A midcentury artist captures the anonymity of the subway in 5 paintings

Bernard Gussow was born in Russia in 1881. But by 1900 he’d made it to the Lower East Side, where he was described as an “East Side artist” in a New York Times article about paintings he displayed at an art show at the Educational Alliance settlement house on East Broadway.

[“Subway Steps”]

Gussow would get his name in newspapers many times, mostly in the teens, 20s, and 30s. Usually grouped with other artists (like John Sloan) of his era, this Art Students League attendee would be described as “interpreting the spirit of East Side life.”

[“Crowded Subway Car”]

After the 1930s, his mentions in the papers drop precipitously. His life ended in 1957; additional biographical information on this midcentury painter is scant.

But his relative anonymity as a New York City artist seems strangely appropriate considering the anonymity of the people he captured in a series of subway images, all of which look to be from the 1930s and 1940s.

[“Seventh Avenue Local”]

Remember the subway? If you’re one of the millions of New Yorkers who haven’t returned underground since the pandemic, Gussow’s images will remind you of what riding the subway has always felt like—a solitary experience amid dozens of other people trudging up and down staircases and carving out breathing room on a packed train car.

[“Grand Central Station”]

I found one reference to a collection of subway images by Gussow in a 1934 newspaper piece. I don’t know if they include any of the ones here, which I find to be haunting in their anonymity and human isolation.

There appears to be only a few moments of fleeting interaction between people: a man seems to give the side-eye to a woman pressed against his coat in the second image; in the third, a woman seated on the train stares up at the man standing over her.

[“The Stairwell”]

“‘Subway Passages’ by Bernard Gussow is an extraordinarily vivid impression of being in a subway. The hurrying hordes of people, impersonal, detached, more like animals than human beings, have been adequately transcribed by the artist with the depiction of only 32 figures,” the article, from the Elmira Star Gazette, states.

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25 Responses to “A midcentury artist captures the anonymity of the subway in 5 paintings”

  1. John Herr Says:

    See also George Tooker’s ominous The Subway (1950) at the Whitney Museum. John Herr

  2. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Just like being with the anonymous hoards teaming about you…I miss those days.

  3. Steve Gorka Says:

    Something in his style makes me think of Ben Katchor (Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer).

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I just took a look at some Knipl images and I think you’re right—I didn’t notice that when I wrote the post!

  4. andrewalpern Says:

    Any relation to Mel Gussow (1933-2005) of The NYTimes?

  5. Shelly Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, it’s a really interesting collection of paintings. What also struck me about them is the uniformity of color amongst the commuters’ clothing: drab, beige, muted… Perhaps adding to the idea of anonymity. And, the lack of expression on their faces, eyes looking down, off, away. Trance-like, almost. This reinforces the fact that these people are conditioned (like true New Yorkers) to go through the motions. I always could spot a tourist a mile away on the subway- they’re the ones looking around at everyone and everything.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I noticed the muted colors too, and I agree, it adds to the sense of anonymity. You’re also right about the going through the motions, in my opinion. The daily subway commute most New Yorkers take part in (or did take part in before the work from home era began) becomes as routine as brushing your teeth.

  6. cgay88verizonnet Says:

    A midcentury artist? Somethng missing in that headline.

  7. Greg Says:

    Interesting article. Hopefully someone will tell us more about him.

  8. Bill Wolfe Says:

    These feel very European to me. I can’t explain exactly why, other than they remind me of many post-World War I art that came from the Continent. Having been a daily subway rider, circa 1980, they certainly capture the experience – although they weren’t any boom boxes in the 1930s!

  9. velovixen Says:

    I agree that the muted colors add to the feeling of anonymity and even alienation. In reference to what Bill Wolfe says: The faces, bodies and other figures aren’t strictly realistic, nor are they abstract. Rather, they seem almost iconographic, as if a medieval artist were trying to depict those feelings of alone-ness, or if Hieronymous Bosch were painting the daily routine of corporate workers. (Though his subjects are very different, I think Chagall brought some of that iconographic quality to modern painting.)

    I’ve seen the George Tooker subway paintings: They also depict the alienation and isolation, but in a more outward way than Gussow’s paintings. (That said, I have been a fan of Tooker since I saw his “Sleepers” paintings in an exhibit years ago.)

  10. archeonix Says:

    Gussow was an explorer of shadow; and yet also a special colorist. In some paintings i.e. Newark Nocturne, he presaged chromatic and painterly elements of abstract expressionism. Thanks, for rediscovering this forgotten artist.

  11. J Says:

    Was Gussow, in the 1930’s subway series using b&w photography to capture the brief images he then executed these paintings

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I didn’t come across enough information about Gussow to find out. But it’s an intriguing question.

  12. Maxine Says:

    I love these pictures. Are they for sale?

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