Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

A lawyer-turned-artist’s moody Greenwich Village

December 3, 2018

Until recently, I’d never heard of Greenwich Village painter Anthony Springer. But I’ve found myself captivated by his colorful, textural images of a less dense, less luxurious Village and other surrounding neighborhoods.

Born in 1928, Springer, a native New Yorker, worked as a lawyer before deciding to make painting his vocation at the age of 40, according to friend and fellow artist Robert Holden in 2013 on his blog, Painting Life Stories.

“Tony was a wonderful, quietly mysterious kind of guy, who played poker all night long, slept until the late morning, and then grabbed his half-box French easel and 16×20 inch stretched linen canvas to go paint the narrow side streets of the Village in the dusty afternoon light, a habit he kept up for 20 years or more,” wrote Holden.

When he died in 1995, Springer left behind “hundreds of his beautiful, moody gray cityscapes,” he wrote.

More than two decades or so have passed since Springer’s death, and his evocative work serves as a reminder of the very different pre-2000s Greenwich Village.

Springer’s “Meatpacking District,” at top, takes us to the Belgian block intersection of Greenwich and Gansevoort Streets.

When Springer painted it, this was a daytime corner of trucks, garbage carts, and pigeons before it became an pricey restaurant playground.

His image of a gas station amid tenements is a reminder that downtown used to actually have gas stations. Could this be the one Eighth and Greenwich Avenues?

“Downtown Street” shows a quiet scene of a narrow side street and empty sidewalks. Maybe Mercer Street, or Greene Street?

The last image, “Townhouses and Naked Trees,” feels appropriate for the current season with winter approaching. Hmm, Tenth Street?

[First and last images: Doyle; second and third images: mutualart]

“The subway is a microcosm of New York City”

November 19, 2018

We may never know what printmaker Harry Sternberg was thinking when he etched this rich, detailed scene inside a city subway car (appropriately titled “Subway Car”) in 1930.

But I like Nicole Viglini’s take on a web page published by Smith College Museum of Art in 2015: that Sternberg, who was born on the Lower East Side in 1904 and as a kid took free art classes at the Brooklyn Museum, depicted a microcosm of New York City.

“Though people from many different walks of life are present together, they do not directly interact with one another,” Viglini wrote. “A couple chats in the foreground, and a few shady-looking men look askance; everyone else seems to be absorbed in their own thoughts.”

“The ads above the seats remind the viewer of the busy commercial madhouse above ground. Within the confines of the subway car, hurtling through tunnels beneath the chaotic city, there is a measure of calm and a respite for people to regain some modicum of control.”

What one painter saw on Armistice Night, 1918

November 12, 2018

Almost exactly 100 years ago, social realist painter George Luks—who honed his artistic skills in Philadelphia before moving to New York in 1896—captured this scene on the night World War I ended.

“In Armistice Night, as in his earlier illustrations, Luks does not deliberate over particulars: the painting is a blur of American and Allied flags, faces, and fireworks,” states the Whitney Museum of Art.

“Blue smoke obscures the buildings in the background, and few individuals stand out in the quickly-rendered crowd. Typically, Luks was more committed to capturing the spirit of the moment than to transcribing visual facts—in this case the action and human drama in a celebratory crowd.”

I only wish I could positively identify the location. Union Square?

The many lives of Riverside Drive’s River Mansion

November 12, 2018

Sometimes you come across a house in New York City that you just sense has a good backstory.

The red-brick house at 337 Riverside Drive is such a place—and its fortunes reflect more than a century of changes on a winding street that began as the West Side’s answer to Upper Fifth Avenue.

Built in 1902 along with its restrained neighbor to the east on 106th Street, it’s an “opulent Beaux-Arts brick and limestone mansarded mansion,” reported the AIA Guide to New York City.

The curves above the bay windows give it something of an Art Nouveau feel too.

The name inscribed above the front door, “River Mansion,” is perfectly fitting; the oversized home sits on a corner high point beside Riverside Park with enchanting Hudson River views.

