November 15, 2012–February 18, 2013
Restless in Style and Subject
‘George Bellows,’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: November 15, 2012 in The New York Times
Just after the American painter George Bellows died of a ruptured appendix at the age of 42, in 1925, the writer Sherwood Anderson offered a poignant assessment. Anderson wrote that Bellows’s last paintings “keep telling you things. They are telling you that Mr. George Bellows died too young. They are telling you that he was after something, that he was always after it.”
Whatever Bellows was after, he pursued it restlessly, not just in his final canvases but through most of his busy and multifaceted, if truncated, career, and only rarely did he catch up with it. This is the ultimate message of “George Bellows,” an unnecessarily disappointing retrospective that has come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the National Gallery in Washington. Organized by Charles Brock, an associate curator there, it contains some 70 oils and 30 works on paper. Still, there is a good chance you will emerge from it starving for truly alive art. I sure did.
At least as seen at the Met, Bellows was constantly changing his subject matter and adjusting his often buttery handling of paint, but too many of the canvases fall short of being convincing. His best efforts here are limited mostly to the early years of the 20th century, when, in a burst of promise shortly after arriving in New York, Bellows made paintings of street urchins, boxers, construction sites and urban riverscapes that are found in the exhibition’s first four galleries. Too many works in the remaining six are stilted period pieces.
The Bellows conjured in the Met show comes across as a talented and ambitious yet complacent artist, earnest and hard-working but often remote, an artist who frequently failed to work from that crucial point where criticality and desperation forge ambition and skill into something indelibly personal and expandable. He once said, “A work of art can be any imaginable thing, and this is the beginning of modern painting.” And yet his own art rarely questions the accepted conventions of his time.
But whether this exhibition does Bellows’s achievement justice is a good question, and easier to answer than usual: the catalogue raisonné of Bellows’s paintings is available online. (It was assembled by Glenn C. Peck, who contributes an essay to the catalog.)
Perusing the nearly 700 paintings reproduced on the site reveals that the show ignores all but four of the hundreds of increasingly visionary plein air oil panels of rocky coasts, landscapes and ramshackle farms that Bellows painted from 1911 on, first in Maine and then in Woodstock, N.Y. (A wall text in the final gallery dismissively refers to the small Woodstock landscapes as “bucolic,” an underestimation.) There are also numerous larger works that might have improved the show, among them the National Academy Museum’s great Maine canvas, “Three Rollers” (1911).
Bellows may have enjoyed more success than was good for him. Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1882, he was the only child of a comfortably well-off builder; he grew up excelling at sports and art and wanted to be an illustrator. He played baseball and basketball at Ohio State University and was encouraged to pursue art. By 1904 he was in New York, where he played semipro baseball during his first two summers and studied with the charismatic artist Robert Henri, who diverted him from illustration toward painting.
Henri exhorted his students to paint urban life at its grittiest — which would later lead them to be known as the Ashcan School — and to study Manet, Daumier, Velázquez and Goya and other European masters of suggestive darkness. “On the East Side,” a deeply shadowed early drawing that Bellows made around 1906, evinces a touching reverence for Rembrandt, though he would also look to Renoir, Degas and Whistler.
Bellows was exhibiting his work by 1907, receiving prizes and positive reviews. It didn’t hurt that as a former athlete and eventual family man who liked to paint his wife and daughters, he projected a virile persona, nonneurotic and nonbohemian. By 1911 he was represented in the Met’s collection; by 1913 he was a full member of the National Academy of Design, the youngest ever admitted. In the thick of New York’s progressive art circles, he helped install Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” in the Armory Show — in which he was also represented — but he disdained the exhibition’s most radical import, Cubism.
Bellows’s gifts for illustration and handling paint enabled him to follow Henri’s advice with rare verve, as evidenced by paintings like the 1906 “Kids,” whose lush surface and precarious composition captures the incipient chaos of children’s sidewalk games with an immediacy that presages the photographs of Helen Levitt.
In the 1907 “42 Kids,” with its swarm of boys skinny-dipping in the East River, his painterly and caricatural ease collude so effectively that the figures read as cartoons. This hints at a problem that runs throughout his work: his figures often feel more like glosses, types or character actors playing parts than like real people. Exceptions can be found in early portraits like “Paddy Flannigan” (1908), where a cross-eyed, bucktoothed newsboy strikes a defiant, bare-chested pose, fully present.
At times Bellows seemed to think that modernity was achieved by scaling up the oil study until the physicality of paint becomes an especially active part of the story. In his best-known painting, the 1909 “Stag at Sharkey’s,” the colliding bodies of the two fighters are defined by sinuous strokes of paint that make their flesh seem almost to meld at impact. It looks back to the French and Spanish masters, while pointing in its raw violence toward Futurism and even Action Painting. The work personifies an artist who, as Carol Troyen, curator emerita of American paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, writes in the catalog, shrewdly walked the line between tradition and innovation and was seen in his time as an unlikely combination of academician and independent.
