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Above and Below: Skyscrapers to Subways in New York City, 1913-1949

by Domenic J. Iacono


The first half of the twentieth century was an eventful period in New York City history. The five boroughs had only recently been consolidated into their present day political organization and Tammany Hall still wielded power. The First World War, the political turmoil in Europe, and the resulting huge waves of poor immigrants arriving in New York stressed its political systems. The Depression was a national calamity and the city felt its impact with high unemployment, bread lines, and the need for federal work projects. The Second World War also had a profound impact on the city.

Between 1900 and 1950 New York City was the largest city in America, center of commerce, and possible its most important cultural and political center. This was also a period of tremendous growth physically, economically and socially. New York was, and still is, a major port city. Raw materials from around the globe were transformed in its manufacturing centers into products that were, in turn, shipped throughout the United States and around the world. The center of journalism, first printed and later electronic, could be found in New York. Government, both federal and state joined with local agencies to nurture, and later keep the economic engine of New York vibrant.

Yet, in many ways New York seemed a most unlikely place to emerge as a cultural and economic center. Its population was composed of diverse ethnic groups, some with long histories of hostilities towards one another. These groups settled in communities that attempted to keep their cultural identities -- Little Italy, Germantown, Chinatown, etc. Immigrants, upon their arrival, settled in these areas where their native countrymen had begun to establish themselves, reinforcing an ethnocentric atmosphere. New York was very much a city composed of neighborhoods where its inhabitants seemed to prefer this insular lifestyle.

Opportunity, however, was a strong elixir and when the populations of these ethnic neighborhoods grew beyond their ability to absorb their own people into the local workforce, the people were more willing to find work outside the neighborhood. New York found itself in a unique situation. Each of the boroughs had been connected by a transportation system that allowed cheap and easy access throughout the city. The automobile, truck, and mass transit systems replaced the horse and carriage. Bridges, rail (both elevated and subway), and trolley service united the neighborhoods, skyscrapers and other large buildings often had subway stops within their floor plans.

This exhibition explores how printmaking artists viewed New York City and what have become its icons -- the skyscraper, skyline, subway, and elevated rails. Majestic and inspiring to some, dysfunctional and intolerable to others, this city captured the interest of innumerable artists. The juxtaposition of artistic styles, philosophical viewpoints, and subject matter make for very interesting observation.

Within the five categories of subjects established for this exhibition, Visions of the City and Skyline, Interpretations of the Skyscraper and City, The Elevated and the Subway, The Brooklyn Bridge, and Construction, one can see and compare the different attitudes each artist brought to their subject.

Mark Freeman, Charles Keller and S.L. Margolies also celebrated the dynamism and excitement of the changing landscape, while Reginald Marsh, Benton Spruance, and Edward Hopper captured the loneliness and isolation of the urban landscape. Others used the city as a backdrop for documenting the dramatic social issues of the period. Whatever the artistic need, the city continued to redefine itself and artists found New York a constant source of inspiration.

About the author

Domenic J. Iacono is director of the SUArt Galleries and the Palitz Gallery at Syracuse University.


(above: Martin Lewis, Glow of the City)


(above: Harry Gottlieb, New York Skyline)


About the exhibition

Above and Below: Skyscrapers to Subways in New York City 1913-1949 is on exhibit at the Stark University Center Galleries January 15 through February 24, 2008.

The collection was organized and is being loaned to the Stark Galleries by the Syracuse University Art Collection in Syracuse, New York. The collection is comprised of prints that were inspired by New York's icons: the skyscrapers, skylines, subways and elevated rails.

Between 1900-1950, New York City was the largest city in the United States leading in all commerce and growing economically, physically and socially. Artists were inspired by the transformation of the city and what they saw in the buildings when they arrived.

The exhibit is divided into five sections: Visions of the City; Skyline, Interpretations of the Skyscraper and the City; The Elevated and the Subway; The Brooklyn Bridge; and Construction. This exhibit explores how printmaking artists viewed New York City and what have become its icons. While certain prints appear to be objective renderings of the cityscape, they are rarely, under close examinations, devoid of the artist's personal attitudes. The titles the pieces were given by the artist often convey how the artist felt about the city -- Olympus (New York), Glow of the City and Civic Insomnia (New York). Also, some titles convey popular New York terminology such as Cobwebs and Canyons. Whatever the artistic need, the city continued to redefine itself and artists found New York a constant source of inspiration in scale, form and composition.

-- exhibition description excerpted from Stark University Center Galleries website


Editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Francesca Marquez of the Stark University Center Galleries for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text by Domenic J. Iacono.


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