A Summer on the Streets

Recollections of plein-air cityscape painting with Tom Loepp.

Tom Loepp. Under the Manhattan Bridge, 1991. Oil on linen, 32 x 42 in.
Tom Loepp. Under the Manhattan Bridge, 1991. Oil on linen, 32 x 42 in.

One of the most productive seasons of my painting life thus far was the summer of 1991. The primary subject matter was cityscape, painted on the spot. My plein air ventures in New York City that year began in the cool days of spring, when I accompanied Tom Loepp a few afternoons as he painted on Prince Street. It was a ridiculously busy choice of venues, especially on fair-weather weekends. From there we moved uptown to the quieter environs of Sutton Place and nearby streets that dead-ended over the East River, where we painted views of the Queensboro Bridge. Tom would drive in from his place in Brooklyn, I’d drive in from New Jersey, and we’d park on a side street and eat lunch before setting off to paint, usually within a few blocks of one another.

Tiring of Sutton Place, one day Tom and I discussed our plans for the upcoming summer.  I didn’t have much in the way of model prospects—we were sharing a studio that he was subletting on Union Square—so I suggested we continue to work outside, along the East River. The social implications of the plan were drab. “Oh,” Tom drawled, “you’re sure to meet a lot of women under the bridge this summer.” Maybe now the riverfront is more hospitable, but at that time the real estate under the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges was all but forsaken. Much as I was motivated by friendship, the decision to paint alongside Tom was a shrewd one for two reasons: he knew the drill of cityscape, having worked from the roof of the World Trade Center and walked up the cables of Brooklyn Bridge to paint from its towers, and he was a very good painter who was just then enjoying great success as a portrait artist. I watched what he was doing.

Tom Loepp, East River from the World Trade Center, 1989. Oil on linen, 14 x 18 in. Private collection.
Tom Loepp, East River from the World Trade Center, 1989. Oil on linen, 14 x 18 in. Private collection.

We spent a few weeks on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, often working from early afternoon to dusk. By the beginning of July it was hot, so we’d sometimes set up our easels in a parking lot under the elevated FDR Drive to take advantage of the shade it cast. Once in a while I’d hear a splash nearby, the sound of garbage thrown from a car overhead, landing in the river. After we were done there we started painting on the Brooklyn side of the river, where the parking was easier.

The Brooklyn side had a wealth of material: old warehouses, factories, and newly converted lofts. The colors were great. Perhaps my favorite painting of the summer was Tom’s Under the Manhattan Bridge; I was working a block or two away, closer to the river. Until Tom shared it on Facebook a few days ago, I hadn’t seen this canvas in nearly twenty years. The composition is a visual pinball machine of hard angles and a linear perspective that’s complicated by the bridge’s odd transverse through the neighborhood. The hulking shapes of the old buildings and the massive form of the bridge, beautifully rendered, are offset by a cool blue sky. I love the jagged play of light and shadow and the syncopation of positive and negative shapes—until you stand beneath a New York City bridge, you never realize just how porous the superstructure is.

You could say that we had the advantage of working with picture-ready material; a fellow artist once exclaimed while looking at one of my city paintings, “Anyone can make a good painting of the Brooklyn Bridge!” Of course that’s not true—In Under the Manhattan Bridge, Tom chose the right spot, and organized and cut the elements of his composition for maximum effectiveness. The effect is bright and bleak, a jumble of urban architecture with nary a car nor a soul. To me it’s a hybrid of George Bellows and Antonio Lopez Garcia: muscular, beautifully drawn, vertiginous. The dark building at right was an apartment house, in which resided an old friend of Tom’s, an ailing portrait artist named Alex Fournier.

Soon thereafter we landed on Bargemusic, the floating concert hall moored in the East River. We received permission to paint from atop the barge, and were thus afforded a good profile view of the east tower of Brooklyn Bridge. A young guy who worked as a watchman for an adjacent property would visit us while we painted. He sported a gold grill where his front teeth should have been, and he enjoyed bothering me. That should have been my worst distraction.

Jerry Weiss. Red Crane, Brooklyn Bridge, 1991. Oil on linen, 25 x 34 in.
Jerry Weiss. Red Crane, Brooklyn Bridge, 1991. Oil on linen, 25 x 34 in.

One late afternoon that fall we set up a hundred yards apart on the pedestrian path of the Williamsburg Bridge. While I was painting my glasses fell off and landed on the roadway, some twenty feet below. Tom climbed down a girder to a jersey barrier and dodged traffic to retrieve them. The following year I set up on the street on my own to paint Riverside Church, but not all the passersby were cordial. I requested and was granted permission to work from the sheltered grounds of the seminary nearby, but by then the business of urban painting had lost some of its charm.

The cityscapes I painted in the summer of ’91 were important to me for several reasons. As much as any landscape painting I’d done until then, they allowed me to concentrate on design—at a certain level, notwithstanding the experiential significance we attach to things, it doesn’t much matter whether you’re painting a tree or a building, you’re dealing with abstract shapes.

And yet it matters very much. The city paintings were a subconscious attempt to revisit a past I’d never known. I’d grown up in south Florida, and was returning to the places where my parents had lived between the 1920s and 1940s. Later I realized that painting New York street scenes had been a romantic undertaking. After it was done, I was ready to leave the city.

Painting alongside Tom was to be the last such working partnership I’d have with another artist. I think the rapidness with which we went from site to site was good training, and likely altered both of our approaches. Many summer evenings we’d repair to the studio on Union Square, assessing the painting we’d done that day, sometimes with a glass of cheap wine and the company of other artist friends. A few years later I moved to rural Connecticut, and a few years after that Tom moved to rural Wyoming, where he’s from originally. I’ve always thought our city paintings would make for a good exhibition. For my money, Tom’s painting under the Manhattan Bridge would be the centerpiece. The city was rougher then, and these paintings show its desolate beauty.

A few years ago a friend alerted me that she’d seen a small, unsigned painting of mine for sale in an antiques store in Connecticut. I went to have a look, and sure enough it was mine, an oil sketch of the Queensboro Bridge that must have been painted at the start of the 1991 campaign. I had no recollection of having painted it, let alone a clue as to how it wound up in an antiques shop.

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