Of course, the first occupant of such a spectacular place couldn’t be any old titan of industry.

It was purchased in 1903 by Julia Marlowe, a famous Shakespearean actress whose life at the time had all the trappings of modern day celebrity: divorce, talk of a nervous breakdown, and loneliness.

Marlowe—known for taking long walks in Central Park to practice her lines—probably didn’t spend much time here though, writes author Daniel J. Wakin in his book, The Man With the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block.

She was on the road a lot, and in 1906 she sold River Mansion to the wife of businessman Lothar Faber, whose Greenpoint pencil factory is now a residence.

The Fabers already lived on Riverside Drive, and in a few years they left River House, which took on a succession of short-term owners.

By the time the Depression hit, River House had been converted to a rooming house, wrote Wakin, one tinged by tragic stories.

A fourth-floor apartment was the home of a doctor who committed suicide by jumping out the window. An Italian-born painter also had a room here; he made a meager living and died poor and alone in Bellevue Hospital of a brain tumor.

“As the neighborhood continued to decline, River Mansion changed hands several more times in the 1940s,” wrote Wakin, adding that a woman named Mrs. Dickmann ran a boardinghouse here in the 1950s.

River House’s bounce back started in the 1970s. It was part of a newly created historic district, and the house went back to being a single-family residence; a music school operated here.

In 1978, Seagrum heir Edgar Bronfman, Jr., bought River Mansion and turned it into his family home. He’s since moved out, but the house remains a personal residence.

The Riverside Drive of the early 1900s (seen above at left) is no longer. But Riverside Drive once again thrives today—and River Mansion still stands.

The facade and structure don’t appear to have changed very much. And as a treat, the original cast-iron fence from Julia Marlowe’s time continues to encircle the place, according to the Riverside-West 105th Street Historic District Designation Report.

[Fifth photo: University of Cincinnati; sixth image: NYPL]

The artist and scholar gargoyles on 121st Street

November 12, 2018

Copper bay windows, grand arches, juliet balconies and a sloping roof: As university housing goes, the 8-story Bancroft Apartments are pretty fanciful.

Preeminent architect Emery Roth designed the building, which opened at 509 West 121st Street in 1910.

By 1920, it had been acquired by Columbia University’s Teachers College, just a block away in the city’s new Acropolis neighborhood, so named for the many schools in the area.

Considering that what’s now called Bancroft Hall ended up housing educators, it makes sense that the gargoyles decorating the facade are nods toward higher learning.

Behold the building’s wonderful painter and scholar (a writer perhaps, pointing to letters in a book?). I don’t think these characters represent any specific people but instead symbolize creativity, education, and imagination.

Walter Grutchfield has more on the Bancroft Apartments, including an amazing shot of an inscription on the upper wall. For more Morningside Heights gargoyles, check out these goofy gargoyle examples.

[Top photo: Columbia University]

The blue glow of the Flatiron Building at twilight

October 22, 2018

When the Flatiron Building opened in 1902, this graceful steel-frame skyscraper was a symbol of 20th century urban power and progress.

Two years later, pioneering photographer Edward Steichen created this photo of the Flatiron. He gave the image a blue glow during printing to make it evocative of twilight. And with the tree branches and puddles of rain in the foreground, he juxtaposed the made-made tower with powerful elements of the natural world.

“Steichen may have been drawing on his knowledge of Japanese prints, in which similar natural and built features exist harmoniously,” states this Middlebury College Museum of Art page. Japanese woodblock prints were all the rage at the time.

[Photo: Metmuseum]

What Halloween looked like in 1970s New York

October 15, 2018

If you were a kid in the New York City of the 1970s, Halloween probably resembled this.

Your mom or dad bought you your costume in a store, and it came with a mask held to your head by a rubber band.

Maybe you were the Bionic Woman, or a character from Planet of the Apes, or someone from Star Wars. Or you dressed up as a more classic Halloween character, like Batman or Cinderella or a witch or a skeleton.

