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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Reginald Marsh

Manhattan Skyline with Brooklyn Bridge, 1936, Reginald Marsh
One of the interesting changes in the American art world today is that it no long has a capital. Today an artist has just as great a chance at making a name for himself on the West coast, in Florida, Minneapolis, Texas, Chicago, or the East coast. However, during the first half of the 20th century, aside from possibly Philadelphia, nearly all "important" art was done in New York City. If the artists didn't actually live there, they certainly sold there and became famous there. It is little wonder, therefore, that no other city in the U.S. has been so profoundly studied in art as the "Big Apple." This phenomena undoubtedly started in the 1800s, but it was only with the Social Realism of John Sloan and the Ashcan School painters that we begin to see the real New York. This affection among artists for the city didn't end there though. During the 1920s right up through the 50s, at least until the New York School did away with representational subject matter, the high and low life of the city was a favorite, even dominant subject for the artists of the art capital of the western world.

Figures on the Beach, 1921, Reginald Marsh
Two artists stand out in the post-Ashcan era of New York art--Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. And it was Marsh, far more than Hopper, who really captured what it was like to live in this city during this era. Marsh's work is seamy and steamy, from Bowery bums to Coney Island, from Battery Park, to the depths of the subways that tied it all together, Marsh was painted every sooty detail. It's a wonder he never got mugged! He painted the great American melting pot form the inside, recording its crowded streets, its dangerous docks, seedy bars, burlesque houses, teeming tenements, sweltering beaches, and the desperate poverty that gave the Depression its bad name. Even though his art background was in magazine illustration for such slick, haut couture periodicals as Vanity Fair, aside from an affection for signage and a seemingly obligatory female figure, usually clutching her purse, passing uneasily through the unkempt, male riffraff cluttering the streets, there is little that is fashionable in most of his painting.

Tattoo and Haircut, 1932, Regina Marsh
Marsh was born in 1898, the son of not one but two artists, Fred Dana and Alice Randall Marsh. Like many children today, he first drew cartoons. Four years at Yale and several more studying with the likes of John Sloan and George Luks at the Art Students League found him a job working for the Daily News, Harper's Bazaar, and The New Yorker. During the 1930s e painted murals for government buildings. His fresco seco (dry plaster) paintings of ocean liners such as the SS Normandie arriving in New York was about as close as he ever got to the brighter, cosmopolitan side of his city. More typical is his Tattoo and Haircut, a 1932 egg tempera peek at a seedy, subway barber shop. Always the careful draftsman, Mash hated oils, felt much more at ease with watercolor, and found his true love when Thomas Hart Benton introduced him to egg tempera in the 1930s. Marsh died in 1954, but even in the midst of the Abstract Expressionist movement, his work continued to bring good prices as well as the love and respect of the "restless natives" of his brisk, brusque, bustling, hometown.

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