More genuinely forward-looking are three dark, enigmatic paintings of the excavation for Penn Station from 1907-9 that, as Ms. Troyen suggests, show modern progress as a violation of nature, a giant void in the earth, and give this “wound” a reality and lasting power that no photograph could match. In these works paint is laid on in broad, rough slabs, becoming earth and also incipient abstraction. Loosely descriptive details intimate machines, bonfires, workers and surrounding buildings, all but dwarfed by the primordial setting. Across the way, “Rain on the River” of 1908, a sweeping view of Riverside Park, busy railroad tracks and the Hudson rendered in misty, Whistlerian grays, has an effortless ease.
In the fourth gallery Bellows’s painting starts to stall. He mustered a few more strong depictions of city life, countering the void of the excavation paintings with the 1911 “New York,” an allover cacophony of people, vehicles and buildings on Madison Square in Manhattan at rush hour, and coming to terms with Impressionism in paintings of the snow-banked Hudson in winter.
But his tactile surfaces and compositions start to feel regimented and sometimes overly full. Summery images of white-clad figures at leisure in Central Park or watching a polo match resemble illustrations for Vanity Fair, as do later paintings of tennis matches at Newport, R.I., to which he adds glowing, El Greco skies. His images of New York dockworkers and later Maine shipbuilders start to be more ennobling and hollow than gritty.
Hereafter the show feels rushed, superficial and slightly disorganized. It pauses briefly for the Maine landscapes, most notably “Shore House” and “An Island in the Sea”; scatters Bellows’s lithographs about incoherently; and gives too much space to a group of histrionic, propagandistic paintings of atrocities that, it was later revealed, the Germans mostly did not commit during World War I.
A final gallery (where Anderson’s quotation appears on the wall) includes four large stiff group portraits, where one — the deeply strange portrait of “Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Wase” — would have sufficed. Depicting a farm couple from Woodstock, where Bellows summered during the last several years of his life, the Wase portrait’s dry, honest realism is justifiably seen as a precursor to American scene painting. On the opposite wall hang three smaller, more freely worked paintings dominated by fantastical landscapes, the most intriguing of which is “The White Horse,” where the El Greco sky seems quite at home among a panoply of feathery plants and trees.
This exhibition, which has been overseen at the Met by H. Barbara Weinberg, curator of American paintings, and Lisa M. Messinger, associate curator of Modern and contemporary art, conveys the complexity of Bellows’s work without sorting its strengths and weaknesses or examining the importance of his landscape paintings — whose bright colors can still be off-putting — during his final decade.
The preface to the catalog states that the show “highlights the ends more than the means of Bellows’s art — its subjects and meanings more than its methods and techniques.” This is an unfortunate approach to take with an artist like Bellows, whose passion for paint was so overt. In his final years it may have brought him closer than anyone yet realizes to the something he was always after.
“George Bellows” continues through Feb. 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum .org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 17, 2012
An art review on Friday about an exhibition of the work of George Bellows, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, referred imprecisely to the writer Sherwood Anderson, whose assessment of Bellows’s last paintings was quoted in the review. While he did write plays, he was primarily an author of novels and short stories, not a playwright.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 22, 2012
An art review on Friday about an exhibition of the work of George Bellows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art misidentified the museum that owns Bellows’s painting “Three Rollers,” which was cited as a work that might have improved the exhibition. It is the National Academy Museum, not the National Design Museum.
Bellows first achieved notice in 1908, when he and other pupils of Henri organized an exhibition of mostly urban studies. While many critics considered these to be crudely painted, others found them welcomely audacious and a step beyond the work of his teacher. Bellows taught at the Art Students League of New York in 1909, although he was more interested in pursuing a career as a painter. His fame grew as he contributed to other nationally recognized juried shows.
Bellows' urban New York scenes depicted the crudity and chaos of working-class people and neighborhoods, and also satirized the upper classes. From 1907 through 1915, he executed a series of paintings depicting New York City under snowfall. These paintings were the main testing ground in which Bellows developed his strong sense of light and visual texture. These exhibited a stark contrast between the blue and white expanses of snow and the rough and grimy surfaces of city structures, and created an aesthetically ironic image of the equally rough and grimy men struggling to clear away the nuisance of the pure snow.
However, Bellows' series of paintings portraying amateur boxing matches were arguably his signature contribution to art history.These paintings are characterized by dark atmospheres, through which the bright, roughly lain brushstrokes of the human figures vividly strike with a strong sense of motion and direction.
By C. B Collins Jr.
This book was written and published in collaboration with an exhibition of Goerge Bellow's work in a mueum exhibition. It is beautifully presented with many of Bellow's paintings reproduced in color along with many of his drawings and lithographic prints.
There were numerous strategically placed quotations from Bellows that were insightful and resonated with the various sections into which the book was divided. The introduction begins with "I am always amused with people who talke about lack of subjects for painting. The great difficulty is that you can ot stop to sort them out enough. Wherever you go, they are waiting for you...It seems to me that an artist must be a spectator of life; a reverential, enthusiastic, emotional spectator; and then the great dramas of human nature will surge through his mind."
