By all accounts a shy and awkward man, he was fascinated by extroverts and physical control. He had a voyeur’s eye for dynamics, turmoil and collapse. And so he depicted the rough, restless upheaval among working folks seeking a brief window of relief on the sand: the pushy exhibitionism on Coney Island and the aggressively uneasy sprawl on Rockaway Beach.
The shore isn’t always an escape, as any August beachgoer knows. The crowds, the flies, the self-consciousness; the often uncomfortable loosening of decorum as well as dress codes. That jammed-up sense of conflict leaps out at you in “Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York,” on view through Sept. 1 at the New-York Historical Society.
Well, I’ll take a chance on anything titled “Swing Time.” This show, the first major retrospective of the American scene painter’s work in more than 20 years, doesn’t disappoint as a journey back to a perennially absorbing era. First things first. There are T-strap pumps and Marcel waves to die for; men in hats; bias-cut dresses, skirted swimsuits. Fur stoles? Only in the store windows, out of reach of the passersby. This isn’t a Fred-and-Ginger world.
But many of Marsh’s subjects are the kind of independent characters Ginger Rogers played in the dozens of movies she didn’t make with Fred Astaire. In “BMT 14th Street” (1932), working people cascade down stairs into the subway system, a descent into hell that Alfred Hitchcock, with his own staircase obsessions, would understand. The focus is on women, dressed for the office, or for shifts at Macy’s, perhaps.
It’s a self-conscious statement of the changing times. A well-dressed woman in the foreground carries a purse in one hand, a stack of books in the other. Caught in mid-stride, she looks at you with a sidelong gaze, eyes narrowed, as if you’re some oddity in the corner. (Imagine Marsh bent over his easel, a strange fixed point in this rushing stream of humanity.) On a staircase in the background, a large woman pushes uphill through the throng of men with the weighty might of a Russian babushka.
There are two Marsh murals in Washington’s William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building, the former Post Office Department headquarters : “Sorting the Mail” and “Unloading the Mail” (1936), which show the fast pace of these labors organized in harmonious swirls of activity.
Yet, in the “Swing Time” exhibit, it’s clear that Marsh excelled at the art of confrontation. He seized the peculiar tension of the ’30s, when the urban population was being pushed around, physically, by fast-changing forces beyond its control. These were a combination of dire economics, the inescapable allure of Hollywood (there are marvelous paintings of sidewalk scenes outside movie theaters), the ceaseless crowds and the limited avenues of escape — beaches, burlesque shows, carnivals.