In my estimation Union Square, while a facet of the American scene, is not typically American at all. A visitor from the South, the Middle-west or the Pacific coast, is struck by the foreignness of the section at the very first glance.
But in its flavor, its pushing, unconscious brutality, its search for bargains even at the fracture of a limb, its busy shoppers on one side of the street and aimless, floating crowds on the other side, there is something American to the core.
Against this strident, viciously competitive background, I have thrown the figures of my novel....
ALBERT HALPER On his novel Union Square
The competing discourses encompassed by American Scene painting—on art, artists, politics, and gender—have to some extent overshadowed the issue of new womanhood in art. But it is in often contradictory images and texts that the ideals of womanhood were constituted, though seldom explicitly. I turn in this chapter from new womanhood and the circumstances of artists' lives to the social, cultural, and political stage on which representations of new womanhood took shape: Fourteenth Street.
In the early years of the Depression, New York's Union Square-Fourteenth Street neighborhood was a subject for artists and writers of all political persuasions. But that had not always been the case. In March 1933, just after the release of his Literary Guild selection novel Union Square , Albert Halper expressed surprise that no one had written an extended work about this neighborhood. He based the novel on his experiences living and working there, making the book a study of what he perceived to be the neighborhood's character and types. For Halper, as for the Fourteenth Street artists, whose realism was concerned with the constantly shifting texture of contemporary life, the square and its occupants became the signs of the dramatic social, economic, and cultural upheaval of the interwar period.
In large panoramas of neighborhood crowds or in paintings and prints of neighborhood types, these artists represented urban America in transition. Kenneth Hayes Miller, Reginald Marsh, Raphael Soyer, Isabel Bishop, and their colleague
Edward Laning joined the artists, illustrators, authors, and journalists who observed the environment and its human drama. Some took an optimistic and progressive stance, focusing on the neighborhood's partial rejuvenation during the twenties. Miller, Bishop, and Laning, for example, defined the neighborhood as a crowded but prosperous center for banking, commerce, and retail trade inhabited by middle-class shoppers and office workers. Others, less celebratory, featured the tawdry shopping and loud entertainment attractions along East Fourteenth Street. Reginald Marsh focused on the ethnicity of Lower East Side residents—immigrants and working-class Americans—who came to the district for its cheap mass-produced goods and amusements. The south side of the square, more than the others, seemed to epitomize the district and the troubling social issues related to mass culture between the wars. Finally, with the onset of the Depression, still others examined the neighborhood's half-century role as the center and symbol of American radicalism. Although some of the most politically minded artists and writers depicted specific debates, rallies, and instances of police brutality, others, like Soyer and Marsh, looked with more general sympathy on the working-class women and unemployed men whose plight in the 1930s became a topic of the discourse on art and politics.
The Fourteenth Street artists cultivated all these elements of the district. They frequently heightened the impact of their imagery by superimposing an old master tradition that idealized, romanticized, or exaggerated their subjects. Though neither politically radical nor conservative in their artistic outlook—at least as they and their critics understood those terms vis-è-vis the ideology of American Scene painting—they nonetheless produced representations of a neighborhood whose very activities symbolized the most politically charged issues of the day. Through artistic strategies that alternately selected, transformed, and evaded features of the neighborhood, the artists inscribed gender, class, and ethnic difference in images of work, unemployment, leisure, and consumption. As a result, their pictures of shopping and working women as well as those of other neighborhood subjects demonstrate a range of socially engaged responses, from optimism to ambivalence to veiled interrogation of the social order. Ultimately, their complex pictorial strategies captured the multivalent textures of Union Square in the 1930s:
The place was a polyglot of nationalities, a clash of ideologies, a roar of violent and chaotic action; in its honest and genuine concern for betterment it had always been American to the core.... Union Square is the past forever being overthrown; the future being forever coaxed into existence. It is the vortex of change; it is America in transition.
In the early 1920s, the Union Square neighborhood was acquiring a new commercial look after two decades as one of the most depressed districts in New York. Union Square had been an upscale residential, cultural, and commercial center dur-
ing the second half of the nineteenth century. From 1854, when the Academy of Music opened on the south side of East Fourteenth Street, to 1883, when the Metropolitan Opera opened on Times Square, Union Square gave New York its opera. Irving Place Theater and Tony Pastor's, on the north side of Fourteenth Street opposite the music academy, provided New Yorkers with good theater. Both Tiffany's jewelry store and Brentano's bookstore catered to an elite clientele from their first stores on Union Square West. Some of the best of the new department stores in the 1870s moved to the vicinity of Union Square. Hearn's was founded on West Fourteenth Street in 1879 and remained in the block between Fifth and Sixth avenues through the Depression. Macy's had its original store adjacent to Hearn's until 1901, when it moved to Thirty-fourth Street. From 1877 to 1906, B. Altman and Company set major trends in women's fashions from its store on the west side of Sixth Avenue at Eighteenth Street, two short blocks from the square. When Fourteenth Street's popularity as a fashionable shopping district began to diminish in the late nineteenth century, most of the stores followed their elegant patrons to the newer residential areas further uptown.
By about 1900 the centers of commerce had moved uptown or downtown, and virtually all the residences in the district had been replaced by office or commercial structures in the eclectic architectural styles of the American Renaissance period (Fig. 3.1). While the district maintained its general character as an entertainment and shopping center, the upscale entertainment of Fourteenth Street between Third Avenue and Union Square gave way to the diversions of mass culture. One elderly district resident later recalled the shift:
During the last several decades of its existence, the Irving Place [Theater] deteriorated from Ibsen and Shakespeare to second-class vaudeville shows, to third-class motion pictures, and finally to fourth-class Burlesque, with hearty emphasis on the Strip Tease Department, until the local constabulary closed the place.
As the district declined, real estate values plummeted, and many of the surviving neighborhood residences and abandoned offices were transformed into garment sweatshops. Close to both a cheap source of labor on the Lower East Side and the garment district to the north, it became the center for workers in the needle trades.
Shortly after World War I, developers began to renovate the neighborhood. New businesses settled in and the district took on the appearance of an energetic and prosperous commercial center. This image, though based on new development, was initially fashioned in the pages of New York newspapers. There, local business leaders celebrated the renewal of Union Square and Fourteenth Street, and, in a spirit of Babbitt-like boosterism, eagerly paraded its advantages over those of other neighborhoods. In a climate of postwar prosperity they created a bright new look for the district that reflected American material prosperity and progress, an optimism that lingered into the first years of the Depression. Within this context
of promotional rhetoric the contemporary classicism of Miller's, Bishop's, and Edward Laning's neighborhood panoramas supported the upbeat vision.
In 1926 members of the Fourteenth Street Association of business leaders collaborated on a major article for the Sunday New York Times summarizing their views of the district and their hopes for its prosperity. Clarkson Cowl, president of Hearn's department store, spoke of Fourteenth Street's comeback as inevitable. C. Stanley Mitchell, a bank president, emphasized the financial stability of "business and real estate, credit and asset." He pointed to the principal advantages of the district for business—its central New York location, its unusual transit and traffic facilities, and its proximity to a "most attractive" residential area. Union Square was in the heart of town and Fourteenth Street was the longest east-west thoroughfare in Manhattan. During the building boom of the 1920s, scores of new apartment houses were erected in Greenwich Village, just south of the square, and Fourteenth Street retailers, who had always known that New York's retail trade would follow residential development, expressed delight at this new trend.
Transit remained a controversial issue for businesses in the metropolitan area. Union Square had a long history of traffic congestion extending back to the 1890s, when trolley lines were first installed. W. A. Rogers's 1897 illustration for Harper's Weekly titled "'Dead Man's Curve'—New York's Most Dangerous Crossing" shows the double curve at the corner of Broadway and Fourteenth Street, around which the trolleys raced (Fig. 3.2). In spite of police guards, the trolleys regularly claimed victims among those unaccustomed to the speed and attendant danger of modern electrified transportation. Marsh updated this theme in a 1940s Chinese ink and watercolor called Dead Man's Curve or Dangerous Curves , in which exuberant young girls, startled by a large truck blocking their path, move to get out of the way (Fig. 3.3). The image carries a double entendre related to Marsh's fascination with sexually provocative—even dangerous—women. Dead Man's Curve now threatens those who, like the leering occupants of the truck, can be distracted in traffic by a display of curvaceous beauty. The perils of Union Square traffic persisted into the Depression.
