New York

George Bellows

The first major retrospective of the paintings of George Bellows to be seen in thirty years, this exhibition afforded a welcome opportunity to reassess the work of a leading figure in early 20th-century American art.

Bellows, who was born in 1882 in Columbus, Ohio, moved to New York in 1904, where he studied with the painter Robert Henri, a kind of Hans Hofmann of turn-of-the-century realism whose focus on urban subjects Bellows adopted and used to make his mark. Before he was thirty, Bellows’ career was launched with such paintings as Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, the first of his wildly popular fight scenes, and New York, 1911, a dazzling panorama of Manhattan. While in both of these paintings Bellows employs the fast and slashing brushwork typical of American realists of the period (he belonged to the group of painters known as the Ash-Can school, which included John Sloan and George Luks), the spatial and planar tensions in his work become formal metaphors for the subjects of these paintings. In Stag at Sharkey’s the straining torsos of the boxers embody Futurist lines, and in New York the details of hurrying pedestrians, throngs of vehicles and, office buildings form a surging mass.

This contrast between figurative surface and abstract substructures became a central issue in the work of the teens and ’20s. While Bellows stayed true to realism, he sought to go beyond any immediate representation of the moment, striving instead for a timeless Modernist style in works like The Sawdust Trail, 1916, The Rope (Builders of Ships), 1916, My Mother, 1921, and Emma and Her Children, 1923.

To develop further both the modeling of figures and the construction of forms in space, Bellows turned to the theoretical principles concerning color and composition outlined in the works of Jay Hambidge, Hardesty Maratta, and Denman Ross. The instances of his excessive reliance on these theories (believed to reflect universal principles derived from exhaustive analysis of the Old Masters) can be detected in the curiously jarring coloring, of Firpo’s red-purple trunks in Dempsey and Firpo, 1924. This image of Firpo knocking Dempsey through the ropes into the laps of the spectators also exists as a lithograph, which, in filtering out the color, demonstrates just how powerful Bellows’ graphic sensibility was, how attuned he was to the element of shape as gesture and as a sign of character.

Bellows was a superb printmaker. In the medium of lithography there was a harmony about his compositions he only inconsistently achieved in his paintings. But he was the kind of artist whose most extravagant experiments produced his most stilted and weirdly disjunctive figurative compositions. From his rich and tactile blacks to his penchant for filling up the frontal planes, Bellows’ work reflects a view of painting as a life-long search for individual expression.

Ronny Cohen