Archive for August 2nd, 2008

Every good picture leaves the painter eager to start again, unsatisfied, inspired by the rich mine in which he is working, hoping for more energy, more vitality, more time – condemned to painting for life

August 2, 2008

Happy Birthday John Sloan

Unlike most of the artists he knew in Philadelphia, John Sloan began not as an artist reporter (he worked too slowly for such deadlines) but as an illustrator and cartoonist. He imitated John Tenniel, the Punch artist who illustrated, among other books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And his decision to stay in America may have been enjoined by early marriage and a small income, but it was certainly confirmed by his early reading of Ruskin, who fulminated against the expatriate’s weakness, a rootless style. Illustrating connected him to American life. Some of Sloan’s most successful work would always be in black and white, whether etchings done for their own sake or illustrations for The Masses, a left wing magazine of social commentary that numbered Max Eastman and John Reed among its contributors. “I’m not a Democrat, I’m of no party. I’m for change for the operating knife when a party rots in power,” he declared in 1908. Though his sympathies were broadly socialist, he was wary of using his art as propaganda. He told one art critic that “I had no intention of working for any Socialist objects in my etchings and paintings though I do think it is the proper party to cast votes for at this time in America.” Significantly, he did not mention drawings for press reproduction, which were his real political vehicle. Sloan deeply admired French lithographers for their ruthless edge Gavarm, Steinlen, and especially Daumier. He could never honestly pretend to paint as a “man of the people,” a routine claim among socialist artists. “I never mingled with the people,” he would later say, “and the sympathy and understanding I have for the common people, as they are meanly called, I feel as a spectator of life.” There would always be a marked difference between the mordancy of Sloan’s political illustration and the benign, life affirming tone of his bas genre paintings of New York life, the “bits of joy,” as he called them, that he fixed on “with an innocent poet’s eye.” Now and then satire creeps into the paintings, as in Fifth Avenue, New York, with its press of upholstered women shoppers, or in the swells riding in their toadlike touring car in Gray and Brass, 1909. But Sloan’s painted world is generally amiable, a place full of fleshy, rosy girls on swings or in dance halls, Brooklyn Fragonard and Hester Street Renoir, chattering in front of the nickelodeon parlor or parading in Washington Square Park. Prone to the sentimental fallacy of treating the poor as figures in an urban pastorale, he wanted to see happiness everywhere, as in a 1906 diary note on one of his rambles on the Lower East Side:

Doorways of tenement houses, grimy and greasy door frames looking as though huge hogs covered with filth had worn the paint away and replaced it with matted dirt in going in and out. Healthy faced children, solid legged, rich full color to their hair. Happiness rather than misery in the whole life. Fifth Avenue faces are unhappy in comparison.

Harsh, dirty New York, 0. Henry’s “Baghdad on the Hudson,” had its demotic refuges: the new movie houses, the dance halls, and, very important for Sloan, McSorley’s Ale House, a dimly lit, sawdust floored, working class Irish tavern from which women were banned and whose eccentric annals would be recorded by Joseph Mitchell in his essay “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.” Sloan drank there regularly. It was to him and some of his friends what the more exalted Century Association was to the likes of Augustus Saint Gaudens. Some of his sketches still hang on its encrusted walls.

To some doctrinaire Marxists of the next generation, Sloan seemed unrealistic; and yet his work has an honest humaneness, a frank sympathy, a refusal to flatten its figures into stereotypes of class misery, that was certainly truer to the life of his subjects than theirs. He saw “his” people as part of a larger totality, the carnal and cozy body of the city itself, where even the searchlight installed on top of Madison Square Garden was “scratching the belly of the sky and tickling the building.” Sloan, not incidentally, was the first American to set down that image of urban eroticism which would become identified with Marilyn Monroe a girl with her skirt flaring in the hot blast of subway air. He was, as Willem de Kooning would say of himself in a rather different context many years later, “a slipping glimpser,” with a strong sense of the fleeting moment in which people are caught unawares: a woman pegging out the wash or lovers furtively embracing on a tenement roof, arguments on the fire escape, a girl stretching at a window – all of which could be seen from his studio on Twenty third Street, at the edge of the seedy Tenderloin district. He set them down in a brusquely spontaneous way, as reminiscent of Manet as his etchings and illustrations were of Gavarni. Sometimes a countercurrent of melancholy runs through them, and one thinks of Whistler: especially in the beautifully composed The Wake of the Ferry. Black stanchions and a tilted line of roof frame the cold blue evening sea from the stern of the Staten Island Ferry, as the blue in Whistler’s Thames was framed by Battersea Bridge (and both have the same root in Hiroshige). Daringly, Sloan counterposed the dark mass of the lone woman gazing astern against an open, swiftly brushed diamond pattern of the safety rail running out to the left, giving both balance and a sense of exposure: you see the wet light on the steel deck and feel the cold.

Though Sloan’s vision may seem modest compared to the more flamboyant Henri’s, younger painters got what they needed from him. His exuberant girls on the street were developed into regiments of overripe Coney Island cuties by Reginald Marsh, and his moments of voyeuristic detachment – Sloan didn’t like feeling detached from his human subjects, but that was part of city life – were amplified in Edward Hopper‘s glimpses of disconnected people staring out of windows at nothing in particular. Sloan’s own feelings extended neither to Marsh’s licentiousness nor to Hopper’s acute solipsism. This was a matter of temperament, not style.

– From Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America