Proper transit was crucial to making Fourteenth Street an attractive retail and business district. As a result, the Fourteenth Street Association, headed by its president, H. Prescott Beach, quoted endless statistics relating retail commercial success to the growing number of people using new subway and bus routes. Beach urged a recalcitrant New York transit system to finish those subway lines that transported shoppers to Manhattan from other boroughs. Merchants also supported such projects as an interurban bus terminal to alleviate some of central Manhattan's bus and motorcar traffic and a tunnel under the Hudson River to transport shoppers from New Jersey. Finally, in 1931 the Fourteenth Street Association helped to win the debate to keep the Sixth Avenue elevated in place until 1938, when the completed Sixth Avenue subway line took over its route.
In all these debates neighborhood merchants contended with several related issues. First, they wanted to ensure that as many shoppers and workers as possible could make their way to the neighborhood with ease. For Hearn's president, Clark-son Cowl,
the strategic key to successful development of any centre, whether it be for merchandising or housing or manufacturing, is "you can get there" with collegiate emphasis on the word "get." Youth emphasizes the fact that it has no time to waste but ... neither the businessman nor any other has time to waste in this present civilization.
Along with efficient transit, business leaders wanted merchants and neighborhood associations citywide to impose order on the increasing chaos of both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Finally, they placed a high value on the pleasantness of the environment and the need to scale down the crowded cityscape. Clarkson Cowl equated "the great stores of New York" with "what the country store is to the village; there
comes to be the feeling of friendly helping and exchange [that] serves to bring the people and serve the community interest." Another neighborhood merchant, impressively named Washington Irving Lincoln Adams, claimed that the "Americanization" of the foreign-born fostered community solidarity more readily in old-fashioned neighborhoods like Fourteenth Street where some feeling of community already existed.
Using pictorial strategies derived from Miller's contemporary classical realism, Bishop and Laning produced a number of works that embody these ideals of communal harmony. Both artists painted images of neighborhood crowds, expanding on Miller's image of the single or paired shopper. Bishop's Dante and Virgil in Union Square (Fig. 2.2) and Laning's Fourteenth Street (Fig. 2.3) adopt small-scale formats related to larger Renaissance murals: a frieze of figures extends across the foreground, parallel to the picture plane. The frieze is broken into small groups of shoppers, businessmen, families, and workers—those deemed most important to the well-being of the American economy and its social order. Members of these groups interact cordially and democratically.
Pictorially, the businesses and transit structures of the district organize the movement and the lives of the participants. In Laning's Fourteenth Street a massive compositional ellipse created by the elevated railway in the middle ground and the crowd of figures in the foreground sets up a clockwise movement that figuratively moves the shoppers and workers through a regulated daily cycle of work and consumption. In Bishop's Dante and Virgil in Union Square the buildings tower above the crowd, helping to direct them along the major pathways of commerce. As I have already noted, an insistent feeling of repose and stability in these works emerges from the arrangement of the whole along carefully measured horizontals and verticals. In Dante and Virgil in Union Square , the composition is divided vertically like a triptych, with two panels of equal size flanking a larger central panel. In this central panel, architecturally undifferentiated buildings form a neutral foil for the dark silhouette of the equestrian monument of George Washington. Rising above the crowd at the exact center of the composition, this commanding Father of the Country becomes the counterpart of Christ in Majesty in a religious triptych, ruling over commerce and the souls of its practitioners. In this painting and others the crowd is cast as a universalized community of urban dwellers: middle-class white adult shoppers or workers and their children. In the words of the neighborhood merchant Adams, everyone has been "Americanized."
Although neither Bishop nor Laning intended these small works as murals, they were painted with Miller for the mural class at the Art Students League and resemble miniature murals in conception, subject, and decorative intent; Bishop designed Dante and Virgil in Union Square as an overmantle painting. Miller began to offer his mural course in 1927, just as mural painting came to be heralded as the ideal medium for creating a nationwide renaissance in art. By the early 1930s, when
Bishop and Laning produced these works, the rhetoric of advocacy surrounding mural painting was part of the increasingly nationalistic discourse of the American scene movement that would fuel the government art projects of the decade.
Inspiration for making murals to celebrate the American experience lay close at hand; the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera (whose controversial Rockefeller Center mural sparked one of the decade's most important debates about artists, patrons, and politics) and José Orozco lived and worked in New York and proclaimed the importance of making murals accessible to a broad public. Between 1930 and 1932 Thomas Hart Benton executed two mural cycles that generated substantial and, by the late 1930s, controversial press. America Today , his 1930 mural cycle painted for the New School for Social Research on West Twelfth Street, featured both regional and urban mass culture; Lloyd Goodrich praised its "restless vitality" and its Americanism. Critics who believed that the artist's best subject was his own environment commended the topicality of Benton's murals. For these critics mural art at its best was anti-elite, communicating the positive aspects of urban and rural culture to the average American through the eyes of an artist who could take an "objective" view of the subject. At its worst, for other critics, mural painting was flamboyantly partisan and unable to deal with the large-scale technical problems of wall decoration. Murals by American Painters and Photographers, the opening show for the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, was faulted for precisely these reasons. Eager to jump on the mural bandwagon, the museum gave artists with little prior experience six weeks to produce sketches and a large-scale panel; but even the disapproving critics recognized the importance of the museum's effort for the production of American murals.
In his own teaching Miller again sought a middle ground. His mural course became a practicum in both the forms and values that later characterized the government's programs. Miller took accepted Renaissance mural masters as his example: Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Veronese, and Rubens, to name those cited by Forbes Watson in his historical essay "Perspective on American Murals," written to document art made for the government projects in the 1930s. Miller then urged his students to substitute inspired scenes of contemporary American life for earlier images of the deeds of heroic patrons. Miller shared the belief of the writer who argued that the mural painter had a unique opportunity for "public service":
His task is to search the inarticulate soul of a people for those universal characteristics which make and sustain its greatness. His job is to give faith-inspiring form to these qualities, whether through historical, contemporary, or symbolical figures. The day of meaningless ladies styled Truth, Justice, Virtue, and so forth, is over. Equally unpalatable as public fare are personal convictions based on a merely personal view of life, and, at the opposite pole, the parade of art for art's sake esthetics. The strong, harmonious images which reveal our nobler qualities will strike a responsive chord in the public breast.
In their classically composed friezes of Fourteenth Street figures, their generalized individuals, and their homogeneous community, Laning and Bishop took a more distanced and detached view of the square and fashioned a harmonious, even ennobling, vision of everyday commercial life. In both form and subject their miniature murals suggest an economic system whose responsible members together will create a productive society. In the early days of the Depression their image would have either projected an optimistic future or recorded (nostalgically) the immediate past for a viewer who valued American material progress.
The sense of order and community that pervaded the rhetoric of Fourteenth Street businessmen, and the imposition of a classical order on Union Square paintings by Miller, Laning, and Bishop were a response to—perhaps even an attempt to control—a neighborhood undergoing extraordinarily rapid change in the 1920s. An article on building activity around the square opened with the statement, "Probably nowhere else in town is there such a concentration of building as is going on around Union Square at the present time"; it demonstrated that the activity was, in the first six months of 1928, higher than for the first six months of 1927 in all of Manhattan. By late September 1929 businessmen were anticipating enormous changes in property values. They were also beginning to accept the lower-class entertainment offerings of East Fourteenth Street as both inevitable and profitable. As early as 1926, they had anticipated the latest form of popular entertainment by constructing the New Academy of Music across from the old.
