Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York's Rivers 1900-1940

Rivers epitomize the timeless beauty and vitality of nature; they are also engines of commerce and progress. “Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York’s Rivers 1900–1940,” organized by the Hudson River Museum, explores a specific instance of that paradox. The seventy works in the exhibition record changes to the regional landscape, defined in the nineteenth century by the Hudson River School as a new eden, and discover a twentieth-century iconography based on skyscrapers and bridges. The word sublime came into use in the eighteenth century to describe feelings of awe at manifestations of natural power such as storms and mountains. In the twentieth century, artists responded to man-made engineering feats with comparable wonder. The Brooklyn Bridge, with its gothic piers, inspired several works in this show, including Kurt Albrecht’s Untitled (Brooklyn Bridge), c. 1920, and Ernest Lawson’s Brooklyn Bridge (c. 1917–20). Both show the looming majesty of the structure over docks and boats, veiled in impressionist smoke. The Brooklyn Bridge is, aesthetically, a masterpiece, but even more utilitarian spans can provide focus for a composition, as seen in Colin Campbell Cooper’s vertical-format exploration of light and shadow in his pastel Manhattan Bridge from Henry Street (n.d.) and Leon Kroll’s Queensborough Bridge (1912), a view of the snowy waterfront. In these examples of the industrial sublime, as in the Hudson River School landscapes, the human presence is obscured.

The city’s iconic skyline anchors a number of works, including watercolors by Reginald Marsh, who abandons his usual satiric approach and succumbs to the elegance of the view in New York Skyline (1937), and the modernist John Marin, whose Lower Manhattan from the River, No. 1 (1921) radiates a jazzy exuberance. Louis Lozowick adds grace-note plumes of smoke to a vertical view of river and skyline in Lower Manhattan (1932), an oil study for a mural for the General Post Office. It is a stylized image, suggesting a Japanese print. Edward Bruce, a collector of Asian art, brings a similar stylization—with a paler and more spiritual palette—to his Power (c. 1933).

Some of the handsomest works in the show, however, ignore the landmarks and seek poetry in qualities of light. In Julian Alden Weir’s The Bridge: Nocturne, also known as Nocturne: Queensboro Bridge (1910), the distant title structure is enveloped in teal-blue dusk, while foreground buildings and streets are illuminated by scattershot smears of light. Whistler would be proud of such a painting. The Ashcan artists, who often focused on the grittiness of urban life, here find grace in a city on the border of water and sky. William Glackens’s Tugboat with Lighter (1908) uses everyday marine activity as the foreground subject and includes a pale shadow of Lady Liberty on the horizon, but imbues everything in blue-grey light, with deft daubs of white for smoke and waves. Robert Henri’s East River Embankment, Winter (1900) offers a ramshackle group of docks, touched with snow, alongside the river, enveloped in brownish dusk, that achieves tonalist beauty. Henri’s Cumulus Clouds, East River (c. 1901–02) is full-on sublime. Modern waterfront buildings are shadowy silhouettes—a kind of urban coulisse—framing a spectacular sunset with massing vermilion clouds. Henri drifts toward Turnersque Romanticism. George Luks takes a darker look at the New York skyscape in Roundhouses at Highbridge (c. 1909–10). An elevated view of the rail yards at 170th Street on the Harlem River, the panorama is saturated in the gloom of pollution, with plumes of smoke rising into the air from what could be William Blake’s dark satanic mills.

George Ault’s From Brooklyn Heights (1925) is a snappy, machine-edged puzzle picture, with neat Art Deco waves on the river. Among the star artists’ works, Georgia O’Keeffe’s East River from the Shelton (c. 1927–28) shows her myth-making imagery at play in the city—with a blue sun like the eye of God over factory buildings silhouetted against a sunrise-red backdrop—before she moved on to the desert sublime of New Mexico. The show is accompanied by a colorful catalogue with scholarly essays, published by Fordham University Press. “Industrial Sublime” was on view October 12, 2013–January 19, 2014, at the Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Avenue, Yonkers, New York 10701. It travels to the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida (March 20–June 22, 2014).

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2014, Volume 31, Number 1