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New York, Through the Artist’s Eyes

New York’s famous son, Walt Whitman, in his ode to the city, Mannahatta, writes:
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the
shops and shows,
A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—
hospitality […].
New York, one of the most depicted cities in the world, has been romancing artists for centuries. They pick from among its visual riches: angular geometries and dramatic light and shade; glass and steel skyscrapers next to low-rise pockets; nature bent to culture in elegant parks; or bustling streets plied by people, dogs, and pigeons, to name only a handful of its ever-changing vistas.
Vistas, vignettes, and creative interpretations of a place where everything abuts everything were recently on view at Birnam Wood / Galleries in “A Sense of Place: Images of New York.” The exhibition featured work in a range of media, including sculpture, photography, and painting, made by Modern and contemporary artists active from the early 20th century to now, among them , , , , and .
In Kertész’s gelatin silver photograph, Chimney, MacDougal Alley, April 1, 1965 (1965), the city is abstracted into overlapping geometric volumes. The sharp tip of a triangular roof juts into the lower right-hand side of the frame, while the two black, cylindrical chimneys appear silhouetted against a white brick wall, which is chopped into linear rectangles by the fire escape and its cast shadows. Fred Stein photographs the sky over Manhattan with a lighter touch in his sepia-toned photograph, Cola (1942). He captures the ephemeral sky-written word, “COLA,” against the substantial heft of an iron streetlamp, laden with way-finding signs.
Contemporary architect, designer, and ceramist Ramon Espantaleon casts New York in resin and wood in his Central Park Lamp (2011). The sculpture features a scale model of the park, ringed by buildings, crafted in translucent resin and set into a black, cubic frame. Lit from within, it emits an otherworldly glow. In a more maximalist vein, Beth O’Donnell conveys the city’s dynamic visual pastiche in her mixed media painting, This Is It (2012). A jigsaw puzzle-like collage of sights both grand and small, it includes a pair of heels, people walking down a staircase, brick buildings, advertisements, and an assortment of windows.