- Historic Sites
A reminiscent tribute to a great American painter, with an evocative selection from thousands of unpublished sketches
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
Studying his sketchbooks, one finds that certain subjects preoccupied Marsh all his life. The hoboes lying in the sun near the railroad yards become the derelicts he saw sleeping under the bridges of Paris, and these are transformed into the bums of the Bowery. Finally, all the world’s a stage, the burlesque stage. The clown of the circus and the comedian of the burlesque are the prototypes of all his men; the showgirl and the striptease artist are all his women. When Mayor La Guardia, in an access of propriety, chased the burlesque out of town, Marsh followed it to New Jersey. Stewart Klonis recalls how Marsh came in to the Art Students League, where he was teaching a class in drawing, and told Klonis he had just returned from Union City and the burlesque show there. “Since La Guardia closed them down here, they are scared over there, too,” he said. “They won’t allow cameras; they won’t even permit sketching. But I got around that,” and he took a tiny sketchbook, no more than three by four inches, from his pocket and showed it to Klonis. “I drew inside my pocket,” he said. “These won’t mean much to you, but they mean something to me.”
When I think of the importance of the burlesque to Marsh, I recall an act I saw at the old Haymarket on the West Side of Chicago in the early twenties. Before a backdrop depicting a city street two disreputable characters are exchanging obscenities when suddenly a pretty girl walks on from the wings and minces across, looking out at the audience, and exits on the other side. This apparition throws the drunken bums into great disorder. The girl reappears and crosses again. This time the effect is almost disastrous. With her third passage they are reduced to complete helplessness. This same girl walks down Marsh’s Bowery.
William Benton says, “One of Reg’s paintings I bought largely for the title. This is a picture of a couple going through the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island. The man looks popeyed and scared by the terrifying dragons and ogres. An old guard in a gray uniform dozes. The girl, a satiated blonde, looks as bored as the guard. She looks as if she’s been through the love tunnel a bit too often. The title of the picture when I bought it was The Sorrow and Futility of Man Before the Beauty of Woman . … After a few months, Reg came to me and wanted to borrow the picture to send to the Carnegie Exhibit in Pittsburgh. He changed the title and called it Eldorado . I told Reg that he couldn’t change the title—that I had bought the original title. He insisted. We never got this one settled.”
If burlesque provided Marsh with his basic form and pattern, he was following an old and fruitful tradition. Watteau had taken the cornmedia dell’arte as his pattern in much the same way that Marsh followed burlesque, and if Watteau’s picture is elegant and gracious and Marsh’s is vulgar and tawdry, it is the world that has changed. Artistically, Marsh was as refined as Watteau. He drew as well; his adjustment of means to ends was as subtle and perfect; his scope was greater. John Lahr, in his biography of his father, who had been a burlesque comedian in his early days, has written that “the clown profanes the world in order to define the sacred.” I believe Marsh’s work tells us more about the Decline and Fall of the American Empire than that of any other artist in any medium.
Only Edward Hopper was as minatory. I recall a big gallery of Hopper’s work at the Biennale in Venice twenty years ago. (I had the place to myself. I believe Hopper’s work is meaningless to Europeans.) As I went from one painting to another I became more and more uneasy. I left the gallery and sought fresh air outside. Then I went back to try to discover what made the work so disturbing. There was of course the awful lower-middle-class boredom, the lifeless edge-of-town pall, the familiar Edward Hopper environment. But then I discovered something I hadn’t noticed in Hopper’s work when I had seen his rather rare paintings one at a time. In nearly every picture there was a black hole, a bottomless pit. It was the darkness where the highway disappears into the trees or the railroad track enters the tunnel, and it was as if all the air in the gallery were being sucked out into these vents. Hopper’s America is a place of death.
I think Marsh’s quality is more profoundly unsettling than Hopper’s because Marsh was so much more abundant. When one looks at a painting by Hopper one wonders, “Where is everybody?” And then with Marsh one finds, “They’re all here !” But as Francis Bacon observed, “Little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”