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By Deedee Wigmore


This exhibition is focused on the variety of media employed by Reginald Marsh. The emphasis is on the techniques and media that he mastered and the subjects he returned to repeatedly.

Ink drawing was the first medium that Marsh mastered. He honed this skill at the Yale School of Fine Art where he was the star illustrator and later the art editor for the Yale Record between 1916 and 1920; he continued his career as a staff reporter/illustrator for The Daily News where he was given a weekly column on vaudeville in 1922. On the entertainment beat for The Daily News until 1925, Marsh also covered theater, opera, and radio performances. Examples of these Daily News ink drawings are on display in our exhibition. In particular, I love the ink drawings of the vaudeville column which exhibit both Marsh's graphic skill and gift for pictorial humor. In these drawings, each act is given a percentage rating by Marsh for its entertainment value. Marsh's vaudeville columns attracted blunt communication from the performers and their friends, which were also published and a great success. Marsh left The Daily News in 1925 to draw for The New Yorker, where he worked until 1932. From 1925 to 1932, Marsh also created ink drawings on a freelance basis for the magazines Esquire, Fortune, and Life.

Whether in pencil or ink, drawing is the foundation upon which Marsh built his art. During the years that he worked as an illustrator/reporter, Marsh developed the habit of constant sketching using a medium Waterman's artist pen with black Higgins engrossing ink. These sketches were made in Morilla pocket sketchbooks and show Marsh's passion for contemporary detail and his desire to retain the whole experience. When he died in 1954, Marsh left over 200 chronologically organized sketchbooks to the Whitney Museum.

The second medium Marsh mastered was watercolor, which he began to use after taking a summer painting course at the Art Students League in 1919. As his position at The Daily News required only one day of work per week, Marsh had both the income and time to pursue painting in earnest. He took additional classes at the League in 1922 and 1923 with Kenneth Hayes Miller, who became a friend, and with John Sloan and George Luks, who also were former news illustrators. As all three of Marsh's teachers had embraced the city as the source for their art, it is no surprise that Marsh followed suit.

The first two solo exhibitions of Marsh's watercolors were at the Whitney Studio Club in 1924 and 1928. The subject of these watercolors, painted on the spot, was the changing landscape of New York. A particular focus for Marsh was New York's abundant river traffic which he could paint from the city's four bridges: the Kings Bridge connecting Manhattan to the Bronx; the Brooklyn Bridge and Williamsburg Bridge on the East River; and the Manhattan Bridge connecting Canal Street in Manhattan to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. He also could paint river traffic on the ferry service between New Jersey and Vesey Street. Our exhibition includes eight Marsh watercolors of New York's shipping industry, executed between 1927 and 1938.

New York was also a rail hub and Marsh became fascinated with trains in 1920 after having a strong reaction to an illustration of a locomotive by e.e. cummings in the popular magazine, The Dial. The New York and Harlem railroad operated between Union Square and 23rd Street, near the studio Marsh maintained from 1923 to 1948 on 14th Street. Marsh roamed the nearby streets with his sketchbook to capture the New York and Harlem rail service at work. He also painted an elevated railway along Greenwich Street and 9th Avenue that was eventually driven out of business by the subway. Another of Marsh's favorite sources for locomotive subjects was a short commute to the Erie Railroad terminal in Jersey City. We offer seven of Marsh's railroad subjects executed between 1927 and 1940.

The development of New York City's complex transportation system became a prime focus of Marsh's work. The subway and train stations provided an opportunity for Marsh to observe urban workers making their commute. The first subway, Interborough Rapid Transit, had 28 stations between City Hall and 145th Street in service by 1920; Times Square Subway Station, 1938 captures city workers in this subway. In addition to trains, New Yorkers could ride street cars, cable cars, buses, and, if they were well-to-do, motor cars on the newly completed Bronx River Parkway. By 1927 people could also take the Holland Tunnel from Canal Street to Jersey City. In 1934 a coherent policy for surface transit was developed and private bus companies were franchised. In 1937 medallions were issued for the city's taxi cabs and in 1939 the LaGuardia airport opened in Queens, handling 250 flights a day in its first year. Marsh was on the spot to document in his art these transportation developments and the changing face of New York.

