Archive for the ‘Music, art, theater’ Category

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.

There’s a Marx Brothers Playground in Yorkville

October 1, 2018

When the Marx Brothers lived at 179 East 93rd Street, the playground nearby that would eventually be named for them was just a car barn for the new electric trolleys owned by the Second Avenue Railway.

That was in the 1890s and early 1900s. Back then, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo lived with their parents, immigrants Minnie and Frenchie, plus assorted relatives in a cramped but lively apartment.

The future vaudeville and movie stars were coming of age in “a small Jewish neighborhood squeezed in between the Irish to the north and the Germans to the south in Yorkville,” according to 1961’s Harpo Speaks…About New York.

In the 1930s, after the brothers had achieved stardom and left tenement life behind, buses replaced the electric trolleys on Second Avenue

The car barn was abandoned and soon torn down, explains NYC Parks. In 1947, the land it once occupied was turned into grassy playing fields and made over into what the Parks Department called “Playground 96.”

It’s unclear exactly when the playground was renamed in honor of the local boys who became comedy legends.

But now that we have Marx Brothers Playground in the once rough and tumble neighborhood that inspired their characters and gags, perhaps city officials could add a plaque to the still-standing tenement where the brothers were raised?

New York’s filth inspired this West Side fountain

September 24, 2018

Much of Manhattan in the late 19th century was a revolting place.

The stench from factories filled the air. People routinely spit inside streetcars and elevated trains. Manure piled up on streets. Milk carried deadly bacteria. Water wasn’t always pure. Garbage was often tossed out of tenement windows.

To address the filth, Gilded Age organizations like the Metropolitan Board of Health were formed, hoping to brush up the hygiene of the city.

But fed-up private citizens also sprang into action. That was the genesis of the Women’s Health Protective Association, formed in 1884 by a group of prominent, reform-minded women tired of living in an unclean New York.

The group launched in a moment of utter disgust. Eleven prominent ladies whose homes overlooked the East River in today’s Beekman, “were so outraged at the continuance of foul odors which polluted the atmosphere of the entire neighborhood, causing them to keep windows closed in the hottest weather, and depriving them of their inalienable right to pure air, that they resolved the investigate the cause of this nuisance,” states an 1898 text.

Their proximity to the slaughterhouses, bone-boiling factories, and other stinky industry along the East River waterfront at the time was the reason they couldn’t open their windows.

So they did something about it, and helped clean up the city.

The New York of today is a lot more hygienic in many respects (most of us can open a window without smelling boiling bones), and the WHPA has long since disbanded.

Their efforts would otherwise be lost to history. But the group gave to the city a lovely drinking fountain on Riverside Drive and 116th Street in 1909.

Designed by Bruno Louis Zimm (he also created the Slocum Memorial in Tompkins Square Park), it was unveiled in a ceremony honoring the progress WHPA made “toward the betterment of the health of the public,” according to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.

The fountain is in an out-of-the-way spot, and it could use some spiffing up…kind of the way the city needed a deep clean back when these ladies got together.

[Top photo: Varick Street in 1895, by Jacob Riis, MCNY 90.13.4.320]

A “glorious natural scene” along the East River

September 10, 2018

Ashcan School artist Robert Henri painted many scenes of New York at the turn of the last century. Like other social realists, Henri’s focus was the gritty reality of urban life—but he also depicted the beauty of the cityscape in quieter, gentler moments.

In his 1901-1902 painting, “Cumulus Clouds, East River,” we get Henri’s gentler Manhattan. Here he “transforms the industrial landscape of the riverside into a glorious natural scene, the boats dotted on the shining expanse of the water suggesting freedom and pleasure rather than commerce and labor,” states A Companion to Art.

Henri had a particularly intimate view of the river. At the time, he lived in a brownstone at 512 East 58th Street, which would have been in the middle of the industrial waterfront. It’s long since been replaced by a luxury coop on rebranded Sutton Place.

A 1906 dust storm beside the Flatiron Building

September 3, 2018

Ever notice that the area in front of the Flatiron Building—that triangular juncture where 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue, and Broadway meet, is kind of a windy spot?

John Sloan did. On a June day in 1906, he recorded this in his diary: “In the afternoon, walking on Fifth Avenue, we were on the edge of a beautiful wind storm, the air full of dust and a sort of panicky terror in all the living things in sight.”

This painting, “Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue,” is Sloan’s interpretation of that day. It “captures the mayhem of that afternoon, in which the Flatiron Building itself—the only skyscraper in a low-rise neighborhood—created the wind tunnel effect depicted by Sloan,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the painting resides today.

The windy effect on 23rd Street was the subject of a 1901 film clip and then another from 1903, the latter placing the camera at the foot of the Flatiron and capturing hats and skirts blowing in the gusts.

Why a West Side park is named for an Italian poet

August 20, 2018

New York City parks and playgrounds don’t just honor the usual city founders and war heroes—they’re named for artists, singers (Diana Ross Playground, anyone?), even vaudeville comedians.

But unless you count the Shakespeare garden in Central Park, not many are named for poets.

So how did a postage stamp of green on the Upper West Side in 1921 become a monument for Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet of the Middle Ages best known for the Divine Comedy, completed in the 14th century?

It wasn’t just a concession to the growing Italian-American population in Manhattan at the time. But the growth of this immigrant group was instrumental in naming the park and erecting the bronze statue of Alighieri that still stands.

“The New York branch of the Dante Alighieri Society had intended to erect a Dante monument on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Italian unification in 1912,” states the New York City Parks Department website.

“Carlo Barsotti, editor of Il Progresso (the first Italian daily newspaper in the United States), urged subscribers to contribute towards the creation of the statue.”

Barsotti had already helped erect monuments honoring other Italians: Giuseppe Garibaldi in Washington Square, Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, Giovanni Verrazano in Battery Park, and composer Giuseppe Verdi in Verdi Square—not far from the soon-to-be site of Dante Park, which was then known as Empire Park at 63rd Street and Columbus Avenue.

Money was raised, but according to NYC Parks, the sculptor didn’t finish the imposing bronze statue of a robed Alighieri wearing a garland and holding a copy of the Divine Comedy until 1921.

Another source has it that the original monument was too big and in too many pieces, so the city rejected it. Funds were again collected, and a second statue arrived in 1921—past the anniversary of Italian unification yet marking the 600th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Whatever happened, the dedication was held that year. The statue (described as “dour and grumpy” by the AIA Guide to New York City) was officially “a gift of citizens of Italian descent.”

[Second photo: MCNY X2011.34.3603; third photo: Wikipedia]