Nathan Walsh’s New York
525 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001
By DONALD KUSPIT, September, 2018
Nathan Walsh’s New York is a grand, glorious, majestic, overwhelming city, the fabled New York of popular myth—“if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere,” as the Frank Sinatra song goes—but also a sort of claustrophobic limbo, a maze of streets, each of them a peculiar dead-end, for however far they extend none of them leads out of it. One moves through the grid of Walsh’s oddly terrifying, intimidating, oppressive city—the blank stare of the humongous geometry of its buildings and blatant signs confronts us wherever we look--like a somnambulistic rat in a maze. The two anonymous figures in Pier 17, 2018 seem stuck in the rut of the tunnel-like space they walk in, while the more picturesque workers on the streets in Catching Fire, 2017 seem trapped in the rut of their busyness. All move with casual indifference to each other: there is no clearer statement of alienation.
Or else one is reduced to a trivial, transient detail in its panoramic splendor, as in Peninsula, 2017, or vanishes completely in its visionary immensity, as in Zbar, 2016 and Ed Koch, 2018. Or, with an eerie finality, one becomes a ghostly presence, like the almost invisible figures trapped in the glass compartment—a cell-like space, like the seemingly endless rows of windows that march in military formation on the blank walls of Walsh’s skyscrapers--that transports people to Roosevelt Island in 59th Street Bridge, 2015. This is not the New York of Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue, 1976—a view of the rest of the world from Manhattan, the center of the world. Nor are Walsh’s streets as cozy and intimate as West 57th Street in 1902 in Robert Henri’s painting. The odd inhospitable graceless cold world that is Walsh’s ultra-modern New York becomes clear the moment one compares the rainy scene in his NYC Gam, 2014, with its scattering of tidy umbrellas, and Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877, with its warm colors, peaceful space, and large, lovely umbrellas.
Walsh’s paintings of New York aspire—successfully, whatever their stylistic differences--to the complexity and brilliance of Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge, 1917 and New York Interpreted, 1922. But where Stella’s Futuristic abstractions show a dynamic, ever-changing, ever-new New York, an unfinished exciting New York in perpetual process, Walsh’s realistic vistas—they’re all site specific, as he says, descriptions of a particular place with particular aesthetic qualities—show a finished New York, a New York that seems to have achieved final form, however higher its skyscrapers may soar, broader its sidewalks may become, and however many more signs may proliferate on its walls and in its spaces--its pretentious character and basic structure laid out as though in a blueprint.
Initially elated by the glistening color, brilliant handling, and visionary breadth of Walsh’s paintings—by their ingenious fusion of urban geometry and painterly plenitude, evident in the water of the East River in 59th Street Bridge and Pier 17, and their nuanced rendering of light and shadow, sometimes dramatically at odds, as in Pier 17, sometimes uncannily integrated, as in the sidewalks of Catching Fire—I was suddenly reminded of Piranesi’s gloomy prison prints, with their absurd spaces, violent darkness, torture chambers. There was no escape from them, just as there is no escape from Walsh’s New York. Like Piranesi, Walsh has a taste for plunging tunnel-like perspective, cutting through the scene like a knife: streets that blindly rush into infinite space, like the two that go in opposite directions, framing the buildings, in Peninsula, or the street on the left in Catching Fire, and most spectacularly and confrontationally Chicago’s Lake Street, 2017, a tour de force of steep vanishing perspective (probably the reason it is in the exhibition) that ruthlessly rushes through the scene. Walsh’s 59th Street Bridge has its own absurd perspective, all the more confounding because it is multi-levelled.
Walsh’s epic paintings of epic New York have been called photorealistic, but they are not as flat as photographs, as their painterly, lavishly ornamental sidewalks—they sparkle with rich color, like exotic carpets, their texture informed with crushed jewels—makes clear. The sidewalks stand apart, in an altogether separate space, from the flat, nondescript, featureless buildings, peculiarly dull for all their height, giving them a false grandeur. They are straightforward precise line drawings; the sidewalks are color field paintings pulsing with light. The sidewalks are carefully considered; the buildings are glibly presented, as though they were facades in a Potemkin’s Village, or, dare one say, decadent one-dimensional endgame Bauhaus type buildings—unlivable machines for living. The contradiction between the painterly sidewalks and the linear buildings suggests a city divided against itself. Certainly the little people in Walsh’s paintings are oddly out of place on the streets and among the building, suggesting the inhumanity built into them.
I think Walsh’s masterpieces are best understood as an American version of Magic Realism or Marvelous Realism, as it is also called, a movement founded in Germany in 1925 by the curator and critic Franz Roh. He called it an “extreme realism,” for it conveyed the “deep meaning” of mundane reality. Walsh’s perspectives have deep meaning, for they seem to plunge into the abyss; his upfront buildings, all seemingly empty and inert, not to say lifeless, are meaningless in comparison. The difference between Walsh’s profound perspective and his superficial buildings suggests the paradoxical character of New York. WM
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author