. Similarly, much of the literature advocating functional design in the 1920s and ’30s is tinged with imagery of musculature and athleticism, which is neither a scandal nor a limitation.

Hovering over all this is a problem that was to bug the New York School: that art itself is in some way a feminine thing, especially if it is concerned with beauty, and that, consequently, the doing of it must be as masculine as possible so as to sustain respect in the world of men at work. Freud, of course, had said that men make art to win the love of women; the irony was that by consciously masculinizing artistic work it may have become more a matter of winning the admiration of other men. This is much more than a question of traditional sex roles; it probably has a deeper source in the likelihood that art itself, as a stimulus to sensation, is in closer analogy with the needs of radical arousal in the male than with any diffused emotive overtones.

A different kind of interest centers on William G. Palmer. Not a great artist, he was still an admirable American-Scene painter with a taste for the tumbled-town Okie landscape that nowadays calls Smithson’s entropic landscape fantasies to mind. This too has to do with work, or at least its unavailability during the Depression. But art like Palmer’s often has more intrinsic value than both square general surveys and modernist polemics are willing to admit. The doughy figures of Benton and Curry—and Cadmus too—are perhaps a way of mythicizing the familiar without discounting its descriptive value. The broken or warped wooden structures of landscapes like Palmer’s, half-Ruisdael and half-Disney in their insistent picturesqueness, are mythic, if this is possible, more in a Homeric than a fairytale sense. This style, which achieves real excellence in Benton and early Pollock, reached monumental scale not so much in painting as in Marc Connelly and William Kieghley’s wonderful film Green Pastures, 1936, with art directors Stanley Fleischer and Allen Saalburg.

––Joseph Masheck