New York has no shortage of landmarks. Often they are associated with certain artists: Edward Steichen’s Flatiron in 1905; Paul Cadmus’ scandalous Coney Island or Andy Warhol’s eight-hour-long Empire State Building film. But recently the landmark subject has been largely avoided intentionally (especially in representational style) by artists, who along with thousands of visitors of New York, have been benumbed by souvenir stands near almost every landmark building. Strangely, the weight of their names and fame have almost ubiquitously denigrated any serious attempt of fine art to low art or merely kitsch.
Viewing the group of Williamsburgh Saving Bank Tower paintings by the artist Robert Goldstrom confirms that great art does not indoctrinate or erudite, not to mention to stereotype. Instead, it intrigues and perhaps intoxicates us among manifolds of dichotomy. It simply pushes us to ask ourselves: we think we KNOW it but do we?
The iconic building, Williamsburgh Saving Bank Tower, is situated in the heart of Brooklyn, where a majority of two and a half million Brooklynites can see. It is something, or it is indeed the condition sine qua non for its monumentality. But when the concept of things becomes so weighty that our vision of it is composed of numerous fragmented memory flashes — collected as we drive by, dine at the balcony or look up inadvertently – it reduces or even obliterates our true visual sensibility. Viewing these paintings provides a channel to reconnect our visual sensibility with our perception: the experience is surprisingly refreshing.
The tower is far from being tourism-exploited. The fact that it serves as the anchor of the borough, instead of the hot tourist spot of the city, as Brooklynites fondly call Manhattan, makes it an integral part of what Brooklynites call home. (As many as a quarter of all Americans can trace their ancestry to people who once lived in its 81 square miles, based on the book The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn.) If the Empire State Buildings is the emblem of capitalism, Wall Street hoards ruthless indifferent Gothamites, or Times Square is simply a zoo of people, then the tower, with its Moorish exterior and deco interior, speaks all the charms and peculiarity of a city – of being grand but never extravagant, of being aged but never antiquarian, and most of all, of being wonderful but never without a fault.
Goldstrom is not interested in producing a photographic accuracy of common sights, but rather a synthetic vision of objective naturalism intervened by personal reflections. In reality, the tower is surrounded by noise, pollution, and detached modern architecture. Robert filters and quiets down to an array of forms and colors that ultimately “please him.” In such a purification process, he often opts for private views, views that people cannot access normally. If the artist and spectators can understand each other because of the common ground based on the subject, the intimacy of such views provides perspectives anew. They also carry a sweet quietude that jaywalkers and bus passengers of Atlantic Yard yearn to see in the midst of hustle-bustle.
For him, the keenness and vividness of the vision are much less dependent on the objective recording than the intensity of the visual impression and the retentive strength of memory. (Living a few blocks away helps.) For example, the Griffin painting was created by combining photographs and imagination. He took pictures of his friend watering flowers at a private residence, resulting from a stack of carefully observed photos. More importantly, such pictures enrich the recollection of his visual experience. Working methodologically from smaller panels to finally a large canvas in his studio, essentially he painted a landmark within.
The group of paintings also makes a pleasing contrast between urban orderliness and picturesqueness of nature. As the artist said in his interview, architecture, with patterned succession and repetition, may not be pictorial or pretty. The giant neon light of Kentile, the old YMCA sign on a building’s side wall or the geometry of domes and roof-lines bespeaks rules and regulations of our mundane urban life. The polished tower building itself has a sense of mathematical rigidity that if the artist had valued precision the most, would have required drafting skills based on calculations and measurement and resulted in stiff illustrative images. In most compositions, Goldstrom has avoided wide angle that stresses linear perspective, which is typical in drafting. The telescopic view, with either only background, or a combination of foreground and background, has an oriental succinctness and visual compactness that boldly emphasize the rectilinearity and angularity that fills our eyes in the mundane life.
One would not call these pictures tight. In them, there is the incalculable picturesqueness of nature, or as Goldstrom said himself “beauty in the midst of urban decay” with “arrangement of forms, colors, and light.” The willful clouds, the amused three stars at night, the sprawling branches, the treasured bushes on the balcony: They spurs our eyes into activity from the disciplined geometry of architecture and perhaps satisfies our thirst for the looser regularity – that synthetic beauty of nature sprouted out of urban lethargy.
The photos kill. Compared the two reference photos with the final painting, one can sense the depth of space even without the construed linear perspective. “It is the tallest building in Brooklyn. It absorbs everything around it, and it reflects everything around it.” Thus we feel the sensuality and weight of the air and light by observing the nuanced brushstrokes for the facades of the building: That lucid intelligible limited surface, immaculately gives the viewer of being part of infinity.
Perhaps because of the iconic status of the tower, Goldstrom democratizes the pictures by putting the tower near the picture corners of less importance. The clock tower building is there, as we unconsciously move around it and psychologically marginalize its relevance to our life. When most Brooklynites’ sensibility are overtaken by their sense of existence, Goldstrom paints the landmark within and reminds us that the beauty can be observed and enjoyed.
For a limited period, Goldstrom’s series of Williamsburgh Saving Bank Tower can be seen inside the building itself. Check the Brook Flea website for details. He has his website: http://www.robertgoldstrom.com and currently lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
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