The League and Union Square

An exhibition in the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery illustrates the school’s role in twentieth-century realism.

Modern Renaissance: The Fourteenth Street School and Classical Life Drawing
Kenyon Cox, Untitled, 1900. Oil on board, 30 x 18 in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York.

Modern Renaissance: The Fourteenth Street School and Classical Life Drawing, currently installed at the the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery of the Art Students League of New York, offers a vibrant overview, at once expansive and abridged, of a distinctive New York City contribution to American realism in the first half of the twentieth-century. The exhibition draws largely from work in the League’s permanent collection, and includes an assortment of drawings, prints and paintings from both notable and lesser-known artists.

As the title suggests, there are two themes in play, either of which would merit a stand-alone survey: the Fourteenth Street School refers to a loosely organized group of artists who settled in and around Union Square beginning in the 1920s, all of whom had either studied or taught at the League and were interested primarily in the human figure as a subject. As examples of classical life drawing, several classroom figure studies are included, more for elucidation of the methodologies then in place at the League than for any obvious connection to the Union Square collective. The drawings, themselves evidence of the strengths as well as the limitations of turn-of-the-century academic practice, are intended to throw reflected light back onto prominent League instructors, Kenyon Cox and Kenneth Hayes Miller, though in several studies the light being reflected belongs to George Bridgman, whose construction-oriented approach requires separate consideration.

Cox was a French-trained classicist who created the League’s venerable logo, and who, according to the illuminating notes that accompany the exhibition, “introduced the French practice of concours (juried exhibition) as a means to highlight exceptional work and in some cases demote students who needed further practice.” (The many students who do not receive dots acknowledging their work now know who to blame for starting the process. As far as demoting students, there’s no longer a formal mechanism for doing so, but I well recall hearing Robert Philipp yell at a young pupil to take a drawing class before attempting to paint, and said student leaving the studio in tears. It is fair to say that teachers and students continue to grapple with the same issues). If Cox was a hard-liner pedagogically, some of his paintings reveal a lyrical sensuality, as may be seen in Untitled, a female nude study that transcends the merely academic by virtue of its light palette and suggestion of an outdoor environment.

Modern Renaissance: The Fourteenth Street School and Classical Life Drawing
Kenneth Hayes Miller Women in the Store, 1937. Oil on canvas, 19 x 24 in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York.

Cox’s main relevance here was that he was the teacher of the progenitor of the Fourteenth Street School, Kenneth Hayes Miller. Taking his painting at face value, Miller has always appeared to me to be among the least inspiring presences one could conjure up in American art; imagine the art deco of Paul Manship without the life force, let alone rhythmic design. Yet Miller played a significant role as a teacher and role model. Isabel Bishop explained that he was “intellectually stimulating, not stultifying, a fascinating person who presented all sorts of new possibilities, new points of view.” Her monumental, if flawed, Kenneth Hayes Miller Mural Class, Art Students League, 1927, is a tribute that shows Miller’s explicit influence. Bishop was impressed by her instructor’s adherence to the figure and traditional technical methods. Like Miller, she developed her work through underpainting, without ceding primacy of line. The basis of this was taken from baroque Flemish art, and modernized through subject matter and a progressively looser approach.

Modern Renaissance: The Fourteenth Street School and Classical Life Drawing
Reginald Marsh,Flying Concellos,1936. Etching, 8 x 10 in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York.

Miller’s influence transcended the classroom. Bishop’s mature work focused on the prosaic lives of shop women she observed near her Union Square studio, as in Seated Woman with Hat. Her interest in the same subjects that Miller had sought was made more effective by sublimating classical underpinnings, in favor of a nearly documentary emphasis on the individual—Miller was a socialist, Bishop was a humanist. Reginald Marsh was no less impacted by Miller’s presence, writing years after having studied, “I still show him every picture I paint. I am a Miller student.” It was Miller who discerned Marsh’s talent for painting raucous New York street subjects: “These awkward things are your work. These are real. Stick to these things and don’t let anyone dissuade you.” In works like Afternoon Coney Island and Flying Concellos, one can see the significance of draftsmanship, in suggestions of the baroque flourishes of Rubens and—in the obsessive fascination with the nude figure in motion—Michelangelo.

Modern Renaissance: The Fourteenth Street School and Classical Life Drawing
Raphael Soyer, Woman with Scarf, Oil on canvas, 23 x 19½ in. Courtesy of Forum Gallery

Although he didn’t study with Miller, Raphael Soyer’s inclusion in the group is traditional and necessary. Soyer moved to Union Square in 1931 (Miller had moved there in 1923, Bishop in 1926), and like his predecessors was inspired by the social tensions that existed in the neighborhood, symbolized by the juxtaposition of the S. Klein department store and the headquarters of New Masses, a communist publication. In common with Bishop and Marsh, Soyer sometimes depicted life on the street, but as in paintings like Woman with Scarf, was more given to French influences, especially in his growing fondness for color. I don’t think the show’s characterization of Soyer’s work as presenting “a darker side to city life” is strictly correct; rather, he would eventually mine more psychologically complex territory than Bishop. But his early paintings, those that chronicled the effects of the Great Depression, were indeed more allied with “social realism” (a term that Soyer wasn’t comfortable with), and were fueled by his response to social ills.

Modern Renaissance: The Fourteenth Street School and Classical Life Drawing
Steven Assael, Monica with Legs Crossed, 2014. Crayon with graphite on paper, 14 x 11½ in. Courtesy of Forum Gallery.

That the influence of Miller, and by extension, Cox, is still a force at the League is clear in the preponderance of contemporary figurative artists who reconcile the mashup between traditional precepts and the energetic catalyst of city life around them—any number of teachers here are philosophical descendants of the Union Square artists. The show includes the work of two contemporary artists, Steven Assael and David Jon Kassan, who continue to visit these approaches and themes. Some of the connections are less obvious; when I walked through the show on Saturday, Ronnie Landfield, an important abstract expressionist, came by and smiled. He pointed at a painting by Arnold Blanch—another Miller student—and said that he’d studied with him when he was fifteen.

Modern Renaissance is a rich acknowledgment of League history and its seminal role in American realism. In its persistent, if indirect, devotion to classicism, the Fourteenth Street School represented an alternative and powerful vein that complemented Robert Henri’s romantic contributions to New York City realism. Gestated in the studios of the Art Students League, the commitment to figuration found renewed vitality in its interpretations of contemporary life. It still does.

The exhibition continues through November 1, 2016 in the Art Students League’s Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery.

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