New York's art dealers quickly saw the worth of Marsh's watercolors. Valentine Dudensing Gallery gave him a one-man exhibition in 1927, followed by Weyhe Gallery in 1928, and Marie Sterner Gallery in 1929. In 1930 Frank K. Rehn became Marsh's exclusive dealer, holding solo exhibitions almost every year for the rest of Marsh's life.

In 1929 Thomas Hart Benton introduced Marsh to the egg tempera medium. Tempera required powdered pigments mixed with egg yolk as a binder and a bit of water instead of the linseed oil used in oil painting which Marsh had difficulty mastering. Marsh liked tempera because it allowed him to build a painting in a continuous process without waiting for it to dry, like the watercolor medium he worked in regularly. The luminosity and clearness of drawing was preserved in the egg tempera medium, while the egg yolk provided the richness of oil paint. The light in Marsh's tempera work came from a gessoed ground thinly glazed over or exposed by rubbing back to it. Opaque white was sometimes used by Marsh in underpainting highlights or in superimposed details. In tempera, Marsh drew with his brush and used color realistically, building his forms with black or grey outlines. In these works, Marsh learned to integrate form and color to create projection and depth. Marsh finished a painting with a protective coat of varnish or wax to add further depth and brilliancy. From 1929 to 1940, Reginald Marsh used tempera exclusively rather than oil. Marsh continued to be a brilliant watercolorist, but in mastering tempera he was able to build more complex compositions. Our exhibition has tempera works of burlesque and Coney Island subjects, as well as one of shoppers along 14th Street.

Between 1929 and 1940, Marsh explored more serious subjects for his art as he transformed himself from a freelance illustrator on the entertainment beat into a recognized artist. He documented the urban population's pursuit of pleasure, exhibitionism, and public sexuality in his burlesque, Coney Island, and Luna Park subjects. In the burlesque paintings, the dancers' explicit poses are used to dramatically break through the staring void in which male patrons are suspended as voyeurs. In numerous beach scenes at Coney Island, he painted a mix of men and women of all ages and physical conditions, exhibiting themselves as they enjoyed each other and the beach. Marsh saw burlesque and Coney Island as opportunities to paint both the human body and the human character. At Luna Park, he was also able to paint crowds and courting couples as part of a fantasy world of side shows, merry-go-rounds, roller coasters, and tunnels of love. Unlike most artists, Marsh did not travel out of New York during the summer as the magnet of Coney Island's crowds kept him at home. As a result, one sixth of Marsh's paintings are set in Coney Island at the beach or at Luna Park. Our exhibition has half a dozen examples of Marsh's Coney Island subjects. In the major tempera Wooden Horses, 1936, Marsh painted both himself and his wife, Felicia, on the Luna Park merry-go-round.

To develop a composition that suited these crowded burlesque theater and beach subjects, Marsh studied the Old Masters, including sketching trips to European museums. He focused on Titian, Rubens, and Michelangelo to discover how they organized large groups of figures against architectural backdrops or landscapes. Marsh referenced the Old Master compositional device of friezes to create rhythmic compositions full of movement. Marsh developed the frieze device in his own work from 1930 to 1945. He often made use of two or more friezes, one behind the other, with openings through which the furthest ones could be seen. One such frieze, The Beach, an ink drawing, is included in our exhibition.

As a further aid to painting his crowd scenes at Coney Island, Marsh added photography to his skills in 1930. He used a 35 millimeter camera with black and white film. While some figures and groups that he photographed were transferred directly to his paintings, he also discovered through his photography that people often repeated certain poses and positions which could then be used to capture the spirit he was after in any composition.

A significant theme for Reginald Marsh during the 1930s and 1940s was the instability of life as represented by the human wreckage of the Great Depression. Marsh painted men who were out of work or down-and-out in contrast to active, striding working women who appear better able to find jobs in the changing New York economy. Unlike the Social Realists who insisted on characterizing their figures as heroes, oppressors, or victims, Marsh was the first to paint the lowest level of society with drastic realism and without a loaded political comment.

