QuARTined: Dispatches From a Land of Forced Reacquaintance

Ricco/Maresca Gallery
May 28, 2020 8:09PM

Coronavirus cabining has created all measure of social experiments and personal re-imaginings. The one I want to devote this and subsequent columns to, is the way it has lifted the veil, broken the mechanism of my neural conclusion machine, and brought me the pleasure of a forced reacquaintance with art that we have owned and under-appreciated for a long time.

By: Adam Hanft

Family Portrait on a Ferry (signed "DeVito"), 1917. Oil on canvas. 30" x 24".


Our brains are built to be conclusion machines. To eliminate cognitive load, we are hard-wired to race from stimulus to Act Four/Scene Five with an absolute minimum of conscious effort.

So we listen, but we don’t

We look, but we don’t. It’s a perceptual laziness that can victimize even art.

Coronavirus cabining has created all measure of social experiments and personal re-imaginings. The one I want to devote this and subsequent columns to, is the way it has lifted the veil, broken the mechanism of my neural conclusion machine, and brought me the pleasure of a forced reacquaintance with art that we have owned and under-appreciated for a long time.

I don’t recall where we bought this expressive vernacular painting—dated 1917 (a year before the Spanish flu) and signed “DeVito”—but I am instantly reminded of what drew me to it in the first place. It’s a portrait of a mother and her two children on a boat, not particularly dressed up for the occasion. They convey a complex and expressive optimism, a plaintive cheerfulness perhaps reflecting underlying awkwardness, frustration, and impatience.

In my imaginative reconstruction, this is an immigrant family—cued by the wardrobe, the name of the painter, and the facial architecture. Italian, most likely. Possibly a family on its way to America, I originally thought. That’s a ludicrous thesis, however, as this is clearly not one of those teeming steerage vessels that brought immigrants to America, and certainly no one on that grueling journey would have had time for this moment of family documentation.

So, here’s my current narrative: the family is on a ferry, one of the hundreds that cheerfully chugged through New York City waters in those years. According to the New York City archives there were dozens of ferryboats connecting the boroughs in the year of the painting. I emailed Brian J. Cudahy, author of “Here and Back: The History of Ferryboats in New York Harbor” to see if he could confirm my theory from any visual cues in the image. I’ll write an addendum to this column if he responds.

Like subways, ferries have always been democratic modes of transportation, used by those going to work to build Manhattan. By the bright young things celebrated in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem Recuerdo with these iconic lines: “We were very tired, we were very merry/We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.” She also observed: “It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable”—which could actually account for the girl’s pained expression. Something electric happens when you look at DeVito’s painting while listening to Millay’s voice read the poem.

Am I convincing you yet? It’s not unreasonable to imagine this family escaping their crowded tenement neighborhood for some fresh air. The unseen father would’ve been cradling his new toy, a Kodak camera, finding an unpopulated space to take a photograph—from which this painting seems to have been executed.

In the catalog for an exhibition titled “Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Photography,” the Met Museum notes that “Within a few years of the Kodak’s introduction [in 1888] snapshot photography became a national craze.” It also notes that “the great majority of early snapshots were made for personal reasons: to commemorate important events … to document travels and seaside holidays ... to record parties, picnics, or simple family get-togethers; to capture the appearance of children.

Many paintings were created from photographs—and also from postcards—during this period. But images were expensive in those days, unlike our era of digital profligacy. You had to mail the camera to Kodak, and they sent your pictures back. Mr. DeVito was also dealing with restless kids, so he did not have many perfect images to choose from, and lacking studio skills he probably had to work with what was photographically available.

So the faces captured were the faces documented. That accounts for the less-than-Kodak moment; the imperfections of miens, expressions, body language, and positions. The girl on the right is frowning and looks decidedly unhappy—that olfactory stable situation—in contrast to the sunny bow in her hair. She is also barefoot, which is unlikely behavior on a public ferry, and could lead one to speculate that this is a family boat—a backstory which would blow up my entire thesis, but also seems wildly inconsistent with the lower-middle-class vibrations of the scene. I will have none of it.

The smaller child, a boy dressed in blue held almost forcefully still by his mother, seems less miserable. He looks just like his sister. Mom has the faintest hint of smile, she is humoring the photographer, but her tolerance for moment is running out—she has cooking and laundry to do. This one-day trip to give her husband a chance to experiment with his new Kodak… which he never should have bought anyway; they had better things to do with the money… is wearing on her by the minute. But her hair looks like it might have been marcelled, so she is not all about immigrant sacrifice.

This fictive richness and speculative ramp were what drew me to the image when we bought it and draws me back in this period of forced reacquaintance. The painter has some skill, which adds to the charm and mystery (he may have taken classes in the old country) and has lavished love on the quotidian. He sees his wife as having a beatific quality, I believe some Freudian Madonna thing is happening, even as she can’t wait to unfreeze her position.

Clement Greenberg writes that photography “is the most transparent of the art mediums … It is probably for this reason that proves so difficult to make the photography transcend its almost inevitable function as a document and act as work of art as well.”

This painting is doubtless a document. But with apologies to Greenberg, for me it doesn’t just act as a work of art, it actually fully behaves and functions as one. This, of course, is the unanswerable critical question and it will not be resolved here, or ever. Nonetheless, if a painting engages the viewer and reifies experience, it does tip the balance towards art. And anyone who disagrees is trapped in the tapioca of pretense.

A year after this painting was dated the first pandemic, the Spanish Flu, tore through New York. If these were real people, as I argue, some or all of them might have been taken away. Perhaps a jagged family remained, and the painting took on even greater significance. The ecstasy of George Eastman’s invention preserving a moment (so its illusory permanence could become re-animated and flesh made real a second time) becoming family lore.

In “On Photography“ Susan Sontag writes that “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability … all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

This painting invites the same participation, the same speculative sadness and unconstrained wonder at how that moment ended up on these walls during the second pandemic.

*Adam Hanft is a widely published cultural critic; co-author of “Dictionary of the Future” and a passionate follower of Outsider art.

Ricco/Maresca Gallery