This is a late weigh-in on the N-YHS’s 100th anniversary of the Armory Show. Indulge me. Nudes, of course, were the peak experience. You could stand three feet away from Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase; then turn on your heel 180 degrees and find yourself face-to-face with Henri Matisses’s Blue Nude. (Can this ever have been thought so offensive that the painter was burned in effigy?) But one of the show’s most sensual paintings, to my way of thinking, was John Sloan’s Women Washing Their Hair. (Shown above.) Sloan, as we know if we read this blog, was one of “The Eight,” the name given to the non-comformist illustrators and artists of the Ashcan School of painting that came of age in this city during the early Nineteen Hundreds. Their subjects were not socialites, but working people caught actually working or playing or, as in the case of the women above, luxuriating in a leisure moment. They’re probably immigrant girls who have worked six days a week in a sweatshop and are spending their free Sunday afternoon grooming. Catch that hair flying and the clothes drying. The movement in this piece is sensational.
A number of Sloan’s paintings deal with tenement life. (He lived in one and it was a convenient point from which to observe the neighbors.) Fortunately, he was as deft with a pen and he was with a paintbrush. Witness the diary entry below:
Started to paint from memory of the Wind and Dust Storm that we saw and felt Sunday. Across the backyards in a room on the second floor I saw a baby die in its mother’s arms. The men of the house powerless, helpless, stupid. She held it in her arms after it had started to pale and stiffen. Hope tried to fight off Fact, then Fact killed hope in her. They took it from her. The men smoked their pipes – sympathetic with her anguish and trying to reason her back to calmness. A bottle of whiskey, and a drink for her. I could hear nothing – but the acting was perfect.
June 11, 1906
(New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. p. 187.)
Above is a photo of my son, (fledgling playwright and captain of his college rubgy team), sharing a tender moment with his orange tabby Buster. As a kitten, Buster fit into a palm. Now, he has to be slung over a shoulder.
New Yorkers love their cats. Probably because cats, unlike dogs, are allowed under rental leases and even most co-op boards will grant them a sentimental grandfathering in. And they are so painfully missed when they pass on. Only listen to the late New York novelist and diarist Dawn Powell’s lament upon losing her beloved Perkins.
My dear cat Perkins died today –very sweetly, very quietly, daintily, a lady wanting to give as little trouble as possible. She took sick Monday with chills and bladder trouble and threw up her fish. She knew and I knew that this was it. I cashed a bad check to take her to Speyer’s where the vet gave me pills and medicine to give her which she hated. She could not eat either. Nor would she try. Finally she lay on the balcony, exhausted, in the sun. I heard her choke, and she was in a convulsion, but I picked her up and put her in a chair where she managed to fix her sweet eyes on me while I held her paw and moistened her lips with water. It was unbearable. . . .
I forgot my debt to her … until the night after she died when I was alone in the house and suddenly every sound once more became sinister – the escaped lunatic slowly turning the doorknob the big brute creeping up the stairs. My cat analyst was dead and my phobias came plunging out of the pits and closets where they had been locked. I cannot have another pet – it would be unfaithful to my little dear who liked no one but me, knew no other cats, no mice, no love but mine. She thought she was my mother – was ashamed and outraged if I was noisy or loud-talking, slapping me if I was blah, avoided me scornfully if I was drunk, approved if I typed. She was the first pet in my life.
September 29, 1945
(New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. p. 313.)