The New Academy will accommodate 5,000. It will be devoted exclusively to high-class screen productions interwoven with stage attractions. A pipe organ is being installed at a cost of $60,000 containing the full instrumentation of a symphony orchestra and also that of a jazz combination.... Mr. Fox's confidence in the future of the block is demonstrated by the large investment which the Fox Theatres Corporation has made in the latest addition to its chain of theatres.
Because the artists witnessed neighborhood growth, it is worth taking a brief tour around the square with the aid of descriptions, maps, and photographs to chart some of the more important changes.
By 1930 the Union Square district housed six banks. Most occupied imposing classically styled turn-of-the-century buildings that lent an aura of stability to the neighborhood. They employed hundreds of women clerical workers. The Union Square Savings Bank at 20-22 Union Square East was located in a small building with Corinthian columns (Figs. 3.4 and 3.5); it figured prominently in Isabel Bishop's neighborhood panoramas like Dante and Virgil in Union Square (Fig. 2.2) and provided the backdrop for Kenneth Hayes Miller's images of middle-class matrons (Fig. 4.6). The Corn Exchange Bank was a block away, at 34 Union Square East. Directly across the square, at 31 Union Square West, the Bank of Manhattan was headquartered in a tall building, constructed in 1901 and fronted by a semicircular
portico with two Ionic columns (Fig. 3.1). Further south, at 11-15 Union Square West, New York's first labor bank, the Amalgamated Labor Bank, occupied Tiffany's old building. The Central Savings Bank stood at the southeast corner of East Fourteenth Street and Fourth Avenue. Finally, in 1929 Manufacturers Trust Company moved into the ground floor of Tammany Hall's new headquarters at the corner of Seventeenth Street and Union Square East.
Neighborhood insurance and utility companies also hired vast numbers of women workers. The Guardian Life Insurance Company, with its high mansard roof, towered over the northeastern end of Union Square (Fig. 3.4). But the most significant addition to the square was the Consolidated Edison Company. Construction on the huge building began in 1915 on the site of the old Academy of Music at Irving Place between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets. By 1928 the building was crowned by a magnificent 531-foot tower with a clock. By night the tower was brilliantly illuminated, and it served year-round as a landmark for the square (Fig. 3.5). The artists would have watched the construction, and Bishop in her Union Square panoramas—even the small work showing Union Square torn up for reconstruction (Fig. 3.6)—made it a glowing symbol of progress. Similarly, in Union Square the novelist Albert Halper used the clock tower, with its "solemn, stately bongs," to structure the relentless progress of time through the novel and the everyday lives of its characters.
By far the most important commercial change in Union Square was the growth of retail women's wear in the twenties: large firms employing hundreds of women sold thousands of dresses. According to some accounts, stores sold more women's apparel in one day on Union Square than in any other place in the country. The prosperity of retail trade on Union Square continued virtually unchecked into the 1930s and was largely responsible for bringing to the district the crowds of women shoppers who became the mainstay of Miller's imagery. The most successful stores were Hearn's, Ohrbach's, and S. Klein's.
Hearn's was one of New York's oldest. Established in 1879 , it remained in its location between Fifth and Sixth avenues on West Fourteenth Street when most other department stores moved uptown. By the elder Hearn's original 1879 account, parts of which were quoted by the Fourteenth Street Association in a 1925 New York Times article, he chose the site because there were more women on Fourteenth Street than in any other retail district in the city and because "I would not give a snap of my finger for all the trade we obtain from men." Hearn knew his clientele. "I may mention that I found the best-dressed people, and consequently the class who are likely to spend the most money, on upper Broadway. Fourteenth Street came next in this respect, and Sixth Avenue next to that." Hearn's would retain a predominantly middle- to lower-middle-class clientele throughout the Depression.
The twenties brought prosperity and continuing expansion to Hearn's. In 1926 the store added a Fifth Avenue entrance, leasing the property at 74-76 Fifth Avenue
and thereby adding 50,000 square feet of selling and storage space; the store acquired a long-term lease at 6 West Fourteenth Street, directly opposite Isabel Bishop's studio at 9 West Fourteenth Street. Unlike Ohrbach's and S. Klein's, which specialized in women's wear and accessories, Hearn's was a full-scale department store, less flashy than its uptown counterparts—Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and Altman's—but capable of offering a wider range of goods and services to its expanding clientele. As one shopping guide noted, Hearn's could attract even the elite with its offerings in fine linens, fit for "ambassadorial dinner parties":
Many women who never direct their chauffeurs below Fiftieth Street for months on end make their way to Hearn's when the linen supply is low. This store, with a fine feeling for the distinction between sheep and goats, has opened a special Fifth Avenue entrance for that part of its patronage which would never happen in from the Fourteenth Street side.
The Hearn's shopper became an important subject in Bishop's earliest paintings, not only because Bishop was influenced by her mentor, Kenneth Hayes Miller, but also because her studio looked out on Hearn's. At the time she painted the two similar works Hearn's Department Store—Fourteenth Street Shoppers (1927) and
Department Store Entrance (c. 1929; Fig. 3.7), Bishop was enrolled in Miller's mural-painting class at the Art Students League. There, as is evident in Department Store Entrance , she absorbed Miller's formalist and academic principles. All the figures move parallel to the picture plane. The setting is shallow, with double doors that divide the picture almost exactly in half. Figure placement conforms to compositional demands. The arch of the entrance is repeated below in the curved cloche hats, the fur collars, and the hem of the woman's coat in the center.
Bishop identified her early subjects as middle-class shoppers and, where they appear, their businessmen husbands. Whether in store entrances on Fourteenth Street or in the vast space of Union Square, these middle-class urbanites were for her the regular denizens of Fourteenth Street. Most of Bishop's shoppers wear simple, fashionable costumes. The woman at the center of Department Store Entrance (Fig. 3.7) wears an exaggerated version of the newest fashions (Fig. 3.8): the helmet-style hat; the coat with massive fur trim at collar, cuffs, and hem; and, beneath it, the longer dress with an uneven hem. Her costume and her proximity to equally fashionable male shoppers allows us to date the work to 1929. The shoppers in up-to-the-minute styles enhance the image of the neighborhood's stores as fashionable.
Samuel Klein received much of the credit for the success of retail enterprises as well as for the renewal of Union Square in the 1920s. His development of a vast complex of stores for bargain women's wear established and stabilized rents and fees for buildings in Union Square. Klein's was a classic American success story. In 1912 he began as a poor tailor in a Union Square loft. In 1924 he purchased the old Steinway Hall building at 103-107 East Fourteenth Street, at the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue. He demolished the building and constructed the seven-story edifice that became his main store. In 1926-27, he purchased the adjoining property (the Hotel America) at 2-18 Union Square East, and by January of 1928 he occupied the entire corner (Fig. 3.9). Then, in the heart of the Depression, Klein remodeled the three office buildings from 24 to 30 Union Square East. These buildings, adjacent to the Union Square Bank and a block from the other store, became Klein's annex (Fig. 3.5). The annex allowed Klein to sell his "better dresses" in a different locale, serving, in effect, to separate his lower-class bargain-basement shoppers from the middle-class patrons who in the Depression had less to spend on clothing. Prior to its construction, as one shopping guide explained, Klein's "better dress" department was not an easy place to shop:
A note to be filed under the Penny Saved section in your mind concerns S. Klein, a shop found in the grubby environs of Fourth Avenue and Fourteenth Street. Head in here and ask, with aplomb, to be shown the way to the Better Dress section, whose prices range upwards from $9.50, I give you my word. I do not understand the racket, but I know that you can pick up astounding bargains here in dresses that do not turn green when you wear them out in the sunlight. All the employees are engaged in sitting on high platforms watching for shoplifters, so expect no service.
S. Klein's, Fourteenth Street, and success became synonymous. In every way, Klein's overshadowed its equally successful, though less visible, competitor, Ohrbachs, at 48 East Fourteenth Street on the south side of the square at the corner of Broadway. Klein's overwhelmed Union Square with an extraordinary display of signage (Fig. 3.9). Bishop in her work, unlike her colleague Marsh (see Figs. 2.2 and 2.4), omitted all advertisements. She preferred to emphasize the measured sobriety of the building facades and the ranks of shoppers and to celebrate commercial success without the interruption of its garish trappings.
