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—
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 André Kertész, Fred Stein, Ramon Espantaleon, Susan Grossman, and Beth O’Donnell.
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.