Most American artists hated the dense growth of skyscapers that began to cover Manhattan at the turn of the century.Henry James considered it a "huge, continuous 50-floored conspiracy against the very idea of the ancient graces."
Skyscrapers, he said, "do not speak to you with the authority of things of permanence or even things of long duration.
Others, however, saw the new skyline as the symbol of a bright future, of a dawning age of esthetic and social freedom. Their paintings and drawings of tall buildings, city canyons, steel structures and machines of the early 20th-century city were "images of urban optimism," as Joshua C. Taylor said.
Taylor, who is director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, mounted an ambitious and acclaimed show, "America as Art," during the Bicentennial year. "The Image or Urban Optimism" was part of it and has now been condensed into a traveling exhibition of some 50 prints and photographs with an excellent catalogue written by Jane M. Farmer.
The exhibit can be seen during working hours at the international headquarters of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at 1625 L. St. NW, through April 29. After that it will tour the United States under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
Enthusiasm for skyscrapers, which initially appeared as soloists in Chicago but made their first dramatic impact on the chorus line of Manhattan, began in Europe around 1910. In some avant-garde circles, notably the Italian Futurists, adulation for the sky-scraper and the automobile - both at the time all but unattainable things American - became a fad, a craze, a faith.
Height and speed, rhapsodized the Futurist poets and painters, would lift the burden of the past and release humankind to pursue a perfect future order.
"rationality would replace egocentric sentiment and a new morality would be born out of the spare forms of an uncompromisingly efficient structure, realized simultaneously in the arts and society," as Taylor put it.
This faith, this irrational faith in pure rationality, was shared in various degrees by all Modern art and architecture movements such as Cubism, Constructivism and the Bauhaus. Le Corbusier complained that the skyscrapers of New York were too small.
It was only after the first World War that American artists began to share the European enchantment with the machine. They pursued the beauties of manmade surroundings with the same zeal the generation of artists before them had pursued the beauties of nature.
And a great many of them reasoned that since the Brooklyn Bridge is beautiful, American technological culture brings salvation.
This premise has become highly questionable. Crossing the Brooklyn - and Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville and acres of abandoned slum houses. A few bouts with the Metro farecard tend to undermine one's faith in American technological culture.
But misplaced optimism does not diminish the beauty of most of the idealized cityscapes in this show. Alfred Stieglitz' photographs have an enduring quality regardless of Weltanschauung. Lynd Ward, Louis Lozowick, Adriasan Lubbers, Jan Matulka and most others let the city be its own abstraction. In other words, they don't see the need to further abstract already abstract forms.
One of the show's most striking works is a large aquatint of "Soaring New York," 1932, by Howard Norton Cook, conveying the incredible variety within the unity of the skyscraping city.
Werner Drewes' drawings of architectural forms in dynamic tension are the most exciting pieces in the show. They seem, at any event, the least dated. They might have been drawn today.
The Germnan-born Drewes studied at the Bauhaus at two different periods: first with Johannes Itten in Weimar, the second time with Kandinsky and Feininger at Dessau. He came to this country in 1930, worked with the WPA Federal Arts projects, taught at several colleges,and his New York drawings were caught up in a certain urban optimism. "But I was mainly interested in the forms of these buildings," he told me. There is a limit to the accuracy and value of artistic categories.
Urban optimism," at any rate, more or less vanished with the Depression, and the city has never since been the subject of artistic hope and ideology to the extent it was in the '20s.
We can use some urban optimism these days. The urban way of life is becoming more popular in America, at least among the young middle class.
Morton and Lucia White wrote in "The Intellectual Versus the City," "If the American city was found wanting, not because it was too civilized but rather because it was not civilized enough."