Reginald Marsh, "New York Views," Dec. 12, 2001-Jan. 26, 2002, at DC Moore Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019.
Reginald Marsh was America's first street painter, whose bustling panoramas of 1930s New York still have a real-life vitality. Marsh chronicled the city's seedier side with an Old Master's zeal, giving its bums, strippers and Coney Island bathers a mythic dignity. He liked blondes, particularly full-figured ones set in compositions that recall the architectural schemes of Titian and Rubens.
In "Reginald Marsh: New York Views," DC Moore Gallery gives us nine scenes of Coney Island sideshow life. Each work offers a lot -- lively, comic drawing, a look at the carnival's faded appeal, and an allegorical message about human nature. For instance, in Spooks (Tunnel of Love) (1943), a buxom blonde and her awkward companion ride past a tableau of skeletons. She looks pained and desperate to leave, while her date is startled by a pleading bum sitting in a trashcan -- one of the show's attractions -- while a leering barker looks on. The scene takes on a surreal sense of impending defeat.
A tempera work, They Pay to See (1934) features an oddly listless striptease in a dusky burlesque house. A moldy green pallor hangs over the work, suggesting that the performance has lasted for years. Clearly, the dancer is distracted, and the old fiddle player looks like he's playing at a funeral. Vertical scratches weather the anonymous men sitting in the dark; they look like phantoms drawn by Edvard Munch. With a journalist's dramatic touch, Marsh places the viewer right beneath the stage. But the painting's drab tone and moralistic title mock this otherwise lively scene. Is Marsh scolding us for wanting to enjoy the show?
Grand Finale (1935) illustrates the melancholy nature of spectacle. In the work, nine plumed chorus girls, naked save for red headdresses, cloaks and red fig leaves, are positioned on a grand pyramidal stage set framed by two giant suits of armor. At stage right, an M.C. introduces the lead dancer, a dark-skinned and bare-footed exotic, who leaps into motion. But Marsh gives the performers muted expressions, and the painting an overall sense of stillness. The show seems stilted, even sad, as it's also eye-catching and even beautiful.
In World in Wax (1944), an ink wash drawing on paper, a crowd lines up for a carnival sideshow. The cluster of towering women is arranged across the front of the space like a Greek frieze. Everything in America, Marsh seems to say, is vulgar entertainment. Above the ticket seller hang signs describing what's inside the World of Wax. Attractions such as "Japanese Atrocities" and "The Electrocution of Lepke" are staged side by side with wax dummies of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Girl on a Carousel Horse (1954) is a simple ink and tempera drawing, with white chalk highlights, of a rueful girl on a carousel steed. She wears a faraway expression that is matched by the ride that never goes anywhere. Marsh's parents, it turns out, were both painters trained in the academic style. During Reg's childhood, the Marsh home was visited by George Bellows and Ernest Haskell. Perhaps Marsh's use of the amusement park, its old-fashioned charm no longer appealing, is a metaphor for the faded popularity of the academic tradition.
Another ink wash drawing, Girls on a Boardwalk (1947), shows three bored women leaning against a railing. Marsh's voluptuous figures are classically ample. By proportioning women like Titian's Venus, Marsh attempts to restore them with an immortal's confidence. Framed against a somewhat barren vista, this trio are a more jaded version of the expectant nudes of Paul Delvaux.
In the Surf (1947) depicts a group of bathers at Coney Island, frolicking in a spirit seemingly descended from Mount Olympus. In the painting, obese bathers grope each other in the ocean without the slightest embarrassment. Two men fight over a woman, while further away, erotically entwined legs stand up out of the water. Another man, who looks like a towering pudding, fumes in envy from the sidelines.
Marsh's favorite ideas reappear in The Bar Philosopher (1944), an ink-brush drawing on paper. Broad-shouldered men reminisce at a bar lined with columns. The grey wash suggests that the artist is peering through a fog at his subjects, who are themselves languishing in the past.
Marsh's subjects often have a lost look, perhaps relating to the discontent rooted in the tawdry entertainment world of the Depression and World War Two. At the same time, Marsh gives his figures a bulk and vitality that fortifies their raw individual potential, as if to arm them against a modern urban world filled with uncertainty. In this modest manner, Marsh gives dignity to ordinary life.
NED HIGGINS is managing editor of Artnet Magazine.