Mary Sayre Haverstock, the author, covers Bellows from his youth as a second child to elderly parents, his elder sister a grown woman when he is born, to his school days as an athlete who was accomplished in baseball and basketball. Bellows goes to New York City after completion of college in Ohio, and begins study under Robert Henri. Here, he and others form the Ashcan School of NYC painters. He becomes friends and assocaites with artists now recognized for their tremendous contribution to American art, such as Sloan, Marsh, Luks, Henri, as well as writer Eugene O'Neill. Robert Henri would appear to be the strongest influence on the work of Bellows, in his classroom instruction and in his personal relationship with Bellows. His confidence, personal philosophy, artistic philosophy, and technique grows in NYC as reflected in this quote: "My advice is to paint just as you have the confidence to, and keep your ideals aloof to criticize your painting with. Watch all good art, and accept none as standard for yourself. Think with all the world, and work alone."
Bellow's early works in New York City are astounding and lead to the great paintings of boxers and World War 1 atrocities. As you look at his work, Bellow's ability to concedntrate the eye of the viewer into specific focal points through high contrast of dark and light as well as unexpected and sometimes off setting composition is remarkable. 'River rats' from 1906 is an outstanding early work demonstrating incredible dexterity, mastery of the use of darks and lights (lessons from the works of Hals, Rembrandt, Goya, Valesquez), and energetic layers of brushstrokes. 'Club Night', a scene of ugly pug faced boxers emerging from darkness, reminds me of the powerful anti-war works of the later Goya. In fact, the influence of Goya is evident in Bellow's style of composition and even in his subject matter. His refined portraits are serene and beautiful and classy yet his scenes of the brutalitya and force of a man to man struggle are full of dark energy and drama. Compare the faces in 'Club Night' to the dark final paintings of Goya. The great drawing, 'Tin Can Battle, San Juan HIll, New York' shows his superb ability to capture the male body in motion, but more than just the motion of strolling, it is rather the motion of extreme physical effort. Look at the wide stances taken by the Black youths throwing tin cans, almost beyond belief how the male figure is stretched to such extremes in athletic and combative struggles. Bellows won an early award for 'Forty-Two Kids' which is a theme he returns to later with more complex compositions, such as 'Riverfront No. 1'. However, here he shows early his sympthay for the urban poor, the unemployed male masses, the resiliency of youth even in a world of deterministic class structures.
Bellow's scenes of nature are raw, powerful, beautiful but not romantic. 'North Rive', and 'Floating Ice' are examples of this power. Bellows did not romanticize snow. In fact his figures struggle in deep and slushy snow in many of his works, such as 'Easter Snow'. However, like black, white has the ability to focus the eye of the viewer which Bellows seems to see as the goal.
George Bellow's city scenes are favorites of mine.His ability to define essential form and shape with high contrasted blacks and lights is masterful. In harsh light, shadow becomes even darker when the pupil contracts. Bellows captures this, allows it to become the central armature of the paining. In 'Noon' the subway tracks frame the distance looking down a long street, awash with smoke and hard white sunlight.
'Stag at Sharkey's' is one of the greatest American paintings and is reproduced here on the cover in detail and inside in full reproduction of the complete work. The lengthening of the male form in action will always be seen as Bellow's triumpant observation of human movement. Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya and others never pushed the male figure to the anatomical and athletic extremes of Bellows.
The book covers the many exhibitions in which Bellows participated, organized, and hung. His awards were numerous even though his work was not without controversy. He loved the public and yet would state 'There is a strange disease in people's minds which makes them imagine tehmselves as arbiters of beauty,and creates a constant and foolish demand that pictures be all 'pretty'. As if Shakespeare had alsways gone around writing love sonnets.' Bellows was familiar with the works of Riis that depicted the urban poor in NYC. He was a supporter of socialist thought and such persons as Emma Goldman. He painted the evangelist Billy Sunday to expose the travesty of these dramatic emotional revivals. Bellows says "Ilike to paint Billy Sunday, not becuase I like him, but because I want to show the world what I do think of him...He is death to the imagination, to spiritualiyt, to art...His whole purpsoe is to force authority against beauty. He is against freedom, he wants a religious autocracy, he is such a reactionary that he makes me an anarchist."
Whether the scene is the urban poor or urban rich or a fist fight or a circus act, Bellows used light and dark as a central organizing factor in his work to superb effects.
Bellows contributed to the World War I efforts with drawnings and prints of atrocities. He becomes more philosophical as he ages and gains experience. He says 'Time is needed to estimate any work of art.' His last paintings are superb, with 'Dempsey and Firpo' a paragon of the the male to male struggle. It is so sad that we lost Bellows at age forty-two to appendicitis complications.
This is an excellent product for any art lover.