Reginald Marsh

by Franklin Hill Perrell



In Marsh's work, a supplementary narrative often emerges, provided by the lettering of a movie marquee, shop or parking sign, tabloid headlines, or fragments of signage or other advertisements posted in the subway or on the wall of a building. They serve to specify the cultural context, embracing either the world or locality. Contrasting to the mundane, and underscoring a disconnect between Marsh's New Yorkers and external events are depictions of such alarming tabloid headlines as "Babies for Sale, Madmen over Europe, Hitler Invades Russia, or Pearl Harbor Bombed." The open newspaper, ignored if not unread, lying on the sand at Coney Island, that most distinctively conveys this dichotomy.

Marsh visited Coney Island at least three times a week in the season. It provided him a perfect opportunity to utilize his advanced skills in anatomy for showing the figure in action, in a setting where the designation of spectator and observer tended to blur more than usual. Marsh described, "a million near naked bodies could be seen at once, a phenomena unparalleled in history." [2] In an era where bodily display was muted by social scorn, the beaches also provided an exception to normal standards, and the bathing suits tended to suggest what was not revealed. The beaches in fact, were the singular venue in which contact and interaction between men and women lapsed from its usual physical zones of reserve as demarcated in Marsh's work. For the sake of sun, sea and sand, complete strangers entered into a tacit compact, agreeing to publicly disrobe, becoming the potential objects of each others' voyeuristic consumption. Not only did the sexes eye each other, but occasional necking or other intimate displays were manifest in this setting.

Marsh was apparently well liked by his subjects who were comparably fascinated by the artist in their midst, the burlesque admitted him for free, as did the Steeplechase at Coney Island. The bartender bought him drinks at Strokeys Bar on the Bowery, Louie treated him for dinner at Sloppy Louie's, and the athletes and bathing beauties at Coney Island willingly posed for him.

Marsh's milieu, not exclusively that of "low life," also embraced night clubs, the opera house, expensive stores and restaurants, as patronized by the most privileged. To those of his own background, Marsh applied a special form of cynicism. The lack of real contact or communication is shown just as emphatically as in his "low life" subjects, but carefully honed demeanor, clothes, grooming and context, here suggest a higher expectation. Despite the change in setting, Marsh stresses the voluptuousness of youthful female forms and the desperation and futility of the men, while the external signs of well being seem employed to conceal an underlying truth. Marsh said, "I'd rather paint an old suit of clothes than a new one, because an old one has character, reality is exposed and not disguised." [3] Marsh seems to respect the straightforward integrity of his derelict subjects and sardonically satirize his affluent ones, yet, mental vacuity and pointlessness of intent drain animation from his protagonists in a spectacle of non-encounters for both categories of subjects.

In Marsh's work, his protagonists seem to be complicit in their fate whether drunks on the bowery, showgirls in the burlesque, or leering spectators as part of an inextricable whole. Marsh also perceived the city's unspoken code wherein the communication of sexual provocation, availability or enticement could be subliminal or overt.

During the 1930's critic Thomas Craven identified two dominant sides of American art, one which he promoted as "American Scene painting" (synonymous with regionalism), which he opposed to social realism which castigated America as a land of "injustice, lynchings, and police brutality." [4] While Marsh was categorized as within regionalism by Time magazine in 1934, he was aloof from the politics of either camp, despite topical elements of both in his work. Marsh made a point of ridiculing social realist subjects as "an endless array of gas-masks and caricatures of J.P. Morgan with a pig-like nose." [5]

Despite the readiness to classify Marsh's work within regionalism or social realism, his unique play of imagination and invention, applied to a scene that only seems literal, sets him apart from his contemporaries. Marsh especially departed from the social realist message of Ben Shahn or Jacob Lawrence, in that he did not define his subjects as heroes, oppressors, or victims. Marsh painted individuals as set within a mass urban humanity, sharing a common experience in a type of "social contract." In Marsh's view a large part of humanity wallows in a type of ugliness, either physical or mental, but ideals of sexuality and glamour afford no solace. All individuals become actors or spectators, roles that change due to circumstances of age, sex, or economics. The beautiful is heightened in its impact because of its contrast with its antithesis.

Marsh's artist friend, Edward Laning, in his article on Marsh written in Art News at the occasion of his memorial exhibition at the Whitney in 1954, wrote:

"In the case of Edward Hopper, it needed an exhibition of his work to reveal the black abyss that yawns in every Hopper painting.that black hole in every painting, down which life seemed to be plunging to nothingness- the same vortex, I think, which swallowed the Pequod.
This 'blackness ten times black' is at the heart of Marsh's work as well (black enough to cheer the intellectual critic -- if only Marsh did not offend by pleasing the general public!). There is an enormous irony in his painting, an ambiguity which penetrates close to the American dilemma.
This is a world of bums, derelicts and outcasts, of guys and dolls. There are no families here -- no one works, no one gets married or has a baby, no one goes to a store. These are the men who are always looking for something and never finding it. Anyone who thinks he has found anything is automatically excluded from this charmed world -- and doesn't this fact admit us all to membership?" [6]

In Marsh's crowded scenes and busy painted surfaces, there is never a physical void, but rather is another form of emptiness. Despite activity that is often frenzied, the sense of a vacuum of purpose, and a negation of communication, is everywhere indicated. Marsh's subjects are spinning their wheels, engaging in a "continuous performance," as one of his titles affirms, but to what end? The euphoria in Marsh's scenes of Coney Island is a surface appearance, a pretense of collective enjoyment. Marsh's burlesque dancers on stage project the commercialization of sexuality more forthrightly than their beauty. The futility of drunks on the Bowery, an atmosphere seemingly of desperation and hopelessness, is portrayed as if natural. As Laning said, "the dea ex machina is Marsh's girl and in his boy's world she walks serene while all those about her destroy themselves."


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