Editor's note: The following essay was published on February 16, 2012 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author at this web address:
The Passionate Eyesight of E. H. Suydam
by Brett Busang
It is with a mixture of crusader's zeal and profound regret that I remember the illustrator, E. H. Suydam, who came from a long line of accomplished image-makers. His birth in 1885 favored the career he would eventually take to unusual heights. His early years coincided with the heyday of newspaper and book illustration, which did not flag until Prohibition. By that time, Suydam was one of the busiest illustrators in the business. Until well into the thirties, he provided the visual components to a series of books that were dedicated to cities and regions throughout the United States. It would be interesting to know whether he merely stumbled upon what would become a specialty, or started out with the clear-eyed intention of becoming the poet laureate, along with Joseph Pennell and Otto Kuhler, of the American city. Other printmaker/illustrators like Australian-born Martin Lewis concentrated on the five boroughs of New York. (Legend has it that he taught Edward Hopper's the rudiments of printmaking.) Suydam was apparently energized by new assignments, which he took on with a ravenous appetite that was not equaled in his day -- and, aside from comic-book artists and graphic novelists, has not been equaled since.
The crusader in me wants you to know him better. The fatalist bemoans his descent into history's backwater, where so-called illustrators have been indiscriminately thrown. Perhaps I can serve both. To write about him is to live among prejudices which condemn the day-laborers of art while embracing the candle-burners, the bohemians, and the mythologists. The post WWII ethos -- which is fortunately being challenged -- posits that an artist's life must be as complicated as the work for which "the life" cannot always account. I subscribe to the Flaubert Principle whereby the artist's life should be at least moderately dull. In order to produce something of value over a long period of time, the artist chooses the dedicated life over the easy-to-mythologize, done-with-tomorrow spectacle which is so tempting to biographers. We automatically value a limited output over a seam-splitting abundance. We love to think of "what might have been." And we're drawn to excesses we ourselves eschew. It is part of our puritan heritage to despise the party animal while he smashes things up, but to embrace him (or her) when the party's over -- or is preemptively shuttered. Jackson Pollock might stand in for the barn-burning type of artist who sucks life down, but can't spit it back out.
Our fascination with such flowers of evil is at the root of our forgetfulness. Art-lovers aren't impressed with the Suydam Story, which starts off promisingly and keeps going. In our heart of hearts, we want him to fail. Where are the unfinished projects? The slews of oil paintings he did "for himself?" The angry letters about mistrustful collaborators or publishers that didn't pay on time? What if none of these things ever existed? In terms of productivity, well and good. But as to constructing an artistic narrative, we must have them now -- and (as they used to say) in triplicate! If we can't make a myth of him, what good is he? That he showed up on time, did creditable work, and wasn't a nightlife character dooms him. The absence of drama is as tragic, for us, as the tragedy he didn't have the time or inclination to live.
From all appearances, Suydam was happy in his work and discharged it evenhandedly. His schedule seems so frenetic that he couldn't have partied except between projects. One thumping volume follows another. Having become reliable, more assignments were given -- and more turned in! I have no idea how many books he did. I do, however, know that precious little of his output survives. It was common practice in those days to regard an illustration as raw material and discard it after it was photographed for publication. To think of New York City's dumpsters is to contemplate the short-sighted nature of our species -- and Genus Americanus in particular. If you can't turn a dollar. . .why do it?
I would imagine Suydam as a kind of pragmatist himself. When he was finished with one project, he went onto the next. If he worried about posterity, he probably did it on the run. The sheer diversity of his assignments suggests that he was easily bored. But in a world that fought boredom tooth and nail, I'm sure he fit in pretty well. I suspect that his voracious appetite for work grounded him -- as it did for many ambitious people. He liked coming into a place with a guidebook and a little money. He probably checked into a hotel, asked where some of the main attractions were, and walked himself into a tizzy. The following morning, he went out and started drawing. He confronted landmarks head-on, but took a more oblique approach in places of little distinction, but coalescing liveliness. I don't get a sense of him hewing to a script. He understood that words and images must complement one another. He provided the backdrop; a good story found its way into it.
The consistent quality of his work testifies to an aesthetic that could be bought, but was gravely nurtured.