You didn’t go to the Halloween parade in Greenwich Village because you had never heard of it. You went trick or treating in your building or on your block after school, and most likely, no adult went with you.

Afterward, your parents probably took some of your candy stash because they didn’t want you to go crazy and eat it all at once. But you did get to eat it, slowly, over the next week or two.

Even though this was the bad old New York of the 1970s, no one was too worried about Halloween candy contaminated with poison or razor blades.

If you were born too early or too late to experience Halloween 1970s style, you can get a sense of it through some wonderful photos taken that decade by street photographer Larry Racioppo.

Racioppo’s Halloween images are available for viewing via the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection. A few examples are in this post.

I’m not sure where we are in the city, though the photo at right shows a war memorial that appears to be put up by the 12th Street block association…though it’s hard to read.

These black and whites capture a moment in time when many parts of New York were rundown and neglected. But that couldn’t stop kids from savoring the thrill of dressing up on Halloween.

Racioppo’s work captures other scenes of New York, and he even put out a book of his Halloween photos in 1980, available on Amazon as well as through his own site.

All photos © Larry Racioppo

A painter who said the subway was his art school

October 15, 2018

New York artists have always found inspiration in the subway. But few were so taken by their fellow passengers that they whipped out a piece of newsprint and sketched faces in the middle of a ride.

Joseph Solman did. Born in Russia but an American since childhood, he studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design.

Despite his formal training, Solman maintained that “he had learned more by sketching on buses and subways,” according to his 2008 obituary in the New York Times.

(Solman died at age 99 that year in his studio above the Second Avenue Deli.)

“Claiming ‘the subway was his art school,'” stated the Danforth Museum in Massachusetts, he “documented dozens of passengers as he commuted to work as a part-time bookie at the Belmont Park race track in Long Island, NY, in the 1960s.”

“With pencil in hand and the daily racing forms as his paper, Solman used sparing, gestural lines to record random travelers engrossed in their private worlds amidst the public space of the commuter train,” the museum continued.

His gouache portraits are tender and poetic, and different from the more abstract urbanscapes he was known for in the 1930s. In 1935 he became a founder of the Ten, a group of Expressionist painters in New York City.

The Ten co-founder Mark Rothko was also inspired by the subway, envisioning the platform as a bare, silent place where people stand close but remain in their solitary worlds.

Solman shared a similar sensibility. “Solman’s subway paintings eloquently capture the tenor of the commuter train, which can be a metaphor for urban America: both crowded and noisy, yet ironically isolated and self-contained,” stated the Danforth Museum.

His 1960s subway riders don’t look all that different from today’s commuters, right? They stare ahead and avert their eyes, armed with an expression of disinterest or a preoccupation with whatever they are reading. I see them every weekday morning.

How things looked one wet night on the Bowery

October 8, 2018

A shapely woman holding (posing?) with an umbrella in front of a brightly lit store window. A statue outside a cigar store.

Car lights up ahead, under the hulking steel tracks of the elevated train, making the Bowery appear darker and more ominous than usual.

And in the background beyond the cigar store are at least two men, forced by the rain and probably circumstance into the shadows of New York’s most blighted skid row at the time.

This is how John Sloan saw the Bowery one wet night in 1911.

The sailing ships of the Columbus Circle subway

October 8, 2018

Whether you consider Christopher Columbus a hero or a villain, there’s one thing we can all hopefully get behind: some circa-1904 artistic images at the Columbus Circle subway station.

Behold the blue, green, and off-white faience plaques depicting the Santa Maria, the largest of the three sailing ships Columbus commanded on his first voyage in search of a shorter route to the Far East, according to this 1979 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.

These restored sailing ship reliefs (the second image dates to 2011, as the restoration was in progress) line the platform of today’s 1 train, one of the original stops on the IRT that opened in 1904.

City subway stops celebrate all kinds of nautical images—like at Fulton Street, where Robert Fulton’s steamboat is immortalized on the platform of the 4 and 5 trains.