Gracing the galleries of the Noble Maritime Collection in Staten Island is an elegant and moving exhibition of paintings and collages featuring New York City’s bridges. The artist, known simply as Bascove, was for many years one of the most prominent illustrators in New York and in recent decades has dazzled and beguiled the public with her remarkable paintings. Bascove’s strategy as a painter involves the complete rebuilding of her subjects as powerful designs. Forms are simplified into geometries of great clarity and then rendered in high contrast. Elements like water, clouds and trees become stylized entities that can be played with, tilted and infused with movement. Major structures, stripped of detail, become monumental in a wholly new way. Engaging New York City’s bridges the artist transforms them into truly iconic images, as though their fundamental identity has been revealed for the first time. It is an approach that goes back to Art Deco era artists like Tamara Lempicka (1898-1980) and Cassandre (1901-1968), but perhaps owes more in the warmth and depth of its feeling to modernists like Arthur Dove (1880-1946) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986). When we look at a Bascove we feel that this is an artist who connects with her subjects on a very profound level.
Bascove’s involvement with bridges goes back to the 1970’s when she found herself living in Paris. Walking her dog in the early mornings she began to take her watercolors with her, making sketches of the bridges over the Seine. Moving back to New York she walked her dog in the vicinity of the Queensboro Bridge and naturally painted it. Gradually she began to paint the other bridges of the city, and as she did so her interest in the history of New York began to grow. She befriended some of the city’s historians including Barbara Ball Buff at the Museum of the City of New York and Laura Rosen who was at one time the MTA’s Robert Moses Archivist for Bridges and Tunnels. She also got to know Margot Ammann Durrer, the daughter of Othmar Ammann (1879-1965), the great designer of bridges who was responsible for the George Washington, Bayonne, Verrazano, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone and Triborough Bridges.
All of these connections led Bascove to a deeper understanding and appreciation of all aspects of the bridges, their engineering, their visual impact and the role they play in the life of the city. Eventually she mounted an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York on the occasion of the centenary of the consolidation of the five boroughs. “It was the major bridges, crossing over the Hudson and East Rivers, that made it possible,” says the artist. “They interconnected the communities, their culture and commerce.”
Before Bascove can resolve a bridge into one of her transformative images she takes care to get to know it extremely well. “I try to see each bridge from as many angles as possible, moving all round it, walking across it if there’s a foot or bicycle path,” she says. The artist’s husband, the architect Michael Avramides, will drive her back and forth across the bridge as she takes photographs and considers the space and views around about. She will come back several times to see the bridge at different times of the day and in different lights and weathers. Eventually she wrests an image from composites of various photographs mediated by her feelings and memory of the place.
One of the most effective features of Bascove’s painting is its use of color. In “Harlem River Bridges III,” for instance, the brilliant orange of the concrete columns supporting the bridge are juxtaposed to a deep saturated blue on the sides of the central bridge. The pale violets chosen for the other bridges allows them to recede but also makes them part of the vibrant color world of the painting. High keyed greens and yellows complete the palette, transforming the scene. “I’m not interested in making a photo reproduction of bridges,” says the artist. “Others can do that much better. I want to express an emotional response. Heightening color, bringing in pale golds from a moonlit night or hot oranges and reds from a setting sun reflected on steel beams and stretched cables, intensify the experience.”
While Bascove renders the structure of the bridges with great clarity and solidity, she is inclined to use peripheral elements, like water and sky as a counterpoint, often tilting them or infusing them with dynamic movement. “They are the environment surrounding the bridges,” says the artist. “Encumbered by the pressures of wind, temperature, and time, they are enveloped by the forces of life.” In “Brooklyn Bridge III” for instance, the bridge itself is simplified to a set of monumentally powerful shapes. Meanwhile the water seems to change direction from one side to the other, setting up a sense of movement around the bottom of the picture. In the upper parts of the painting, the sky, rendered as receding ribbons of cloud, sweeps in a long curve lifting the eye up and away to the heavens.
The exhibition also features some recent work which represents quite a departure in Bascove’s approach. Working in collage, she has made works about several of the bridges that are composed of fractured constructions of photographs, drawings and other ephemera. “I had been having trouble walking,” Bascove explains. “I went to our neighborhood bridge, the Queensborough. It’s exhilarating, powerful, and so beautiful, it’s healing. This time it seemed different. Some proprioception had been lost, my sense of balance and space had changed. Instead of seeing the bridge as one strong directional pull, it appeared to be more fragmented. I wanted to capture what I was feeling as I walked around, taking photographs, from one side to the other. When I started putting photographs together in the studio I cut out details. Bridges are created from steel, bolts, girders and stone. It began to remind me of quilt-making, I added cut pieces from a book of quilts and some structural details from an architecture magazine. It was mesmerizing to see it grow into a space that could be felt before it could be seen.”
Like the Cubists, Bascove has embraced the challenge of showing an object simultaneously from multiple viewpoints and varying scales. While the overall strength of a single design is sacrificed, the artist finds new ways to pull the image together, running rhythms and movement across the surface to create a sense of vibrant energy and action. Details of the bridge structure, bits and pieces of vehicles and slivers of sky and river, overlap and jostle as the image explodes across the paper. Juxtapositions are often at acute angles increasing the sense of dynamism in the work.
Part of the excitement of these works stems from the artist’s open process. “There are no sketches done beforehand, just a subject chosen,” she says. “Most of my life has been spent as a printmaker and a painter. For the prints there is always a preparatory drawing that’s transferred to one or more wood or linoleum blocks, in reverse. They are carefully planned out. In the paintings most of the perspective and structural decisions are discovered in the preparatory drawings, often overlaid on a golden section grid.”
The collages, however, are very different. “Images are gathered and spread around without any plan,” says the artist. “Then odd pieces of paper, scraps of magazines, books, and internet images are added. I’ve used yarn and thread swatch charts, one piece was started with hundreds of postage stamps from the 1930’s and 40’s, my grandfather’s stamp collection. Anything that catches my eye. This process can go on for months, often entire sections are reworked, covered over with new materials.”
Some of the larger pieces owe something to the work of the Italian Futurists with their exuberant delight in machinery, movement and a visual language derived from Cubism. Other collages, particularly the photo collages of Brooklyn Bridge printed as silkscreens, present a more disturbingly fractured sense of the main structure of the bridge, as though our experience of it is disintegrating. We are reminded of some of the paintings of the same bridge by John Marin (1870-1953) who combined a Cubist painting language with a lively movement of paint with sometimes disturbing results. In all the collages we sense the energy that comes when an artist ventures into new territory, a slight rawness and relish that signifies that things are alive and on the move.
The exhibition at the Noble Maritime Collection coincides with the partial rebuilding of the Bayonne Bridge, one of the most visually striking bridges in the city. The roadbed is being raised to accommodate a new generation of enormous container vessels. Bascove’s paintings of the original structure are therefore something of a requiem. The city is always changing of course. The marine artist, John Noble, after whom the museum is named, decried the building of the city’s major bridges in the first place because he felt that the loss of ferry travel degraded the life of the city. The museum has a large collection of Noble’s gritty images of the harbor and its denizens dating from the first half of the twentieth century. His direct, realist approach contrasts wonderfully with Bascove’s sophisticated redesign of the world. It’s a marvelous experience to engage both artists in the same building and sense how they come to similar subject matter in such a radically different way. We are reminded just how very rich and wonderful the world of New York is. The dialogue across time between the two artists also demonstrates how commercial, industrial and artistic life relate to each other in a vast and complex city.
Article by John Parks