Louis Lozowick (1892-1973) loved the American metropolis so much that he didn't smell the garbage rotting under the El. When he saw trucks and freight cars he imagined purposeful processions. He thought factories were shining temples of production. His smokestacks didn't belch filth. He detected in tall buildings hymns of aspiration, but couldn't hear the din of the jackhammers below. His love made him blind.
His crisp, terrific prints, now on exhibit at the National Museum of American Art, pretend to rationality, but are hopelessly romantic.
He wasn't the only one. Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, Joseph Stella, Ralston Crawford, Arnold Ronnebeck, Hugh Ferriss, Berenice Abbott and many others loved as he did. The architect, Le Corbusier, who thought silos seen in sunlight as handsome as cathedrals, was just as blind as he was.
These artists did not mind the drone of airplanes overhead. They saw order in construction sites, not sweat or mess or mud. Their peculiar disability was widespread in the 1920s. The Depression cured it fast.
Lozowick's skyscrapers all soar. So does thepurple prose with which the equally enamored writers of the day hymned those hives of drudgery. "Above the waters stands the magic mountain of steel and stone, shining and glorious," wrote Fiske Kimball. "Its eyes gaze down from immeasurable heights . . . ," sang T. E. Tallmadge, "its shining flanks are dappled with shadows of aeroplanes that 'laugh as they pass in thunder.' " In the prints of Louis Lozowick, girders, timbers, aeroplanes, switching yards and storage tanks shine brightly in white light.
Lozowick, born in Russia, came to New York at 14 and was awed by what he found. Though poor, he took classes at the National Academy of Design and, in 1915, managed to enroll at Ohio State University. He finished in three years, served briefly in the Army, and then went off to Europe to immerse himself in art. But the old art that he found in Paris and Berlin seemed strangely less exalted than the New York he remembered. Its bridges arched his memories, its El zoomed through his mind.
Like other young Americans who had fled the New World's babbittry in search of Old World culture, Lozowick was surprised to discover that European artists spoke with envy of Metropolis, its towers and machines. He met Futurists and Cubists. In Berlin, in 1921, he established friendships with El Lissitsky, Kasimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin, and other advanced thinkers of the Russian avant-garde. It was while in Europe in the first years of the '20s that he gave himself to art.
He drew pistons, gears and turbines, the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, the towers of Manhattan. There is no trace in his art of doubt or of Futurism's furies. His blacks are black, his whites are white, his lines are crisp and clean.
Order rules his vision. Lozowick wrote that he found beauty in "the rigid geometry of the American city, in the verticals of the smokestacks, in the parallels of its car tracks, the squares of its streets, the cubes of its factories, the arch of its bridges, the cylinders of its gas tanks." "Cleveland," his first lithograph, dated 1923, is filled with factories and bridges, smokestacks proud as columns, and ranks of loaded freight cars. There is nobody in sight.
He portrayed the Rubber Center on 57th Street, the silos of Minneapolis, high voltage towers at Cos Cob, factories and cranes and tall buildings being built. He was a strong designer and a wonderful lithographer. He's been grouped with the Precisionists because his lines are sharp and because his art hymns clarities, but that label overstresses his geometrical formalities. Lozowick cared less for the cube and the hard edge than he did for his faith in energy and progress. Joshua C. Taylor, the museum's late director, was right to call the sort of pictures he produced "images of urban optimism." In them Taylor sensed "a passionate romance with the city and its skyscrapers, an emotive belief in the promise of tomorrow, in motion and change. It is this kind of heady attitude that in a few years would make understandable and desirable the 'streamlined' form of every imaginable object."
In 1929 that optimism crashed. By 1931, the year that he produced "Subway Construction," one of his best lithographs, the streets of his dream city were acknowledging their tenements. Skies once bright as crystal were filling up with smog.
In the 1930s, he dutifully portrayed striking workers, Hoovervilles and lynchings and the shuffling unemployed. He was not the sort of artist who travels all alone.
As Lozowick grew old, his passions diminished, his subjects grew tame. Toward the end he preferred to portray snowy days in Central Park, or Peru's Machu Picchu, or the Roman Colosseum--the sort of subjects tourists chose. His last lithograph on view, from 1973 when Lozowick was 80, is a still life with a teapot titled "Tea for One."
All his prints are handsome, bold and bright and strong. He made more than 300. Examples of nearly all of them have been pledged to the National Museum of American Art by his widow. It is from that collection that this fine show has been drawn. It closes April 10.