On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview
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A DADA BOUQUET FOR NEW YORK 1996

From Seurat on through Chagall, Robert Delaunay, and Tamara de Lempicka, artists in Paris would depict on their centuries-old skyline that new beacon of technology, the Eiffel Tower, as a symbol of the exaltingly unfamiliar mix of ugliness and beauty that was beginning to soar in modern cities. But this lonely icon could hardly match the full-scale embrace of New York City's modernity, a challenge to both young natives and Young Turks from abroad who wanted nothing less than total immersion in the dawn of a new century and a new era.

For a slightly older generation, the rupture between past and present could still be moderate, as seen in the decorously dappled canvases of the American Impressionist Colin Campbell Cooper (fig. 11). 1 Before 1902, he was off in Europe, signing his aristocratic, triple- barreled name to paintings of Gothic marvels, but then he settled in New York, where, as a critic put it in 1906, "he... quickly discovered that Manhattan Island has as much of the striking and picturesque as the Old World towns among which he had been roaming. What is more, the monster buildings that he saw around him, a distinctive New World product, offered an undreamt of field of opportunities... the suggestion of sublimity, the spirit of progress and promise, the manifestation of a surging, restless, all-attempting, all-achieving life essentially American."2 Within less than a decade, however, Campbell's brightly hued, but politely nuanced views of Manhattan's skyscrapers, where even the pollution of smoke from ferries and chimneys has the loveliness of clouds adrift on a summer day, would be toppled by the most explosive "youthquake" of our century, as a generation of artists born plus-orminus 1880 hit their twenties. With a seesawing balance of raucous excitement and the most refined drawing-room wit, they fell under the frenetic spell of New York, whose blindness to the past and open-eyed welcome to the future could even turn the City of Light into a graveyard of history. Soon, such photographers as Alfred Stieglitz and Alvin Langdon Coburn began to venerate the gravity-defiant heights of New York's rising skyscrapers, 3 recording in 1912, for example, the almost-completed tallest building in the world, Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building--a "cathedral of commerce," as it was called by a clergyman at its dedication the following year. In Coburn's photograph, the structure seems to float on the pillows of industrial smoke that had replaced the clouds of Christian heavens.

This 729-foot, sixty-story shrine to business and engineering, complete with observation deck reached by the latest velocities in electric elevator technology, summed it all up. After Duchamp arrived in the city on June 15, 1915, he not only claimed that the New York sky

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