Reginald Marsh

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Soon after Reginald Marsh’s death in 1954 an art magazine asked me to write about him. When I turned in the article the editor said he liked it but he had one reservation: “You say, ‘In my opinion he was the greatest artist of his time.’ Do you mean that? Greater than Picasso?”

“Yes,” I answered.

When the article came out it was headed “Homage from a colleague to the chronicler of New York life on paper and canvas marks the opening of a memorial exhibition at the Whitney Museum.”

At that time I felt keenly that both the magazine and the museum were there too late with too little, but time has made a tremendous difference. The fashions in art that the magazine promoted are now a bore, the museum’s exhibitions of contemporary art are a bad joke, and these institutions, seventeen years after his death, have less life in them than Reginald Marsh. I have a notion (a superstition, perhaps) that artists, the real ones, live out their productive lives fully and then die when their work is done. Institutions are less graceful. They die but they won’t lie down.

It was a constant pleasure to know Reginald Marsh. He was a man of extraordinary personal charm. Short and stocky, with red hair and freckles, he talked almost inaudibly out of the side of his mouth. The first time he visited my studio (this was in 1930, and we had just been introduced to each other) he spoke disparagingly of the Woodstock artists who were very big names at the time, being favored by Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney Museum in its Eighth Street days. “They vegetate up there in the country and they never make any hell!” he said, in the manner of a Dead End Kid. He left me with the disarming impression that I had been in the company of a tough little gangster. I soon learned that this manner was entirely defensive and that in reality he was a sweet, shy man of great sensibility and cultivation. He seemed somehow vulnerable, and all his friends wanted to protect him from harm.

It was a pleasure to know him and it was also a privilege. For an artist it was the sort of privilege a religious person would find in association with a saint. He was endlessly creative; he produced as Nature produces, turning out, with marvelous abundance, drawings and paintings, illustrations, etchings, engravings, and murals; and all this work was accomplished with grace and apparent ease. He was inventive; the “Marsh Girl” was an archetypal figure, and many aspects of New York life became so intimately his own that it almost seemed he had thought them up—Coney Island, the Bowery, the burlesque. He was dedicated; he was always working. After the day in his studio on Union Square was over, he walked the short distance to his apartment on Fifteenth Street and spent the evening at his etching press. And when the work in the studio faltered, he put a sketchbook in his pocket, picked up a couple of artist’s fountain pens, and set out on a sketching trip. He would walk along Fourteenth Street and take the Third Avenue El to Chatham Square and the Bowery. Or in warm weather he would go to the West Side wharves and sketch the kids who dived into the Hudson and the tugboats that puffed along offshore. In bad weather he would take refuge in the burlesque theatre on Irving Place to sketch the performers and the audience. On fine summer days he would head for Coney Island.

I remember going with him to Coney Island one day. When we got to the boardwalk he led the way to a bathhouse, where we changed into swim trunks. We picked our way over the massed bodies on the sand and went into the crowded surf. Marsh dog-paddled, his head held high above the water, while he ogled the churning arms and legs, bellies and bottoms. After that we dressed and went to “Steeplechase—The Funny Place.” At the ticket booth we were waved inside without charge. (The management had left orders that Marsh was always to be admitted free.) We watched the swings and rides and chutes while Marsh made some notes in his sketchbook. Back in Manhattan we went to Sloppy Louie’s restaurant for dinner, and Louie picked up the tab (Marsh had drawn Louie’s portrait sketch for The New Yorker ’s, profile). Then we walked up the Bowery to Strokey’s Bar—and there our drinks were on the house. (A Marsh-style painting of the Bowery, featuring Strokey’s, hung on the wall behind the bartender. When we left, Reg told me the painting was a forgery. “But I don’t tell them that. They want to think I did it.”) Finally we took the El uptown, and we paid the full five-cent fare, though considering Marsh’s celebrations of the El we should have travelled as the guests of the railway.

His sketchbooks were the central fact of his career as an artist—I almost said of his life. He always used for his drawings and water colors the best paper he could find. For his sketchbooks he carefully cut this paper to a size to fit his coat pocket. He shaped a couple of pieces of cardboard for covers, punched holes through papers and cardboard, and with metal rings made a sketchbook of fine rag paper. He had a supply of Waterman’s artist’s fountain pens that held India ink. I believe he never went anywhere without these sketchbooks and pens, and he drew almost incessantly.