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New York No. 2

On view

New York No. 2

Artist: Charles Sheeler (American, 1883 - 1965)

Date: 1951
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 27 x 18 1/4in. (68.6 x 46.4cm)
Framed: 35 x 26 1/2in. (88.9 x 67.3cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Sheeler 1951'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 51.35
Text Entries

In 1919 Charles Sheeler left his native Philadelphia and moved to New York. Like many artists of his generation, he was immediately captivated by the city’s energy and modernity, and upon his arrival he put aside the still lifes and views of rural architecture that had been his focus to produce a remarkable series of paintings, drawings, photographs, and a film depicting the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Then just as suddenly, his interest in New York’s buildings waned and he turned to other subjects—domestic interiors, still lifes, and the industrial landscapes that made him famous. Although he maintained a studio in New York through the 1930s, he would not again focus his artistic eye on the city’s buildings until the 1950s, the last decade of his career.

Sheeler’s first images of New York during this period were made with the camera. Beginning in 1950, he photographed the city’s new landmarks—the RCA Building, the United Nations complex, and the Lever Building. Subsequently, he depicted these buildings in a series of modest-sized canvases. But as he suggested by their generalized titles—Skyline of 1950 (Wichita Art Museum), Convergence of 1952 (Mr. and Mrs. George Greenspan, New York), Windows of 1951 (1987, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York), and New York No. 2(1)—he did not intend these paintings as portraits of celebrated structures, but rather as tributes to the abstract, formal grandeur of New York City.

As was his custom, Sheeler did preliminary research for New York No. 2 with his camera. A photograph (private collection) of the building at 15 Park Row in lower Manhattan (the headquarters, for a time, of several of the city’s newspapers)(2) records the principal elements he showed in the painting: a narrow central structure with triple windows; the recessed facade of an abutting building with a single line of windows articulating its ascent in a brittle staccato rhythm; and at right, the nearly blank face of a building seen at so violent an angle that it seems to rise on a diagonal. The hulking shadow creeping up the central building is also recorded in the photograph. In translating his photographic image into paint, Sheeler simplified many architectural details (for example, the balconies punctuating the center building’s facade were eliminated to create a sleeker surface) and extended the tonal range. The photograph’s medium grays become sharply contrasting near-white and deep maroon, with a range of creams, lavenders, and slate blues between them. Superimposed on these structures is a group of prismatic shapes, also reminiscent of architecture, which were suggested by a second photograph. In the Utica picture Sheeler was using a compositional procedure he would perfect in the 1950s: he sandwiched together and manipulated several photographic negatives in order to generate an abstract and evocative design.

The result, in New York No. 2, is a magical vision in which shadows appear to have as much substance as concrete structures, in which the multiplication of shapes produces a dizzying pattern of architectural profiles, and in which buildings begin well below the viewer’s vantage point and soar beyond his field of vision. Some of these devices go back to Sheeler’s famous Skyscrapers of 1922 (Phillips Collection), which also depicts the Park Row building: the use of a worm’s eye perspective, and the choice of an anonymous generalized facade (rather than a readily identifiable one), recall his 1927 lithograph Delmonico Building. Yet in New York No. 2, the buildings are more massive, almost overbearing. They are blocky structures, looming upward, pressing forward, multiplying to fill the picture space and nearly obliterating the sky; they are rendered in fantastic, improbable colors, which add to the air of unreality. New York for Sheeler was no less exhilarating in the 1950s than it had been in the 1920s, but the delicate beauty of buildings in the earlier pictures gave way to more iconic, powerful, thrusting forms, which are thrilling but not without a disturbing undercurrent.

 

Notes

1. The designation of the Utica painting as No. 2 serves to distinguish it from another painting Sheeler called New York (Regis Collection, Minneapolis, Minnesota), painted the previous year, which is horizontal and shows a view of the city’s skyline. A small 1951 tempera version of New York No. 2 (location unknown) records all the elements of the composition and was made by Sheeler after the oil, possibly as a record of the picture for his own use.

2. I thank Erica Hirshler for this information.

 

 

Copyright
Orphaned work.