His political comments occur in his signage rather than his people. Marsh incorporated commercial signage, newspaper headlines, movie marquees, shop windows, price signs, street markers, and even stoplights— whatever would aid his contrast of everyday life with bigger events. For instance, in the oil painting Hotel, 1941, the men in the foreground lack money for shelter as the hotel sign behind them dominates the background giving a sense of irony to the composition. The use of signage to incorporate words into a composition was new and Marsh's inclusion of advertising in his work shows his attentive eye on a changing New York.

Movies were a new entertainment in the 1930s and Marsh was anxious to tell the story of America's love of them. Because the new business of advertising made movie stars look so irresistible, Marsh made his women look like screen heroines. Their allure acted to attract viewers to his paintings. An example of this is the female figure in the foreground of our Chinese ink painting, Barbara Stanwyck (Movie Marquee), 1946, in which the female figure resembles the marquee image of the star.

Throughout the 1930s and up until 1943, Marsh worked continuously to develop as an artist. To fully realize the potential of his figures, he painted nude models at his 14th Street studio almost daily. He also dissected cadavers at New York medical schools in 1931 and 1934 to improve the quality of his figures. To execute murals commissioned by the United States Treasury Department, Marsh studied frescos with Olle Nordmark in 1934. He added a course in sculptural form with Mahonri Young in 1935 to perfect his figures and he took a print-making course with Stanley William Hayter to extend his graphic skills.

Marsh's work was changed by his mural commissions of 1935-1937. His designs became more deliberate and his compositions were no longer so crowded. His forms became rounder and more substantial. Light became a device for creating depth rather than strictly an aspect of realism. Color was used to convey emotion and he began to use planned color harmonies. These developments were first seen in 1939 when Marsh began to create large-scale watercolors as strong and as complex as his temperas. Only Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) amongst Marsh's contemporaries was painting watercolor compositions of such scale and completeness. An example of one of Marsh's complex large watercolors using a new darker palette in our exhibition is Miss Modern Venus, 1939. Another watercolor, Hudson Bay Fur Company, 1932, shows Marsh's interest in grisaille.

Marsh only began to tackle mastering oil paint in 1939. He first experimented with Max Doerner's Old Master influenced oil emulsions, which Marsh found dark, sticky and unmanageable. He then tried another oil medium developed by Jacques Maroger. The Maroger medium was a paste emulsion that was both solid and transparent, yet provided a rich impasto. Marsh used this oil emulsion almost exclusively from 1940 to 1945. Marsh's results using the Maroger medium were not as immediately successful as they had been in watercolor and tempera. In his early use of the Maroger oil medium, Marsh lost variations in texture, had crude coloring, and had to learn to sharpen his impasto with more linear brushwork. Scene at the Follies, 1942, Hotel, 1942, and On the Boardwalk, 1942 are successful oils from this period.

The final new medium that Marsh mastered was large scale Chinese ink drawings, which he began in 1943. In these grisaille works, Marsh created ink by rubbing a charcoal stick in water; he then added thin washes of watercolor for enhanced emotion. Experimenting with the Chinese ink medium, Marsh attained graphic freedom and without the complications of color, he achieved great originality. Marsh created hundreds of large scale Chinese ink drawings between 1943 and his death in 1954. Coney Island, 1942 is a nice example of this work.

Looking back at Reginald Marsh's artistic development between 1920 and 1945, it is apparent that his major themes and subjects revolved around a changing New York. In drawings, watercolors, tempera, fresco, oil and Chinese ink, Marsh documented growth in commercial activity, the changing role of men and women as workers, developing transportation, and the rise of popular culture and entertainment. Few painters provided a more adept chronicle of urban life. By 1945 Marsh had established his subject matter and developed his major themes. He had mastered drawing in pencil, ink, and print-making. He was able to work with skill in fresco, watercolor, tempera, and oil. Marsh had also mastered in his paintings the use of many elements clearly defined in motion within a total environment and suggesting three dimensions. Marsh taught at the Art Students League from 1935 until his death at age 56 in 1954. Perhaps as a byproduct of his teaching career Marsh never stopped experimenting with materials and compositional ideas.

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