Klein's also overwhelmed Union Square with its extraordinary crowds of women shoppers, who bought as many as ten thousand dresses per day. In March 1930, there was a stampede of four thousand at the store, which forty special officers failed to quiet. Evidently, sale days regularly promised some chaos; the guidebook writer Gretta Palmer cautioned, "Please, in the name of the defenseless Police Department, do not choose a sale day for your visit. At this time, ropes are put around the curbing, trucks are overturned and the event is counted a failure without the breakage of one plate-glass window and an ambulance call."
Several artists featured the Klein's shopper. In Afternoon on the Avenue (1932; Fig. 3.10), Miller depicted an energetic shopper leaving Klein's (he included enough of the name on the store window to identify the locale). Behind her, a burly policeman watches over the scene. Mary Fife, Edward Laning's wife, who was also a Miller student, captured the chaos and humor of trying on clothes in Klein's
Dressing Room (undated; Fig. 3.11). She shows two groups of women in twisted baroque poses, parodying the three Graces as they struggle into or out of new garments. The floor is littered with gloves, hats, and ornaments; drapery and bows flutter; limbs flail. Commentators marveled at the exuberance of the Klein's ritual, with shoppers treating bargains as a life-and-death matter.
By contrast, even though the dressing room in Soyer's Shopping at Klein's is communal, it remains a place of reverie where the quiet contemplation of both self and self-transformation becomes possible (c. 1940; Fig. 3.12). A young woman gazes thoughtfully at herself and a new garment in a standing oval mirror—an image we cannot see. Soyer's picture contrasts the graceful pose of this figure with the awkwardness of another, seen from behind, who steps into her garment.
Miller's dressing room and bargain counter appear genteel in comparison with Fife's and Soyer's. Women in The Bargain Counter (Fig. 3.13), though crowded together, confer deliberately over the goods rather than grabbing them from one another, the reported practice at Klein's. In The Fitting Room Miller, who as a man lacked access to women's dressing rooms, conflated the communal dressing room with that of the fashionable department store, where saleswomen provided help to customers (Fig. 3.14). The figures in both works are in repose, their movements stately, as if the business at hand is a ritual. The sense of stability comes again from Miller's use of old master models and his studied placement of the formal elements
in the painting. In The Fitting Room Miller borrowed the motif of the three Graces for the three women on the left. Then he used a series of repeating drapery folds to tie them into a harmonious group. The U-shaped fur collar of the women on the left is carried into the drape of the central figure and across to the shoulders of the woman on the right. Identical U-shaped folds underline the buttocks of the women with their backs to the viewer. These curves are repeated throughout the picture, in the arched background, in hat shapes, and in hairstyles.
To judge from both Miller's, Laning's, and Bishop's pictorial responses to the neighborhood and the enthusiasm of business leaders, Union Square had once again become influential. Visually and verbally artists and business leaders constructed an image of a growing and prosperous district, a desirable place to shop and do business, and a pleasant environment just to pass through. In January 1930, Clark-son Cowl assessed the change:
I have seen the old district between 14th street and Washington Square hold its own and redevelop until today we have a veritable city within a city where thousands of lovers of historic New York make new homes for themselves and perhaps, hand on to their descendants something of the sturdy Americanism for which the old ninth ward has long been famous.
The rhetoric about the neighborhood's progress, financial stability, importance, and significance as a contributor to American community values was based in part on fact. On the eve of the Depression, however, many projects lay unfinished, and many dreams remained unrealized. The neighborhood's boosters never really succeeded in reversing a stubborn perception that Fourteenth Street could not sustain business ventures. Moreover, the vehicular tunnel originally proposed between West Fourteenth Street and New Jersey was eventually built from Canal Street. Fourteenth Street also lost the bid for a bus terminal to Times Square. With the onset of the Depression, projects that were under way ground to a halt. The developer Henry Mandel's proposed forty-three-story office building was never erected, leaving a gaping hole in the block between Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets on Union Square West, as seen in a 1929 aerial view (Fig. 3.15; see n. 26).
An even more unsightly space, visible in the same 1929 photograph, was the square itself. For almost eight years, from 1928 to 1936, the park was under renovation. As early as 1927, the Municipal Art Society of New York submitted plans to the Municipal Art Commission to redo the park, an old tree-lined space that had been a gathering place for unemployed men and a center for political rallies and speeches since the turn of the century. In April 1928 plans were announced for the construction of additional passageways, mezzanines, and platforms to connect the Union Square station of the Broadway line with the Fourteenth Street eastern subway line. Since all the lines intersected beneath Union Square, the plans necessitated raising the level of the park, constructing a retaining wall around the square, and complete relandscaping. The plan also called for relocating the park's statues to alleviate some of Union Square's traffic problems. The equestrian statue of George Washington was to be moved from the triangular point of land at Fourteenth Street and Fourth Avenue to the south end of the park, Abraham Lincoln from an analogous position at Fourteenth Street and Broadway (Fig. 3.4) to the north end of the Square, and Lafayette to the east side of the park, facing Klein's annex (Fig. 3.5 and Map 2).
Work on the park and the subway renovation began in August 1928 and was scheduled for completion in March 1929. Neighborhood businesses, proudly boasting that the new subway station would be the largest in Manhattan, looked forward to increased commerce. But from the beginning schedules went awry, plans were constantly revised, and frustration grew as the square remained in disarray. The Lafayette statue was moved in August 1929 as one of the first steps in improving the park. Isabel Bishop's small oil Union Square (Fig. 3.6) shows Adolf yon Donn-
dorf's Woman and Child statue, across the park from the Lafayette, surrounded by workmen and their carts and the torn-up earth of the square. In May 1931 Park Commissioner Herrick urged the speedy construction of the retaining wall and the installation of walks, benches, and fences to placate merchants and nearby residents who were complaining about the park's appearance. In August 1931 a New York Times editorial reported on years of slow work:
The square has had anything but a tranquil history in recent years. The exigencies of subway building required that it be torn up and regraded. The work was done without adequate planning and consultation, and consequently much of it had to be done over again at considerable expense to the city. For months, the area has not even been fit for soapbox oratory. Local merchants ... will be delighted when the park is restored to something of its former glory.
The Depression naturally slowed funding for the park's completion. In June 1932 topsoil was brought in (in a public ceremony); but when further appropriations were rescinded, the park remained unfinished. Landscaping was finally completed in 1935-36, eight years after the initial work had begun.
With the exception of Bishop's one small oil, the paintings of Union Square and Fourteenth Street by Bishop, Miller, and Laning avoided the ugliness of this "mud-
caked oval" and the eyesores around the square (Figs. 3.6 and 3.15). Bishop filled the square with sparkling light and a happy community of middle-class people. Laning in Fourteenth Street unified the symbols of commercial success—the institutions of Fourteenth Street and its participants—by choosing a limited palette of blues, pinks, and golds (Fig. 2.3). By painting the elevated structures in pastels that recall the palette of fifteenth-century Sienese painters and by simplifying all the elevated structures, he denied their decrepit condition. Miller, in In Fourteenth Street (Fig. 2.1; Plate 1) similarly stripped down forms and settings to avoid painting the seedier aspects of the district. One of the numerous photographs of Fourteenth Street windows by Reginald Marsh (Fig. 3.16) shows that they were filled to bursting with randomly arranged goods: an ideal of plenty rather than an aesthetic of simplicity governed the display. Miller removed all but a few items in the painting orchestrating them around the demands of repeating downward curves. His shoppers, with the three Graces at the front, are deliberately placed; nothing litters the sidewalk; the women are uniform types. No complex reflections detract from the overall clarity of design, of which Miller himself remarked: "It would be naive indeed to feel that one could go anywhere in the plastic art by just being spontaneous."
