Experimenting with “New York in the 1930s”

After completing the Havana '59 series, I was in need of a painting project. I had recently read a book, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles that told the story of a young woman's journey while living in New York in the late 1930s. The novel, though not quite the same as my mother's adventures in New York after graduating  from the School of Design in Philadelphia (nor Moore College of Art), was enthralling with all of the "gin and jazz" of the era.

I've always been attracted to '20s and '30s in America, a time of such musical and artistic innovation, as well as the advances in film. While researching more about the history of those times, I came upon the story of the building of Rockefeller Center, the grandest privately funded project of modern times, and along with it, the story of Man at the Crossroads, the mural commissioned by Abby Rockefeller, and funded by John Rockefeller, Jr., that was to be the centerpiece for the main building of the city's largest complex, better known as "30 Rock."

As envisioned, the entrance and lobby area was designed for three murals on canvas to be created to compliment and be in harmony with the warm tonalities of the marble used in the construction. Abby Rockefeller and her son Nelson, fans of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, had convinced husband and father John to have Rivera create the mural.

In the process Rivera created a vision of the future in sketches he provided. Based on these drawings, the artist was commissioned, but immediately invoked some changes to the project. First, he wanted to use fresco, an ancient medium of paint with plaster used by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a technique which required applying the medium directly on the wall.  Secondly, he wanted to use "full color."

The video above contains the complete story of both Rivera's painting and George Rothacker's re-envisioned painting.

After some debate, Rivera was given his way and proceeded with the mural. Though viewed daily by both Abby and Nelson, the content began to change, and after many weeks the Communist leader Vladimir Lenin appeared to the right of center, and then a character, looking remarkably like John Rockefeller, having martinis with a woman at a night club (John Rockefeller, Jr. did not drink!) On discovering the change in direction, Rivera was escorted away from the premises, and the incomplete mural was covered in canvas never to be viewed.

Dreamland Circus Side Show - acrylic on canvas - 30" x 36"
This story alone gave me reason to pursue the 1930s project, so, as it was now December, 2011, I made a reservation for a hotel and a show (Anything Goes with music by Cole Porter) in New York for  early May of 2012. Also, I intended to visit the Rivera mural exhibit at MOMA, and Rockefeller Center for photographic reference.

Meanwhile I began working on the series with a painting of the Dreamland Circus Side Show (click to view video on You Tube). The painting was created from a 1931 newspaper clipping showing a troop of curious individuals from a popular Coney Island attraction.

Since the image I had to paint from was incredible small and rough, I decided to make up my own color scheme and even added or changed characters as necessary. Otherwise, I worked  closely to the theme of the photo.

King of the City - acrylic on canvas - 22" x 28"
Next on my list was a painting of King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building with the East poster than a painting. I knew I had a lot of ground to cover in this series, and King of the City was a fun romp, and along with Dreamland provided an eclectic view of both the times and the city.

I continued to paint up to May in advance of our trip to New York where I would gain the information needed for Man at the Crossroads. My next painting was Hooverville, Central Park. The scene depicts the sheds and dumps that scattered the park during the depression. (click to view video on You Tube). 

Hooverville, Central Park - acrylic on canvas - 22" x 28"
I had heard of “Hoovervilles,” but never knew how many rose up in parks all over the country during these really difficult time. I also started to gain a greater sense of the story of the “Big Apple.”

When we returned from New York I was almost ready to begin my quest of recreating the Rivera painting. I hand made the 4' x 6' stretchers for the job and wrapped it in canvas. I t barely fit in my studio, and I had to sit on the floor to paint the lower extremes as well as raise myself high for the top.

The actual painting took four months. Working from photos of the "Rock" in the 1930s I was able to discern what part of the mural was on the center wall. For the most part, I worked closely to an incomplete black and white photo of  the central portion of the painting, and then relied on a similar painting in a museum in Mexico City that Rivera did after leaving New York for many of the
Man at the Crossroads - acrylic on canvas - 48" x 72"
details outside the photo's image area. Many of the characters were invented by me, but modeled on the Rivera painting, and I actually scaled the mural to the space behind the information desk as I had photographed the interior of the lobby in New York. Then I decided that "we should have an artist reception," so I gathered reference of many historic figures in writing, art, film, music and politics that could have been at the unveiling (if there had been one). These individuals included George Gershwin, former Mayor Jimmy Walker, John and Abby Rockefeller, Dorothy Parker, Clark Gable and Babe Ruth (among many other celebrities - see more info in the video above).

Joe Louis - acrylic on canvas - 48" x 48"
As time went on, in my mind I new that I would have to "step out of the box" to match the accomplishment of Man at the Crossroads. For me Crossroads was a tour de force. I couldn't envision an exhibition of photo replicates in traditional styles, and knew that I had to incorporate unexpected changes in my art to the create energy and excitement I desired for the series.

It took a few steps to get out of the box, but my portrait of Joe Louis that combines two images of the boxer in one painting was my first real departure. The fighting image shows Louis at his prime as he defeats Max Schmeling for the heavyweight title in 1936. (click here to view the complete fight on YouTube)

Broadway Boogie Woogie
acrylic on canvas - 38" x 22"
As time went on, I strayed further from convention. In paintings like New York Boogie Woogie, I altered colors and  combined images to create a chaotic fantastical city at night with windows, like horns, making noise across New York..

Sheep Meadow, created from a small, low resolution image from a postcard was turned into an impressionistic portrait of the "meadow" as it existed before the sheep were moved from the park for their safety, as more and more sheep disappeared during the depression.

Sheep Meadow - acrylic on canvas - 16" x 20"
Searching for subjects from the sublime to the ridiculous, I found Salvadore Dali and an Invisible Car at the 1939 World’s Fair. The Dali exhibit defied all convention, and Dream of Venus pushed the envelope, especially when my exhibition became the theme for the first Annual Gala for the Church Farm School, an Episcopal based school for boys in Chester County, Pa.

CFS invited me to present my 1930s exhibit and incorporate it into all aspects of marketing for this inaugural event. My firm would produce all of the promotional and marketing materials for the fund raiser and provide 50% of any painting sold through pre-event and post event. I designed and helped build the walls for the paintings, and set up the exhibit for a one-night sowing and sale. I also provided two framed prints for auction.

Dream of Venus 0 acrylic on canvas - 20" x 16"
Overall, the event was a remarkable success raising more than $110,000 for school scholarships.The Gala and Auction also laid the groundwork for successive fund raising events. Unfortunately, for me the fund raising overwhelmed the sale of my work, and few pieces were sold. The reality is that people would rather give 100% to benefit a student scholarship than 50% and get a painting, no matter how much they like the art.

As far as my painting, Dream of Venus, it was not to be shown since it was deemed inappropriate for the show. I was able to have it at the event, just not show it publicly.

Despite it not being a financial success, I am proud of the work and of playing an essential role in creating a profitable event. Over the years I have helped bring in many thousands of dollars for young people and good causes. Though my wife and I are not wealthy people, we are valued as philanthropists with our generosity of time and talents, and we gain great satisfaction in that.

New York in the 1930s was also a transitional exhibit for me. It caused me to change the way I think and execute paintings, and it allowed me to break free of the photo realism that I had gravitated to over the past 30 years that defined my style for more than 30 years. Freed from convention, I was able to begin a new phase of my work....

For the complete series of art and videos of New York in the 1930's, click here.

Click to Chapter 18: The Movies and Music of Hollywood