George Bellows had his troubles with particulars. His figures at their best all but fade into the crowd. His weather seems hardly to change, even when he paints the Hudson in the rain. When he scours the depths of a changing city, he quotes the old masters. When he confronts German atrocities in Belgium in World War I, in lithographs and five of his largest paintings, he falls victim himself to propaganda and fears. A committed leftist, he found the results used to sell war bonds.
He got at least two things right, though. More than anyone else, he exemplifies American art's hesitant embrace of the new century—and its unbridled confidence all the same. And he captures the same extremes of confidence and confusion in New York City. It shows in the clamor of his subjects and the creaminess of his oils. It shows in his weakness for caricature and celebration, to the point that one can hardly tell them apart. It makes his retrospective at the Met repetitive or even wearisome by the end, but also a lot of fun.
People tend to remember Bellows for one thing, boxing. He painted its brutality in Club Night in 1907 and again in Stag at Sharkey's in 1909. Their faces little more than streaks of red, their anatomy a mere smear of oil, the fighters become a side of beef out of classic Dutch still life, but as meat for the crowd. Its plumper members sport white shirts and ties, and why not? They paid for those front-row seats. Besides, if the real brutality is on the part of the spectator, the artist relishes that role himself.
Bellows valued his objectivity everywhere he went, and it took him far. It took him to Lower East Side immigrants and the crossroads of Times Square. It took him to the excavation for Penn Station, as epic theater. By day and night, he relishes the masses rising behind and the pit below, both prey to smoke, steam, and flames. And it took him to Sharkey's, in the seamy neighborhood of what is Lincoln Center today. It seems only right that Bellows made his first studio just a block away.
Critic called his Beach at Coney Island in 1908 "vulgar" and objected to his "naked" boys bathing in the East River the two years before, but he took the adjectives as compliments to be applied to his art. He earned the Ashcan school its name, thanks to another bad review, but why should he care? The Met bought his Up the Hudson as its first Ashcan school painting, in 1911, when he was not yet thirty. Two years later he was exhibiting in the fabled Armory Show, where he helped to install Nude Descending a Staircase, by Marcel Duchamp. His eye for the present, though, is on the American scene, and when he turns for models to European art, he sees mostly the past.
Born in 1882, he arrived in New York in 1904 with the confidence of a college athlete. He had had a respectable upbringing in Columbus and attended Ohio State, but left without graduating, in pursuit of art. He learned from Robert Henri, who practically gave birth to twentieth-century American painting. Henri had studied in Philadelphia with Thomas Anshutz, alongside George Luks, William Glackens, and John Sloan—all three soon associated with the Ashcan school, after exhibiting together with Henri and others as "the Eight." Henri, though, told his students to go the Met, and Henri's art looks like Edouard Manet or John Singer Sargent, as in Sargent's watercolors or Sargent's portraits, with their darker backgrounds and souped-up colors. The fervently mixed message in Bellows is already there.
Bellows heads right for election night in Times Square, with a parade of children and red highlights, and to May Day in Central Park, in charcoal and crayon. He is looking for places and events that will change things once and for all. Look closely at his boys bathing in the East River, without swim suits, and one will see poses out of Thomas Eakins, but without the precision and sexual tension. Ambiguity and anatomy are foreign to his nature, and he has to hold personal engagement at a certain distance, too, as artist and spectator. He paints one less than ideal nude, but his heart is elsewhere, with the crowds. The river has its River Rats, so pay attention.
He has found a subject matter, but he is just coming into his own. With Sharkey's and Penn Station, he seeks a lusher drama, set in white against deep blue, green, and purple skies. It has space for the Palisades and ample time for pleasure, whether polo in Battery Park, tennis at Newport, or a sunny afternoon on the Upper West Side. One well-dressed woman walks her dog at night past another on a bench with her lover. The Met calls a room of his retrospective "Work and Leisure," but he hardly keeps the two ideas apart. A steaming railway shares Riverside Park with Frederick Law Olmstead's grand design—and dockworkers share the Brooklyn waterfront with weekenders and passers-by.