Images by Miller, Bishop, and Laning avoided evidence of the Depression in the early 1930s and thereby enhanced the perception of the neighborhood as a pristine environment characterized by middle-class commercial success. By creating a carefully structured and evenly painted contemporary classical style and by fashioning monumental idealized figures, Miller and his students sustained the optimistic vision of a homogeneous American urban community enacting rituals of commerce that assert the society's well-being, just as its boosters did.
Marsh, in contrast, deployed his updated Ashcan realism to document a different part of the district—East Fourteenth Street between Fourth and Third avenues—that contained cheap stores, restaurants, and entertainments (Figs. 3.17 and 3.18). The Ashcan painter John Sloan provided precedents for some of Marsh's paintings of this seedier block of the neighborhood, chief among them The Wigwam, Old Tammany Hall (Fig. 2.5), whose design was based on a 1928 etching of the same subject. Inspired by the sale of the building, which had been owned by one of New York's oldest and most corrupt political organizations, Sloan depicted the darkened facade of Tammany next to the glowing entrance of the Olympic Burlesque. Before the theater, crowds of women and men—sailors, newsboys, and policemen—promenade and flirt jovially. This image of New York captures the air of good-natured prosperity that characterized the mayorality of James J. Walker (1926-32) before the exposure of his corruption forced him to resign. Sloan later wrote of the etching, "Old Tammany Hall, the Headquarters of the bosses of New York City, has ceased to exist. It lurked, menacing, in dingy red brick, facing the tawdry amusements of East Fourteenth Street." In the painting Sloan exaggerated the raucous gaiety of the scene. He took a distant and slightly elevated position and separated the figures to clarify their interaction. Then he chose a strident palette of harsh browns, fiery oranges, and yellows to suggest the garishness of nighttime entertainment.
Marsh, like Sloan, was drawn to the block containing Fourteenth Street's less refined entertainment and commerce. He too depicted crowds of stereotyped figures set against tall building facades. Both Fourteenth Street (1932; Fig. 2.4) and In Fourteenth Street (1934; Fig. 3.19 and Plate 3) show the urban crowd on the street in quest of a cheap bargain—a chaotic pleasure search similar to the one Sloan depicted in The Wigwam, Old Tammany Hall . Marsh, however, compressed his space, filled the scene with figures to the point of horror vacui , and took the warmth of flirtatious interaction out of the scene. Like Sloan, Marsh celebrated, even reveled in, female beauty as he found it in lower-class or working women. Finding precedents in some of Sloan's mid-1920s etchings, works more illustrative and frankly sexual than Sloan's paintings, Marsh in his own etchings of the late 1920s coarsened and exaggerated the sexuality and tawdriness of Sloan's more decorous scenes. For example, the woman whose legs Sloan frankly exposes in Subway Stairs (Fig. 3.20) resembles the women of his earlier etchings, fresh-faced and exuberant
(Return from Toil , Fig. 3.21). Sloan sought out women with these qualities as his subjects and acknowledged his pleasure in them—the pleasure of a male viewer. "I enjoy a jolly subject like this just as I like a healthy kind of ribaldry. There is something clean and wholesome about ribaldry that is completely different from the salacious or pornographic." Marsh's women in etchings like Subway—Three Girls (1928; set in the Fourteenth Street subway) and BMT #3 (1929; Fig. 3.22) are chillier, more sophisticated, and more singularly self-possessed than the women in his paintings. This strategy increases the distance between the artist or viewer and the subject of the work; at the same time, it reflects the character of the flapper, the worldly wise and sexually experienced new woman of the jazz age.
Marsh, as a younger artist, was less restricted by genteel norms of both art and society than was Sloan, who came to maturity in the Progressive Era, before movies were part of the cultural landscape. Marsh's women in his painting Fourteenth Street Subway Stairs (1932; Fig. 3.23), in contrast to Sloan's women, are sophisticated beauties with curving figures. They are heavily made up like the movie queens whose look they emulated with the help of mass-produced beauty aids that had become widely available. Because this look was still at the periphery of beauty culture before 1920, the kind of women Marsh painted were not part of Sloan's experience.
Marsh chronicled a Fourteenth Street different from that of his compatriots, one that featured the district's cheap entertainments. The south side of the block between Fourth and Third avenues, as recorded in Marsh's photographs (Fig. 3.17) and in journalistic accounts, was lined with burlesque shows, bowling alleys, penny emporiums, orange drink stands, dance halls, and pool parlors, along with cheap restaurants. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, before the Irving Place Burlesque
left the neighborhood for good, Marsh etched and painted several images of it in which he contrasted women as objects with dazed or leering men (Fig. 3.24). He capitalized on the burlesque's exploitation of the female body to show off two other, equally gaudy, Fourteenth Street entertainments. In Ten Cents a Dance (1933; Fig. 3.25) Marsh painted taxi dancers, women for hire for dancing—like the Depression dance marathons, a quintessentially thirties phenomenon. The sultry women in this frieze, in their lurid red and yellow garments, engage the viewer and seem available for more than dancing. In Hudson Bay Fur Company (Fig. 3.26) Marsh depicted the live models who displayed furs in the large second-story windows of the Hudson Bay Fur Company, using strip-tease poses to titillate the viewer. The painting links the show window to the burlesque runway, a vantage point different from that afforded Marsh when he photographed the actual window (c. 1939; Fig. 3.27).
The varied population of Fourteenth Street was what attracted Marsh. He worked to capture the confusion of the crowds confronted by the chaotic sights, sounds, and cheap sidewalk shopping attractions that also gave the neighborhood its flavor in the accounts of journalists, guidebook writers, and storytellers during
the 1930s. This was the lower-class community that business leaders avoided discussing and the one that Miller, Bishop, and Laning homogenized into a prosperous middle-class community—making their subjects resemble themselves. This gaudy, constantly moving spectacle of Fourteenth Street engaged Marsh's fascination with popular culture and its participants, subjects the upper-class Marsh portrayed as the Other. In works like In Fourteenth Street (Fig. 3.19) Marsh focused on the street's proximity to the neighborhood where many immigrant families and poorer working-class people lived and its centrality for this population as a source of commercial entertainment and a place of commerce. In his paintings, Marsh saw Fourteenth Street as the archetypal melting pot described by a New York Times reporter, with many "races, colors and classes," from "river front and Bowery," from "a thousand domestic Main Streets," and from "fifty neighborhoods in wise old New York." He saw its population as the one Klein's catered to when it posted its warnings against shoplifting in a dozen languages. And he saw it as Albert Halper did in his novel Union Square , as a seething mass of humanity in which he found only ethnic types, never individuals.
Swarm after swarm of heads pass, wave on wave, all kinds of nationalities, the true melting pot of the town. Little dark Cuban women, big black Negresses from Jamaica, tony little kept women from West Side apartment houses, tall lanky Swedish girls with washed-out faded eyes, sturdy Polish housewives carrying big shopping bags—all crowd into the bargain stores and shove and push and jam near the counters.
Because many from the Lower East Side were attracted to the inexpensive entertainments of Fourteenth Street, writers compared these crowds to those at Coney Island, the favorite amusement escape for working-class immigrants and Marsh's other favorite subject. Moreover, guidebook writers and journalists were fascinated by the sidewalk salesman—the fly-by-night hawker who sold cheap goods and souvenirs on the run. They were awed by this exploitation of the poor by the poor and marveled at the array of goods offered for sale—"unbreakable combs, rubber toothbrushes, 'pitchers from Paris for men only'"; "sliced cocoanut, gloves, scarves, neckties, popular song sheets, ... magic roots which sprout fullblown gladiolas, peonies, or regal lilies; prophecies from a turbaned seer." Halper captured the look, sound, and turbulent spirit of the sidewalk scene in Union Square :
There were also young men and boys who peddled songs printed on big, square sheets of paper, songs that told you all about the silver lining and how to chase the blues away. And further down were the high-pressure boys, the lads who spat and hawked their wares at you, offering, for your consideration, socks, bars of candy, twenty-five cent neckties ("they're worth two bucks apiece, mister, honest to Christ!"), shoelaces, needles for the lady of the house, and little Japanese toys to tickle the kiddies' fancy. But the cleverest lads of all were the fellows who sold worthless watches out of small, black leather bags, one eye out for passing suckers, the other on the policeman down the street.
