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According to the Earth Institute at Columbia University, for the first time in history, the population of the world living in urban areas will soon outnumber those living in rural areas. This exhibition seeks to trace the artist’s experience of the City’s rise to dominance in the Western landscape.

Beginning in the early eighteenth century, artists like Canaletto began making vedute (view paintings) to sell to European tourists taking the Grand Tour. These paintings celebrated the achievements of Western Civilization by highlighting the sophistication of its architecture and the grace of its public squares. The patterns and linear geometry of the environment were meticulously recorded, but gave way to architectural fantasies as the aesthetic potential of the urban landscape became more apparent.

Without native cities of Roman or Venetian stature to paint, American artists interested in rendering the urban scene were forced to travel abroad. Of these, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent were the most successful with their own romanticized portrayals of Venice. As New York, Chicago, and San Francisco grew larger in the world’s imagination, however, painters like Childe Hassam and Colin Campbell Cooper began to register their marvels in paint. Their views of the city were faithful to the romantic tradition in urban painting, but they added a new sense of excitement. Indeed, American architecture had an exciting new icon - the skyscraper. Cooper saw these new wonders of engineering as analogs to the cathedrals of Europe, and made each a shimmering monument to American ingenuity. As the twentieth century got under way, the American city became a symbol of modernity. Powered by coal and fed by locomotives and trucks, the City grew a new skin of steel, concrete, and glass. It twinkled at night with the aid of electric power, while big city parks defined a new experience of nature for milllions of people. The techologies of the industrial revolution seemed to offer limitless possibilities.

Of course, the city brought its own problems. In 1908, a group of eight talented descendents of the Realist school mounted an exhibition of paintings depicting the urban poor. Derisively termed, “the Ashcan School” by a local critic, these artists defined a new vision of the city as gritty and anonymous. Their paintings captured the hurried pace of life in New York and the claustrophobia of living in the narrow trenches between towering buildings. The atmosphere captured in these early paintings seemed dark and even toxic, but the tone of the paintings was not. Instead, they seemed to enoble the common struggle to make it through each day. Led by Robert Henri and John Sloan, these artists proved extremely influential as teachers of the next generation.

In 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art went on view at the Armory in New York before traveling to Chicago. American artists were suddenly challenged by the new visual languages of Cubism and Futurism. Angular, dynamic, abstracted, and assembled in the intellect, these styles triggered a seismic shift in American art. Artists like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth began to formulate an American response in a new Prescionist body of work. Their paintings were bright, futuristic and exactingly painted. The patterns of windows and the ubiquity of rectangular forms divided by triangles of light became part of the vernacular of modern painting. Meanwhile, avant-garde artists like John Marin managed to capture the energy and flux of metropolitan life in Cubist inspired compositions.

Through the Depression and the end of the World War Two, artists continued to record the cities in which they lived using these ideas as a foundation.

Contemporary artists seem to have reignited the fascination with the urban scene. Some are drawn to cities for the larger markets or the mixture of ideas, while for others, it is the formal quality of the environment that beckons. For many, the City retains the aura of romance. Cultural hybridity, cutting-edge technology, and the sensory feast of the downtown nightlife are also treated regularly.

In this new century, a sense of urban forms breaking apart seems apparent in the works of Wayne McCall, Audrey Sanders, Matty Byloos, and Barry Berkus. As destruction precedes creation, the questions beg asking: what will the cities of tomorrow look like and how will our artists record them?

- Jeremy Tessmer, Gallery Director

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