Art Review: ‘Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York’

Decades before John Updike wrote about flat-bellied nymphs parading in bikinis, and long before Slim Aarons focused his camera on the tanned, toned people of St. Tropez, Reginald Marsh was sketching at the beach.

He was attracted, like any painter, to naked bodies, but he did not seek the superficial and cold beauty of conventional summer icons. Painting in the 1930s, Marsh was drawn to energy.

Obviously a shy and awkward man, he was fascinated by extroverts and physical control. He had a voyeur’s eye for dynamics, excitement and meltdown. And so he depicted the brutal, restless upheaval among workers seeking a brief window of relief on the sand: the insistent exhibitionism on Coney Island and the aggressively uneasy sprawl on Rockaway Beach.

The shore isn’t always an escape, as every August beachgoer knows. Crowds, flies, self-awareness; the often uncomfortable loosening of decorum as well as dress codes. This feeling of stuck conflict jumps out at you in “Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and the 1930s in New York,” on view through September 1 at the New York Historical Society.

Well, I’ll take a chance on anything called “Swing Time.” This exhibition, the first major retrospective of the American scene painter’s work in more than 20 years, does not disappoint as a journey into an ever-absorbing era. First of all. There are T-strap pumps and Marcel waves to die for; men in hats; bias-cut dresses, skirted swimsuits. Fur stoles? Only in shop windows, out of reach of passers-by. This is not a Fred and Ginger world.

Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Star Burlesque, 1933. Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis. © 2013 Estate of Reginald Marsh/Art Students League/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Reginald Marsh)

But many of Marsh’s subjects are the kind of independent characters Ginger Rogers played in the dozens of films she didn’t make with Fred Astaire. In “BMT 14th Street” (1932), workers descend the stairs in the subway, 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 is a conscious statement of the changing times. A well-dressed woman in the foreground carries a handbag in one hand, a stack of books in the other. Taken halfway, she looks at you with a sideways gaze, her eyes narrowed, as if you were some oddity in the corner. (Imagine Marsh bent over his easel, a strange fixed point in this impetuous flood of humanity.) On a staircase in the background, a tall woman pushes upwards through the crowd of men with the heavy power of a babushka. Russian.

There are two Marsh murals in the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building in Washington, the former headquarters of the Post Office Department: “Sorting the Mail” and “Unloading the Mail” (1936), which show the rapid pace of this organized labor in harmonious whirlwinds of activity.

However, in the “Swing Time” exhibition, it is clear that Marsh excelled in the art of confrontation. He captured the particular tension of the 1930s, when the urban population was physically jostled by rapidly changing forces beyond its control. It was a combination of dire economics, the inescapable lure of Hollywood (there are wonderful paintings of sidewalk scenes outside movie theaters), relentless crowds, and limited escape options – beaches, burlesque shows, carnivals.

Marsh was a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine and a serious student of the Old Masters before becoming a painter, and this exhibition is imbued with the sketchy vigor and carnal voluptuousness of both these endeavors.

Curators clearly think “Star Burlesque” (1933) is the highlight, and it’s given pride of place on a central wall. It is indeed stunning, depicting a statuesque stripper in Jean Harlow’s fluffy hair and makeup, eerily illuminated in greenish artificial light. Naked but for her thong and her wing-shaped frills around her arms, she is an alabaster Venus with kewpie doll lips. Or is she Zeus? An arm is raised above his head, just waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike.

Behind her, under her armpit, in fact, are three men seated on the flag-draped VIP balcony of an ornate theater. They study the stripper darkly, without joy. (We even look angry.) The painting is dripping with decadence and dualities. The men are framed on their curtained balconies as if they were on their own stage. Or in a trap, and we catch them in their shame. Meanwhile, the dancer is much taller than them. She is powerful, inaccessible, mythical in her zombie light.

Again, she is completely exposed, vulnerable. His face is expressionless. She doesn’t seem to be having more fun than her male fans.

Paintings like this are the reason Marsh continues to mystify art lovers. Is he one of the first defenders of the independence of women? Over the years, some critics have hailed him for it, while others have condemned him for objectifying women and exposing his own insecurities.

“Star Burlesque” is a complicated painting of shared emptiness, empty even of the sources of its emptiness. Its meaning is intangible; you provide it according to your imagination and experience. It’s a good work of art, in my book.

My favorite part of the exhibition is the juxtaposition of two other paintings, both about dance. Marsh has haunted dance halls for inspiration, and one of his best works comes from one of the most famous clubs.

It’s “Harlem, Tuesday Night at Savoy” (1932), in which a multiracial clientele crowds the dance floor, energized like a roaring fireplace. The colors are flamboyant too. The women’s dresses, the hems foaming above their knees, are bright yellow, red and orange, with wiser people at the margins in lavender and fresh green. In the center is a black woman with tremendous physical grace; every joint is twisted, and an accelerated rhythm runs from her shoulders to her narrow waist and down to her slender, smartly crossed calves, and high-heeled feet pointing away from us.

The Savoy offered physical release, as evidenced by the tangle of moving bodies around this woman, some of them kicking in the air. But his joy was fleeting. The faces in this painting are inscrutable, or mad, delirious. As in the beach paintings, the cork flew out of the bottled up minds of the participants, repressed during the working week. But this central woman’s body is in a twist, telling us that the strain of the times is not relieved even outside of working hours.

Still, I’d rather be at the Savoy than in the world of “Zeke Youngblood’s Dance Marathon” (1932), on the opposite wall. Here are similar bright colors, but the centerpiece is burnout. The contestants in this cruel contest have strong, sturdy legs, but two of them are slumped against their partners, asleep on their feet.

The dancers of “Savoie” face us; in “Marathon”, they turn their backs on us. Marsh, a chronicler of ordinary people, puts the viewer in the position of ticket holders to those gladiator-style events in which people endured days, if not weeks, on their feet for a cash prize. It’s an uncomfortable perch.

“Swing Time” includes some of Marsh’s photographs, as well as his drawings and prints, and works by other artists from the American scene such as Isabel Bishop, Walker Evans and Kenneth Hayes Miller. There are clips from a documentary film about life in the 1930s: rows of women in front of typewriters, people standing in front of food counters. A customer accidentally spills coffee in his saucer; he spills the contents in his cup, so as not to lose a drop. A man throws a newspaper into a wire mesh bin in the street; another takes it out to read.

All of this creates a rich and nuanced context for Marsh’s paintings. But they leave a singularly powerful impression, because he used the bodies of the time to tell his stories.

“Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and the 1930s in New York”

until September 1 at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library