The noise was terrific, everything was bedlam. Folks crossed the street against the traffic and were shouted at by our vigilant police. Everywhere you turned a vender shoved an object under your nose, yelling, screaming, urging you to buy. Some even clutched you by the arm, others followed you a way with whining voices....
Barkers stood in front of almost every store, like at a circus, rattling off the bargain prices of fur pieces, shoes and dresses hot from the marts of fashion, pointing to the goods in the windows.
Along with the hawkers there were those Halper called "the wrecked bits of humanity." The blind, legless beggars—countless numbers of them—many on small platforms with wheels, were either veterans or clothed themselves in uniform to make a good impression. With their faithful dogs they made their way to the district at "the first crack of daylight" to gain an honest or dishonest living.
Fourteenth Street also offered legitimate bargains in numerous smaller stores and thus became for first- and second-generation immigrants what Fifth Avenue was to those in the social register. To these new Americans the street symbolized abun-
dance and democracy; there they could buy cheaper versions of everything rich people possessed uptown. One writer characterized Fourteenth Street as a place where
The second generation quickly catches the spirit of American folk ways and appears in Fourteenth Street adaptations of Fifth Avenue modes. Youth clusters around the clothing store windows on its way home from work. Silk stockings are as sheer and skirts as short and jaunty of their kind on Fourteenth Street as on Park Avenue. The little shop girl with her $15 a week may within her circle rival a queen of the uptown social world in dressiness if she lives at home. On her way to and from business she studies the field of fashion as presented in the shop windows she passes.
Iconographically and structurally, Marsh's paintings of Fourteenth Street shopping crowds are about consumer energy, chaos, and confusion. Marsh photographed the district and put its legless beggars and sandwich-board advertisers in his paintings (Figs. 3.17-3.19; Plate 3). Like Halper, he transformed the district into an image of Bedlam. Using the iconography of Michelangelo's Last Judgment from the Sistine Chapel (Fig. 3.28) in In Fourteenth Street , Marsh depicted modern commerce as both heaven and hell. At the center of the swirling maelstrom attracted to the temptations of Fourteenth Street's sidewalk commerce, the hawker, one of Halper's conniving clever lads with a black leather satchel, assumes the pose of the judging Christ—but in reverse. Marsh's hawker—a deceptive figure—raises his (sinister) left hand instead of his right and offers seduction instead of judgment. Furthermore, this figure and another salesman working the crowd below him are painted in grisaille. In an otherwise colorful group they are bloodless, shadowy figures, exploiting the crowd with cheap fly-by-night goods. The image suggests Marsh's ambivalence toward an urban scene that was energetic and exciting but also cynical and chaotic.
Marsh's ambivalence is even clearer when contrasted with the more overtly acerbic vision of the social realist painter Philip Evergood, who depicted the Fourteenth Street crowd beneath the Hudson Bay Fur Company. The figures in Evergood's Treadmill (c. 1936; Fig. 3.29), reminiscent of the satirist George Grosz's caricatures, show the bankruptcy of American commercial civilization. Vicious-looking men, and women in see-through dresses, cavort against a dizzying fiat backdrop of flashing neon lights and signs. These women move provocatively before a storefront as similarly attired women display themselves in the windows of the Hobson & Co. store above, a parodic reference to the actual Hudson Bay Fur Company. The juxtaposition of the two friezes of cartoon-like figures suggests the close relationship between those who sell and those who purchase.
To capture the overwhelming visual and aural sensations of the district's gaudier commercial side, Marsh and writers like Halper resorted to a rhetoric that was inclusive and documentary as well as stereotypical and hyperbolic. Although they sought to catalog what was there, the stylistic exaggeration—whether in layers of
words or in densely crowded and detailed settings—suggests their ambivalent response. Ethnic stereotypes inscribe class difference in the scenes, as does the frequently elevated and distanced point of view, which constructs a middle- to upper-middle-class observer. In the chaotic compositions, moreover, those in the crowds are deemed out of order—an Other somehow less civilized. At the same time, these pictures also examine how modern urban society—through advertising, movies, radio, and news media—had multiplied sensations to the point of overload, so that both the individual and the community had become fragmented. The paintings thus simultaneously describe forces beyond individual control and specific daily events. Dislocation in Marsh's shopping crowds provides a point of contrast with the cheerful, stable crowds of Laning and Bishop. Their images encapsulate the myth of urban optimism in the 1920s, when the idea of civilization seemed a positive force in the march of progress. Marsh's images express a tension his friends and critics struggled to convey. Laning wrote that Marsh's New York was "vibrant, alive and various but it curiously resembles New York as a stranger sees it. The city remains always wonderful to him, something hectic, dazzly and in a sense meaningless." Although Marsh celebrated the energy of the urban crowd, he recognized the alienation of individuals in it and thus showed an image of the 1930s formed when the ideal of urban civilization was increasingly in doubt.
From a growing interest in the social sciences, which studied individual and group behavior, to an increase in radical protest, doubts about American civilization (understood in the Progressive Era as scientific advance, industrial and technological progress, and new forms of organizations and institutions) surfaced frequently in the Depression, particularly around Union Square. The district was more politically active at the end of the 1920s and into the early years of the 1930s than at any time in its long history as the center for radical politics. Membership in radical organizations and participation in individual political events increased dramatically as artists and writers from all political backgrounds felt threatened by the economic crisis.
Among the Fourteenth Street School artists, Soyer regularly attended meetings at the Communist-run John Reed Club; he taught classes there, worked on group murals, and made it his social center. Laning exhibited works in two of the club's major exhibitions, The World Crisis Expressed in Art in 1933 and Revolutionary Front in 1934, and he attended occasional meetings until he became involved in government projects. The only shopper image by Miller in the John Reed Club's exhibition The Social Viewpoint in Art in 1933 drew negative comments from leftist critics for its lack of social commitment to the working class. In May and June 1931 Marsh attended four "communism" classes at the Workers' School on Union Square, and his diaries record his attendance at a John Reed Club meeting on March 27, 1933. The following January he taught a morning class at the club. He watched two demonstrations on Union Square in the spring of 1933, noting after one of
them that he walked around all night talking with a friend (presumably about the event); in June he made his print of the square featuring the unemployed men gathered at the base of the George Washington monument (Fig. 3.30). From 1926 until the mid-1930s Marsh, following his pattern of working as an illustrator for magazines across the political spectrum, contributed over a dozen drawings and prints to the New Masses . Isabel Bishop participated in none of these early decade events. Then, although she, Marsh, and Miller never signed the original call for the American Artists' Congress in 1935 (though Soyer did), she subsequently became a member and participated in its exhibitions. Like many liberals, she believed in its mission to support artistic freedom against the global threat of Fascism. Following the signing of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact and the Soviet invasion of Finland, the congress splintered to include a group that could no longer support Stalinist policies. Bishop was one of these "Congress Seceders" who joined the Society for Modern Artists (also called the Federation of Modern Painters) to "promote the welfare of free progressive artists working in America." The group denounced all forces working against cultural development and all forms of totalitarianism, including those of Russia, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
Numerous radical groups met in their headquarters around the square during the 1930s (See Map 2). The district had been the scene of relatively little political agitation until the late 1920s. Then, an increasingly tense political climate, nationally and internationally, brought May Day rallies, unemployment demonstrations, and protests against police brutality to the district. After the August 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, conflict began when police injured several of the five thousand sympathizers who had gathered for an all-night vigil. In 1929 five thousand Communists staged the first May Day rally in Union Square since 1916. Eighteen days later, when three hundred Communist party members displayed from the windows of the Communist party headquarters a sign reading "Down with Walker's Police Brutality," police entered the building without a warrant and arrested twenty-seven participants, including nine children. The largest and most violent unemployment demonstration—with thirty-five thousand participants-erupted on March 6, 1930. By the end of the day, one hundred had been injured, and news accounts across the political spectrum condemned the zealousness with which plain-clothes police "pummeled" the victims with their nightsticks.