I first knew of him in New Orleans, when I was trolling the city for subjects of my own. I worked, with conte crayon, in the Edward Hopper vein. Conte crayon is harder than charcoal, but produces velvety shadows that stay down on the page. Nor does it have to be fixed, as charcoal often does. Holding it flat against the page, I made smoky impressions of Magazine Street. I studied boxes coming off of skids near the old City Market. I took the measure of shotgun houses; antebellum "homes"; commercial buildings with iron shutters. I was captivated by the live oaks, but felt they were too picturesque. (As if all the other stuff was not!) I also loved the St. Charles streetcar as it found a leafy canopy and disappeared underneath it. Everywhere I went, my senses were overpowered. I was enchanted by the aromas that came wafting out of open doors. By street-vendors who weren't playacting for the tourists. And by average people who weren't in a hurry to make their mark, but had a genius for the moment. When I heard Cajun French, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. The city of George Washington Cable was a thing of the past, but the past was still among us! I went down to the river and looked across it toward Algiers. When the ferry came in, I took a page out of John Sloan and drew that. It was all strictly derivative, but exciting nonetheless.
Suydam came to New Orleans at the height of his powers -- a Yankee who had a job to do, but found ever so much more. Fabulous New Orleans was his love letter to a city that must have touched him deeply. In the few other books I know, including Washington Past and Present, he is able to reflect, and even anticipate, a city's growth-rings as well as its outward character. But he put his heart into New Orleans, whose plangent quality is woven into brick and cast-iron. His heat-dimmed perspectives could have been drawn nowhere else. Nor could the lacy balconies that have become clichés. In Suydam's hands, they have grace and substance. His sense of structure is informed by a sneaking romanticism. The notations he learned in Philadelphia aren't needed as much. Nor is the twenty-twenty vision he brought to other places. His Washington is a container for tribal history, with its huge colonnades and sweeping plazas. There is a manic energy that goes well beyond the printed page. His New Orleans, however, is soft and langorous, with edges that are blended away. He embraces the picturesque, but acknowledges that decay is a destructive force that needs balancing. He throws in the occasional monument, but prefers to be among patios and back alleys. Suydam's New Orleans, as cued by a local storyteller, is as personal a document as he will ever make. His Yankee orientation arrives, but is gradually subverted. By the time he's done, he is also undone.
I have only two of the many volumes Suydam illustrated -- and only one here in DC. It is occasionally a workmanlike production, but has dazzling bits and pieces. Suydam can give us a complicated scene without cluttering it. And when he isn't drawing columns -- with which the District still abounds -- he is the prescient observer who sees traffic as the destructive force seepage is in New Orleans. He watches a dynamic city going in two distinctly different directions: toward the past, which it cannot revere as much as it would like; and the future, which will make it a world capitol.
As far as I know, none of these drawings -- neither the pen and inks that introduce each chapter nor the lithographs that are allowed a full page -- exist today. The publisher got them, printed them, and either threw them out or presented them as gifts to friends. As with so many practices that were once taken for granted, it would be interesting to know what Suydam thought of his work appearing before him as he sketched, then disappearing after he took it in. Perhaps it isn't worth considering. Or, rather, it was what it was and no retrospective analysis is going to draw the work out from wherever it might (or might not) be. I have no idea how much of it is available today. I -- who have browsed through plenty of print-drawers -- have never seen an original. I wonder how much one would cost. A lot, I hope.
When I lived in New York, I would peer into every dumpster I saw. Some yielded whole lives, which, when I had time and opportunity, I attempted to salvage. The most fragile of these lives had appeared, for a time, on paper, and were now discarded. Do I save them -- or walk away? That was a question I posed quite a lot, as I hoisted myself up, scanned the questionable treasures that were laid out before me, and played god -- a lower-case god who could pardon the already-condemned.
Suydam was not an old man when he died, but he was probably
a tired one. A second world war had just begun, life was more uncertain
than it ever was, and so much of his work was lost already. It would take
more than half a century for him to be remembered a second time, when almost
everything is gone -- even the places he got to know almost as well as the
people who had designed them. Who's to say? E. H. Suydam was content to
stay a while, do the best he could, and go onto another adventure.
About the Author
Brett Busang is a respected American realist who has exhibited
at such institutions as the Museum of the City of New York; the Everson
Museum, in Syracuse, NY; the Greenville Museum of Art, in Greenville, NC.
His paintings are in numerous corporate collections (Capital One, Krispy
Kreme, Media General, Wheat First Union, among others), though most of his
work is in individual hands. An heir to such uncompromising voices as Edward
Hopper and Charles Burchfield, Mr. Busang interprets "his own backyard"
with a combination of personal lyricism and rigorous objectivity. His writing
has appeared in American Artist, The Artist's Magazine, American
Arts Quarterly, the New York Press and New York Newsday.
He writes a blog through his website at www.brettbusang.com and has begun
to contribute reviews to Examiner.com, an entertainment website with a nation-wide
following. He is also a satirist and playwright. He was born in 1954.
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