Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School.

Author:Lobel, Michael
Position::Book review


Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 418 pp.; 12 color ills., 149 b/w. $49.95

Picturing the City makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the Ashcan school, that group of American artists--Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and George Bellows--who grappled with representing the changing face of the modern city at the turn of the twentieth century. Their commitment to new modes of urban realism, informed by the experience many of them had as commercial illustrators, is often considered a touchstone for later developments in American art. Although there have been other efforts to contextualize this group--most notably, the 1995 exhibition catalog Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York, which Zurier co-authored with Robert W. Snyder and Virginia Mecklenburg--this book further fleshes out the social and historical dimensions of their work. Zurier has constructed an overarching framework through which to examine the imagery produced by these artists, one in which looking and picturing, vision and visualization take a primary role.

Zurier's analysis is based on the contention that Ashcan art emerged from a fundamentally visually oriented culture, for which acts of looking and the circulation of images were central. This approach calls to mind previous art historical treatments of "visual cultures," such as Svetlana Alpers's analysis of the centrality of picturing to seventeenth-century Dutch culture in her important The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1983). Nevertheless, Zurier goes to great lengths to demonstrate the historical specificity of her claims. For instance, she connects the types of looking she describes to specific social and political changes that had occurred in New York City by that time, and she documents these by calling on historical and literary texts as well as a rich array of primary documents such as period photographs, films, and cartoons. According to Zurier, this focus on looking and picturing grew out of a unique conjunction of factors, including the presence in the city of large groups of non-English-speaking immigrants (who could be more readily reached through pictorial rather than textual messages) and the rise of such image-oriented professions as advertising, entertainment, and fashion. Another contemporaneous development that was crucial to the work of the Ashcan group was the growing importance of pictorial illustrations in newspapers and magazines, along with what Zurier identifies as the "new economic formula" that attended it: "huge circulation to a mass audience at a low price was subsidized by advertisements, which also paid for the printing presses that could reproduce images in large quantities" (p. 72).

One of the key elements in Zurier's account is what she calls the "city on paper," that is to say, the abundant and varied range of means by which the city was represented pictorially. What were the different ways in which individuals--such as the members of the Ashcan school--took up roles as mobile urban observers? Zurier attempts to detach her formulation of the mobile observer from the one that has rather tiresomely dominated so many recent art historical accounts of urban looking, namely, Charles Baudelaire's flaneur, which, as she notes, is "associated with a distanced and distracted modernity." She is interested in opening...

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