This last event galvanized the public against police interference, and under pressure, city officials guaranteed the right to free assembly in the square. Subsequent May Day rallies, though larger every year, remained peaceful throughout the Depression. These gatherings continued to reflect the changing political climate: 1935 was the last year in which Socialists and Communists marched in separate parades; 1936 brought a united demonstration against the threat of Fascism—"the quietest parade in years"—leading police to set aside their nightsticks. The 1937 parade stressed aid to Spain as its theme.
Even as Union Square continued as a center for radicalism, municipal leaders and store owners, concerned about the effects of demonstrations on business, decided to make the district into a patriotic center as an antidote to radical activities. The Veterans of Foreign Wars received permits to stage their first in a series of annual May Day activities immediately following the Communists' rallies. Much to local business leaders' delight, Park Commissioner Herrick announced a celebration of Washington's birthday for Union Square, specifically designed to rid Union Square of its Communist reputation and "cleanse its atmosphere." Then in April 1932, with accolades from both Mayor Walker and President Hoover, local business leaders presented a Union Square centennial, also designed to renew patriotic spirit. President Hoover praised the neighborhood as a center of "industry, finance and commerce." Noticeably absent was any mention of the park as a center of free speech, assembly, and the quest for social betterment. This elaborate centennial celebration, which featured a civic pageant and an Americanization meeting, helped spur the renovation of the park as a showpiece for American democratic values.
Although all the Fourteenth Street artists made their imagery more responsive to the worsening conditions of the Depression, only a few of their images depict
demonstrations or gatherings on Union Square. Miller, the oldest and most conservative, artistically and politically, made only minor modifications to his matronly shopper type, showing her less fashionably dressed or in bargain-counter settings to suggest her economic constraints (Figs. 3.10 and 3.13). Laning, who adhered to his youthful mural style in his few Fourteenth Street images from 1931, depicted neighborhood political events in works like Unlawful Assembly, Union Square, a staid image in which two mounted officers direct the dispersal of a crowd containing only a few mildly agitated individuals, and Street Orator (Fig. 3.33). These were the first of a small body of works that Laning may have been inspired to paint during the brief time he participated in John Reed Club activities. Bishop, who avoided political affiliations throughout the decade, painted a few images of unemployed men. These appeared as she began to move away from Miller's example in subject and style, adopting looser brushwork and a darker palette. Marsh during the worst years of the Depression looked not only to Fourteenth Street's inexpensive entertainment attractions, but also to Union Square and its growing number of unemployed. He may well have used his classes at the Workers' School as Soyer used John Reed Club meetings—as an education in socially conscious art, put to use in his drawings and cartoons for the New Masses . These works, which incorporate a critical edge, are predominantly satires of the rich and, as in "Birthday Party" or "No One Has Starved," satiric images about unemployment (Figs. 3.30 and 3.31). Soyer in the 1930s darkened his palette to create his "brown paintings of the unemployed," worked in a more "naturalistic"—topical and descriptive—
manner, and transformed his studio settings into street scenes. Furthermore, he sketched and painted images of his fellow Communists at the John Reed Club (Fig. 3.32), whose meetings he attended regularly beginning in 1929, and the Artists' Union, formed in 1933. Though a quiet member rather than an activist, Soyer, of all the Fourteenth Street artists, remained the most regular participant in radical organizations.
None of the images by Fourteenth Street artists depicts demonstrations on Union Square; none overtly criticizes the social or political order. Instead, the pictorial language remains consistent with that of other works in each artist's oeuvre and adheres to the basic attributes of Fourteenth Street realism. In Street Orator Laning applies the contemporary classical realism of his more generalized Fourteenth Street (Fig. 2.3) to a political protest (1931; Fig. 3.33). In this work a soapbox orator stands amid a relaxed crowd that includes matronly shoppers, businessmen, and workers. A policeman, at the right, converses in friendly fashion with one of the spectators, using his nightstick only to make his points.
A comparison of Laning's Street Orator with Morris Kantor's Union Square helps to distinguish the old-fashioned patriotism of Laning's work from the more
strident, politicized social realism of Kantor's (Fig. 3.34). Kantor's orator is a faceless, muscular worker, the sleeves of his T-shirt rolled up to reveal strong arms, his fists clenched as he speaks to a crowd of male workers, listening with rapt attention. Loudspeakers and a reporter in the foreground will broadcast his heroic plea for justice, social betterment, and improved working conditions. The reporter and PA system also define the official nature of the rally. Kantor's orator stands out in sharp contrast to the rectilinear silhouettes of modern buildings, whose omi-
nous tiers of blank windows rise above the scene, their institutionalized power a threat to the masses. Yet a spatial perspective that telescopes sharply down and away from the foreground ultimately minimizes the scale of the architecture and enhances the heroic dimensions of the worker. His lone "voice" becomes a compelling call to political activism in the service of social and economic change.
Laning's picture is a small-scale easel painting, Kantor's a life-size panel. Laning's picture, to judge from the crowd, the location (Fourteenth Street rather than Union
Square), and the lack of loudspeakers, depicts one of the spontaneous speeches made daily by self-appointed speakers of various political persuasions who made their way to the district with something to say. Low storefronts with decorative finials, fluttering sale banners, and the pavilions and ironwork of the Victorian-style elevated impart a comforting sense of early twentieth-century American Main Street on the Fourth of July. In Laning's more intimate street scene the orator wears a business suit and stands before an American flag (in 1931 both anti-capitalist radicals and pro-American groups saw themselves as patriots and used American flags at their rallies). By placing the orator in the background in a scene using conventional one-point perspective, Laning minimizes his importance, decreases the drama of the scene, and thereby, unlike Kantor, focuses on the ordinary and typical rather than the extraordinary and exigent. Laning's orator practically disappears into the setting, with its massive yellow awning and gaily colored signs, which also detract attention from his oratory.
Though Laning chooses a scene of potential discord, his contemporary classical realism dilutes any message about the power of the political process to alter or improve carefully constructed patterns of community life. The celebratory qualities of the picture—its bright colors, fluttering banners, and harmonious composition—along with the restrained behavior of the crowd recall Laning's archetypal affirmation of community life in Fourteenth Street . In his art the politically charged Fourteenth Street environment supported a more general renewal of the values of free speech in a democratic society.
Around 1932 Raphael Soyer also painted a neighborhood rally, called The Crowd (Fig. 3.35). According to Soyer, it is one of only two works he made under the "direct influence" of the John Reed Club. In its present state, the image is a fragment of a larger painting, originally called Union Square , of a girl making a speech to a group of demonstrators. When the work was damaged, Soyer cut out what was salvageable: a group of demonstrators, part of the background above their heads, and, at left, a portion of the American flag on the speaker's platform.
Where Laning's contemporary classical realism allowed him to mask the tensions of the Union Square rally, Soyer's updated Ashcan school realism draws the viewer close to his subjects and suggests the complexity of their situation. He uses coarse brushwork and a dull palette of blues, browns, and grays to depict the listeners' rough garments, which suggest the downtrodden condition of their lives. But he also suffuses their open, attentive faces with a warm light, romanticizing their growing awareness of their plight and their hope for change. It is an image of quiet attention rather than strident agitation. In closely scrutinizing individual responses to the rally, it invites a more immediate empathy with members of the working class than do the generalized depictions of types in crowds in other Fourteenth Street School paintings.