If he goes as a reporter, uncovering what others prefer to overlook, he leaves as a dramatist. He could hardly detach those aims. He travels with John Reed, later the author of Ten Days That Shook the World about the Bolshevik revolution, on assignment from The Masses for an exposé of the Reverend Billy Sunday. Then he places his tall, balding self among the believers. "It seems to me," he said, "that an artist must be a spectator of life; a reverential, enthusiastic, emotional spectator, and then the great dramas of human nature will surge through his mind." Frankness becomes itself the subject, even when it is a lie.
"Be deliberate," he commands. "Be spontaneous." Often he tries a bit too hard for both. Women especially have him setting aside the ashcan for fine art. A little girl stands in a white dress against a dark background out of Diego Velázquez. Another girl has a pale green mask for a face right out of Francisco de Goya, but with an ingratiating smile in place of Goya's brutal mockery or the playfulness of The Red Boy.
He cuts off backgrounds with a tree, a wall, a cliff, the el, or just plain darkness, but rarely as flat color and almost never parallel to the picture plane. (Who knew before Hurricane Sandy that the Lower East Side riverbank drops so severely?) The restricted depth and prominent action make his paintings neither terribly geometric nor especially composed. This is not Edward Hopper, a friend and fellow student at the New York School of Art (along with Rockwell Kent), with the ghostly plainness of modernity. Still, it has ample pleasures, especially in blue and white. Blue can stand for sky or shadows within a single painting—and white for clouds, parasols, snow caps in daylight in the park, a street lamp at night, or the steam of a train coursing along the river.
Bellows extends his range starting in 1911, on five trips to Maine. He brings more colors to a house by the sea, and he seeks Winslow Homer in the waves churning in the storm. He finds a whole new kind of drama in light and objects, with a rocky islet glowing from behind at dusk. Back in the city, he tries to add particulars as well, but his tenement "cliff dwellers" still blend together in memory, and their anecdotal lives would not be out of place in a political poster or cartoon. No wonder he takes up lithography, with his own press on the balcony of his new studio on East 19th Street—because he is reporting from the front in a race or class war that seems never to end. The burning alive of an African American still has its immediacy, and a title like Why Don't They Go to the Country for Vacation? could come right out of an off-the-cuff remark in the 2012 election.
He returns to boxing shortly before his death in 1925, from a ruptured appendix at only forty-two. No one can know what Bellows would have become. The very return could mean an artist, now with a settled existence off Gramercy Park, running out of ideas. His late work, aside from the grisly but stagy war series, turns mostly to portraits and summers in the Catskills (with Woodstock already an arts community), both with stiff poses and stiffer colors. It could mean instead the greater focus of Dempsey and Firpo, at the Polo Grounds, with fewer spectators and a clearer point of view. He has not given up his refusal to pander either, as he shows the all-American champion (who went on to win the fight) knocked right out of the ring.
That scene packs a wallop—with the boxers, the referee's sudden extended arm, and even the ropes subsumed into a triangle pointing sharply down. A white horse in a Catskill valley has its own magic realism, several years before the term existed. The portraits, though, return all too efficiently to Henri, despite the transcendent blue of his wife's dress at the piano, in 1914. A child may acknowledge Henri Matisse and a shirt front Paul Cézanne, but in a style that Matisse or Cézanne had left behind. A family portrait borrows from Pierre-Auguste Renoir but muter and darker, as if to bring to Impressionism the dignity of the old masters. Maybe Bellows had become more and more restless and more and more uncertain where to take his art, and so surely will visitors to his retrospective.
One could blame the restlessness on the curators, Charles Brock of the National Gallery of Art, with Franklin Kelly, and H. Barbara Weinberg and Lisa M. Messinger for the Met. One could ask for fewer prints and portraits, although I for one hesitate to ask for more of his hundreds of late landscapes. Almost a third of the Met's display is for works on paper, with the rest a reasonable compromise between chronology and themes. One could instead be grateful for any artist with a few good years, and no movement in modern art lasts forever, not even American Modernism. His confidence had its limits all along, not unlike American Impressionism and realism. Bellows may go down as its consummate spectator, equally at home with its pains and its pleasures, but a new generation in Abstract Expressionist New York was going to put painters at the center of the action.
George Bellows ran through February 18, 2013, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.