Friday, August 26, 2011

Dedication Does Not a Genius Make: John Taylor Arms At the National Gallery

"The Gothic Spirit of John Taylor Arms"
At the National Gallery
Through November 27th

I started the following review in an email to the painter/etcher Bill Murphy, with whom I share an enthusiasm for printmakers past and present.  Over the years, he and I have compared notes on artists we like and dislike.  In times past, our dialogues were just that: phone conversations that were cheerily without beginning or end.  Nowadays, we reserve our reflections for the screens at which the vast majority of the population stares for a certain portion of each day.  The subject is a John Taylor Arms exhibit at the National Gallery, which I attended on August 14th, 2011.

Dear Bill:

After I finished with the first, and most comfortable, leg of a run yesterday, I popped into the National Gallery where I saw that a John Taylor Arms exhibit was in progress.  An image I had never seen before was enlarged and served as an emblem of what Arms could do.  It's called "Cobwebs" and shows the Brooklyn Bridge rising over the Lower Manhattan of 1920.  What was most striking about it, to me, was the sweep of the thing; it encompassed a wide-angled view of an uphill street, down which you, the viewer, could walk toward the bridge.  On either side was the vernacular architecture city planners have dedicated themselves to obliterating (and done a pretty good job.)  Its spatial integrity was a thing to behold.  I practically ran the length of the West Building to see it.

As it turned out, no image, in my opinion, surpassed Cobwebs - though I liked most of 'em well enough.  Have you seen many of his etchings - I mean, in the raw, in situ, in plain sight?  I hadn't, and it was an eye-opener.  They're a lot more pedestrian than I would have thought: and they were conceived in the most plodding sort of way - though I understand Arms was an architect before he became an etcher and that would account for the severely linear drawings that became "blueprints" for his etchings.  His subjects are extremely conventional.  He breaks away from them only now and then.  Yet even when he doesn't, he's able to pull off occasionally spectacular results.  But I was, for the most part, disappointed. 

The curator had decided to trot out etchings of friends and contemporaries, including Kerr Eby - whom I've always liked - and Samuel Chamberlain, who's work is congenially accomplished.  Gerald Geerling's work was included the final guest etcher, with a piece that was vaguely reminiscent in its somewhat idealized monumentality to the work of Hugh Ferries.  Geerlings was also an architect and lived for a hundred years. 
All in all, I think Arms' American section was best.  He did a corking view of 42nd Street looking from the northern flank of the Public Library toward the West side.  At the time, an elevated train - encased in one of those magnificent sidings - ran along Sixth Avenue.  I could live with that etching.  (He did the same view at night.  Ditto.)

(After sending these reflections off to Bill, I finished my little review, as I have all the others, with a sort of imaginary (or no) audience in mind.)

Of special interest were the visitor catalogues which Arms' friends and colleagues enriched with drawings and doggerel.  Painter Louis Mora sketched Rembrandt sitting at an easel.  Samuel Chamberlain drew an enticing tableau that expressed the virtues of his adopted homeland while stressing that a vacation there was absolutely essential.  (Chamberlain was a lifelong Francophile and bon vivant.  If you ever want to come back and be somebody other than yourself - assuming you are allowed such a choice - you could do worse than Samuel Chamberlain.)  Other, equally compelling sketches by artists whose names I don't remember grace its many pages - which cannot be seen unless you have the book in hand.  Even Helen Keller signed - with the overlarge script that is possibly common to sightless people. 

I don't know about you, O elusive reader of these pages, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the genteel bohemia between the war years.  At the time, illustration work was plentiful, the choicest assignments were in New York, and all sorts of people clustered around the agencies and art editors who would provide it.  From that fertile ground sprang, not only a collective effort such as we see now in the movies, but a camaraderie based on shared objectives and somewhat outre livelihoods.  It would be naive to say that artists, or artist-types, have a monolopy on bonhomie, but these folk seemed to be as genuinely convivial as one, in a sanguine mood, might want them to be.  Of course, a certain measure of prosperity was partly responsible for this generosity of spirit.  After the boom years of the Twenties, a lot of illustrators fell on hard times.  Those who managed, however, were not going to let an economic depression get them down and partied, with a calculated frenzy, throughout it. 

Such guest-books are artifacts of that period - and of that spirit - which I have no doubt sentimentalized. 

John Taylor Arms believed in craftsmanship, which he replicated in his own work.  At times, he narrowed his focus to a single artifact and produced strikingly elegant imagery.  Gargoyles were made to function, on a cathedral's facade, as water-spouts.  Arms felt they needed a portfolio of their own and made one.  Few architectural elements have been so obsessively rendered.  In Arms' hands, they are starkly beautiful.  If someone ever asks me what a gargoyle looks like, I'll try to find one of these pictures; they show the surface appearance of these ghoulish creatures as definitively as binocular vision can.  However, compare Charles Meryon's darkly sinister interpretation of the same subject and you'll see the difference between poetry and replication.

With the cathedrals themselves, Arms outdid himself - though I can't say that I was moved by any of them.  I think Monet's Chartres is vastly overrated - or at least overexposed - but its detail-dissolving, light-filled volumes say as much about old ragged stone as Arms ever did.  A somewhat less celebrated, but  mercurically gifted, English printmaker, Muirhead Bone, gets at the underlying structure of a cathedral (or railway station) and makes us see the whole thing rather than so many parts squeaking around, as Arms does.  If I may be so harsh, visually illiterate people enjoy the clustering of so-called detail, which impresses them - as everything that involves painstakingly, but often gratuitous, industry does.  But art is about isolating certain ingredients and making them hold up a wall, keep a sullen arch from caving in, give a pediment an absolute authority over subordinate things.  Arms just gives you everything and hopes you can sort it all out yourself.  His is not an artist's point of view; it's an inclusivist's.  Or, rather, archivist's.  Arms is the fanatical zookeeper who knows every tadpole in the pond and has a name for each one.

Ultimately Arms will answer for his plodding industry, which doesn't work nearly as well as Stow Wegenroth's, for example.  Or, more obviously, Andrew Wyeth's.  Arms was an architectural ecstatic whose major contribution was to replicate the pious dedication and enduring craftsmanship of the anyonymous folk who raised the cathedrals that are among the world's most spectacular monuments to the simple faith of a community.  That's nothing to sneeze at, but it doesn't go far enough.  One may be endlessly dedicated without producing much of any value.  Basements and attics are full of such stuff.  Arms and some of his colleagues, including Samuel Chamberlain, remind us of a heritage that must always accompany us through whatever social or political upheavals we temporarily endure.  They reflect and embody our capacity for transcendance - which is no small thing.  Arms was genuinely enthralled by what the human race can do when it reaches beyond itself.   And while his imagery shows what man, when synthesizing matter and spirit, can do, he rarely "gets there" himself.  If nothing else, Arms' dedication demonstrates that dedication, while admirable in and of itself, isn't enough.

Go the National Gallery webiste ( for more information.

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