Art review: John Taylor Arms at National Gallery

John Taylor Arms was a conservative artist, and he knew it. He started making prints in 1914, a year after the epic Armory Show in New York introduced European modernism to the philistine shores of the New World.

When he died in 1953, he was still active as a printmaker, investing hundreds of hours in obsessively detailed images of old churches, villages and landscapes, even as abstract expressionism was surging to its high-water mark in New York.

  • ( National Gallery of Art / ) - John Taylor Arms loved to reproduce the carvings, such as gargoyles, found on Gothic buildings.
  • ( National Gallery of Art ) - John Taylor Arms’s \
  • ( National Gallery of Art ) - John Taylor Arms’s \
  • ( National Gallery of Art / ) - John Taylor Arms’s \

( National Gallery of Art / ) - John Taylor Arms loved to reproduce the carvings, such as gargoyles, found on Gothic buildings.

Yet he never wavered from his agenda, which looked back to the aesthetic philosophy of the 19th century and yielded strictly representational images of buildings and places, mostly well known and well loved, from the standard tourist’s map of the world.

A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, devoted to some of the most meticulous and breathtaking of Arms’s prints and drawings, doesn’t suggest an artist behind the times but merely out of sync with them. Arms’s best work is denser than photography in its representational detail, as if the artist were self-consciously pursuing a microscopic truth beyond what the lens could capture.

At its most refined, it takes on an almost hard-edged precision, as if he were mapping the world in some mathematical, schematic way, rather than creating an illusion of how it looks.

Put a magnifying glass up to his best prints, and you see what the thinnest of needles, scraped on a copper plate by an artist of neurotic devotion, can accomplish: precision beyond vision, invisible ideals, dog-whistle symphonies for the eyes.

His early etchings feel derivative: boats and airplanes, story­book plates and byways of medieval Europe. But he quickly banished people from his imagery, focused intently on architecture and architectural detail, and developed a style in which the cold metal of the etching plate feels as present in the final product as the ink and illusion which creates the picture.

Gothic churches were a perfect subject. Arms aligned himself with the Gothic revival, with artists who, for confused but charming reasons, saw the late Middle Ages as a lost paradise of holistic unity among artistic expression, spirituality and craftsmanship.

Gothic architecture was also rich with flamboyant ornamentation and tracery, gargoyles and carving, finials and towers — just the sort of over-articulation in stone that Arms loved to reproduce on paper. He was more interested in the Gothic as a idea than a fact, and his Gothic infatuation was equally applied to buildings such as the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building in New York and the pointed arches of the Brooklyn Bridge as France’s Chartres Cathedral, which he called “man’s supreme spiritual achievement in stone.”

The Gothic appealed to everything old-fashioned in him, especially to his monklike devotion to work and detail and his flowery belief in things such as beauty.

“To love beauty and, loving it, to seek to express it,” he wrote, “therein appears to me the function and the duty of the artist.” Not for him the manifestos, revolutions and utopian aspirations of modernism.

Yet, as he grew older and alienated from more experimental and daring artists, he was resolutely a champion of a wide and variegated artistic ecology. He was respected and well honored by a conservative establishment, but when he held positions of authority among printmakers, he militated for tolerance among the “tendencies, isms, the moderns and conservatives, the progressives, realists, abstractionists, independents, radicals­  . . . .

As in politics, so, too, art. Modernism wasn’t about compromise. It was intolerant of men such as Arms because it aimed at refashioning the world, not just filling it with beautiful objects. In retrospect, however, Arms was more modern than he might seem, certainly more than he could have acknowledged at the time.

His work still amazes because he fetishized process to almost absurd lengths. The first adjective that leaps to mind is painstaking, and if you take that word seriously — the pain in it — suddenly, what he was doing, the sheer anachronism of it, doesn’t seem that different than certain kinds of performance art.

Arms also made prints, live, in front of rapt audiences. He was proselytizing for printmaking, but one might call it performative — a mixing of media, an infusion of the temporal into the supposedly timeless. With a good public relations firm and some deftly vaporous verbiage, Arms might recast himself in terms congenial to even the most postmodern of critics.

Not that he’d be amenable to the fiction. But there is an intellectual seriousness to Arms’s work that transcends the superficial nostalgia and prettiness of some of his prints. The exhibition’s wall text includes a comment from one of the highest mandarins of modernism, Alfred Stieglitz, who said Arms’s images “are so dead, they are almost alive.” There’s a great deal of truth in that, even if it was meant unkindly.

Arms wasn’t just pining for a mythical, bygone age; he was registering the substantial costs of modernity. In one 1925 image, of Notre Dame in Paris as seen from across the Seine, the smoke coming from a motorized boat obscures the detail of the building, effacing the past rather than complementing it. His image of the Woolworth Building suggests a desire to contain and contextualize what was once the world’s tallest structure — it wasn’t just Gothic, it was a grand Gothic excrescence overwhelming everything around it. He titled one of his New York bridge images — filled with metal cables — “Cobwebs.” And in the exhibition’s most famous image, a tower from the Brooklyn Bridge, you can see a certain anxiety about what all this metal webbing is doing to the world. Is it holding up a bridge or tying down some outsize invasion into our once Lilliputian landscape?

Arms once took one of his most detailed plates, “In Memoriam 1939,” showing the north portico of Chartres, and had it gold-plated. He kept it as a memorial to a deceased family member, and it’s one of the highlights of the exhibition. Along with another plate, left unfinished at his death, it gives a powerful sense of another seemingly postmodern oddity to Arms’s work.

The plates physically embody his handiwork, yet they are mechanical tools, the means of making multiple images. The plates look a bit like fine, medieval metal work, sui generis in their beauty. It’s tempting to believe that they became private devotional pieces for the artist, hidden artworks that appealed to the mix of spirituality and pragmatism that animated the neo-Gothic imagination.

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