Only one untitled crayon drawing by Marsh in the New Masses depicts any police brutality (Fig. 3.36). A small but powerful image, it pits a group of men fleeing in terror against a wall of anonymous policemen, who rise above them, brandishing sticks with a measured cadence that recalls the Napoleonic executioners in Goya's famous Third of May, 1808 . To judge from the victims' backward glance, the police pursue them from behind as well—there is no escape from seen or unseen foes. Reversing his usual topical approach, Marsh eliminates any specific signs or references, so that the experienced fear can be attributed to a wider range of repressive forces, from local to international, rather than to a specific event. The drawing contrasts with the high legibility and the immediately comprehensible message more typical of political graphics in the early 1930s. José Pavon's lithograph of a Fourteenth Street anti-Fascist rally being dispersed by police includes storefront signs, political placards, strong light and dark contrasts to set the tone of conflict, and simply drawn anonymous figures to make an easily understood image for the viewer (Fig. 3.37). Similarly, William Gropper, in "Free Speech," one of his many images of police brutality, drawn for the New Masses , sets three enormous policemen wielding clubs against a small frightened worker (Fig. 3.38). A caricatural
display of distorted features and extreme contrasts of scale make the topic immediately clear.
For his graphic works related to Union Square activities, Marsh also drew on the tradition of John Sloan and his work for The Masses . Between 1912 and 1917 Sloan had been one of the major contributors to this radical publication, which had effectively combined art and politics in its drawings and articles. Featuring works by the cartoonist Art Young and the artists Stuart Davis, George Bellows, and Boardman Robinson (whom Marsh admired greatly) and articles by Max Eastman, John Reed, and Floyd Dell, The Masses took on virtually every Progressive Era cause, advocating feminism, free love, and birth control; criticizing organized religion and racism; and, as a Socialist publication, taking on the cause of labor and the working class. Artists for The Masses , as Rebecca Zurier has shown, rejected the widely accepted style of illustration that featured a precise line, substantial descriptive detail, and high finish; instead they popularized a rough crayon style. Based on the lithographic work of the nineteenth-century artist Honoré Daumier, this rougher style came to signify the directness and simplicity appropriate to making a "people's art." With the renewal of the New Masses many artists who moved politically to the left found this style appropriate to portraying the economic and
political problems of the Depression. Many of the crayon-style drawings, etchings, and lithographs Marsh made for the New Masses approach the style and sentiment of works for the earlier publication in their adoption of the direct medium and their depiction of working-class struggles. The audience for which Marsh made these drawings was entirely different from the audience for his paintings. To make them effective, he educated himself in the leftist doctrines and messages these works were meant to convey in classes at the Workers' School in the early 1930s, and he adopted for them the "people's medium" of the representational print rather than the easel painting, condemned as a tool of the capitalist bourgeois epoch. As a consequence, many of these works carry a more satiric message than do Marsh's paintings.
In his study of satiric graphic work in the 1930s, Richard Masteller has used the term "cultural satire" to describe Marsh's graphics. Unlike lighthearted, less critical social satire, which pokes fun at the quirks of average people at work or play, and unlike blunt political satire, which uses simple symbols to attack capitalism and political corruption, as in the work of Gropper, cultural satire reveals the "psychological and spiritual consequences" of Depression era events. In works frequently characterized by substantial detail and dark tonalities, cultural satire unmasks, often subtly and indirectly, the systemic and frequently irresolvable contradictions of society, taking, as I have argued about Marsh's Union Square paintings, an ambivalent stance. Marsh's print "Union Square," for example, situates the viewer well beneath the towering figure of the George Washington monument by exaggerating the scale of the pedestal (Fig. 3.30). The distance between the ideal of freedom embodied in the monument and the unemployed men below becomes insurmountable. At the same time, the monument itself becomes more heroic, a visual device that forces confrontation with the irony of the system. This print, made for the Contemporary Print Group, was the first in a portfolio entitled The American Scene No. 1 . When the same print appeared in the New Masses , it was titled "Birthday Party," in ironic reference to the recent bicentennial celebration of Washington's birthday. That the scene could be used for two very different audiences suggests the multivalent context of cultural satire, especially as Marsh used it.
As painters engaged—by temperament, training, and personal preference—with the values of American Scene realism rather than a blunt social realism, the Fourteenth Street group avoided direct criticism of the social order in painting their subjects, even when depicting the political events of the neighborhood. They did the same in their images of the unemployed. From about 1932 to 1936, Marsh, Bishop, and Soyer moved into Union Square and portrayed the poor and the unemployed men who had migrated north to Union Square from the Bowery and congregated at the bases of the five major monuments in the park. In none of these works do the subjects stage demonstrations or suggest their dissatisfaction with the system whose failures contributed to their condition.
Instead, the unemployed men in paintings like Bishop's The Club (1935; Fig. 3.39), Marsh's Alma Mater (1933; Fig. 3.40), and Soyer's In the City Park (1934; Fig. 3.41) wait patiently for their situation to change. In Bishop's and Marsh's work the figures have a classical dignity; none is individualized, thanks to a dark palette, soft obscuring brushwork, and the placement of the figures in a deep space. As a result, there is an air of timelessness to these topical works, as if the sad figures will continue patiently at their stations long after the Depression ends. Soyer's figures, by contrast, seem more transient. With his homeless models the artist created portraits of the unemployed. He then used a harsh golden brown ochre for their skin tone, sharply illuminated their faces, and placed the three men in the right foreground so
close to the viewer that their plight cannot be avoided. While Soyer's painting personalizes and thereby reinforces the hardship of the many unemployed, the subjects remain, as Soyer himself described them, "silent, non-demanding" figures.
A statement by Philip Evergood helps to distinguish between social realism and Fourteenth Street realism as it was understood at the time. Evergood contrasted the angry bums of his own expressionistic drawing, as in North River Jungle (1933; Fig. 3.42), with Marsh's unemployed men.
When Marsh painted his Bowery bums he was seeing them through the eyes of a social observer and not through the eyes of a social thinker. Oh, yes, Marsh saw the sadness and the unfairness and Marsh was sorry for the bums, but he accepted this state of society and this picturesque scene, representing New York as inevitable. Hence, Marsh's bums are "classical," "acceptable" bums, acceptable as lost souls and classical in their tragic hopelessness. My bums, which I painted at the same time as Marsh, were dangerous bums, discontented bums, because mine had not accepted their lot. Mine were not congenital bums, but transient bums.
As a committed social realist, Evergood faulted Marsh for his failure to give the unemployed a strong voice, along with the power to alter their situation.
By the mid-1930s, a number of changes in the political, social, and economic climate had contributed to the production of new themes in Union Square imagery for several of the artists. Though unemployment remained high, government projects brought relief, and with Roosevelt's re-election in 1936 a short period of recovery fueled a perception that conditions were improving. Around Union Square, the new Popular Front movement united Communists, Socialists, and liberal New Dealers in the struggle for freedom and democracy against the threat of Fascism. In this more confident and hopeful climate, the Fourteenth Street artists produced images of working Americans, among them Soyer's and Bishop's clerical workers and shopgirls—additions to the already established iconography of women shoppers that completed the repertoire of neighborhood images.
The Fourteenth Street neighborhood was a timely symbol of both prosperity and despair between the wars. As an entrepreneurial and politically charged environment it elicited a wide range of commentary from artists, writers, and merchants in the district. Although none of the Fourteenth Street realists were radical innovators in their pictorial form, drawing instead on a body of traditions from both European and American sources and concerning themselves with ideas in mainstream art circles, they recombined established traditions in complex ways, often experimenting in different media. Their efforts resulted in works that cut across the political spectrum without fully advocating revolutionary social change.
The Fourteenth Street neighborhood was the stage for some of the larger changes reshaping American urban life—the sexual revolution, the increasingly restless pace of twentieth-century work and leisure, the development of mass culture, and the economic collapse, as registered in the lines of unemployed men. Artists selectively represented the life they saw around them, exploring changes in women's activities and shifting ideals of womanhood and participating, deliberately or inadvertently, through their paintings in the construction of gender identities in the period. The next four chapters move within and beyond the intersecting frames set out here—the discourse of new womanhood, the artists, and the neighborhood—to examine each artist's specific representations of new women.