The Glorious Painted Life of New York

Herbert Katzman

Herbert Katzman

New York City may be, as Tony Judt writes, a city in decline. Its artistic and industrial regency has steadily weakened while “the intellectual gangs of New York have folded their knives and gone home to the suburbs,” and though the city remains culturally diverse, its days of global cultural ascendency are numbered.

I recently moved to New York, and despite its waning stature, I feel something of the exhilaration that generations of writers and artists have felt arriving in this, as Judt calls it, “world city.” For some transplants, that exhilaration never dies. When the painter Herbert Katzman (1923-2004), a Chicago native, moved here in the early 1950s, he encountered both a thriving commercial economy and an artistic crucible. For Katzman the attraction was both immediate and permanent: he adopted the city as home until his death fifty years later. Converts are often the most devout believers, and Katzman was no exception. The city rapidly became his favorite artistic subject.

So it was only natural for the Museum of the City of New York to mount an exhibition of Katzman’s paintings and drawings (Glorious Sky: Herbert Katzman’s New York,” through Feb. 21; exhibition catalog also available). Katzman’s career broadly mirrored the trajectory of the city’s global status. Katzman’s reputation reached its zenith in the 1950s, largely thanks to the enthusiastic support of Downtown Gallery owner Edith Halpert. With her endorsement he quickly ascended to prestige, with works prominently placed in the Whitney and a feature in Life in 1952 as one of the most promising young American artists.

The story most often told of Katzman’s career is that he represented the best in mid-century American figurative painting, but the critics’ turn toward abstract expressionism condemned him to obscurity in later life. He is indeed obscure—at least obscure enough not to have a Wikipedia page—and perhaps even contrarian. His work in the 50s and 60s had distinct geometric and expressionist tendencies, while later paintings are more directly representational, even emotionally conservative, aggressively defying the trend in art criticism which Tom Wolfe so lamented.

Katzman, like William Whyte, unreservedly embraced the sensual experience of the city. “I do not paint abstractly,” he said, “because if I give up the appearance of the world I find I am unable to become involved in it.” But unlike Whyte’s lush descriptions of hustle and bustle, Katzman’s urban sensuality was wistful and introverted.

Katzman’s New York Times obituary, a mere 300 words, shares one revealing detail: “He died with a drawing of New York Harbor on the table in front of him.” Note that the drawing depicted not a favorite café or block or building or park, but the harbor—a wide swath of the city encapsulated in one small frame. It is a fitting image, since Katzman’s work was never concerned with detail. As the catalogue notes, “For Katzman, the city was not his subject, if by that we signify the literal transcription of its streets and buildings into art; rather it was his muse, meaning the spirit that inspired him.” With the exception of one chalk self-portrait set inside the Metropolitan Museum, every work in “Glorious Sky” is a cityscape or skyline. The exhibit includes six large Brooklyn Bridges and numerous Statues of Liberty, alongside Queensboro bridges, harbors, and downtowns, but nary a Central Park (Childe Hassam) or Columbia University (Guy Wiggins) or snow-filled street (Robert Henri).

New York Bay, 1972

New York Bay, 1972

Consider Katzman’s 1972 portrayal of the New York bay. Romantic, perhaps, though subdued, with a perspective that is clearly imagined—elevated well above the downtown heights and some miles out in the inner harbor. The scene is distant, indefinite, quiet. This is not the New York I know. It is certainly not the pulsing cultural artery that had welcomed Katzman in 1951. Is the painting an anticipation of urban collapse? Surely such a parochial loyalist as Katzman would not have thought so. Rather, it is a hint at the particular kind of beauty that defined the artist’s experience of his adopted home.

Brooklyn Bridge, 1952

Brooklyn Bridge, 1951-52

Even his more energetic works indicate an unusual kind of fascination with New York, one motivated not by particular urban features but by the perceived monolith of the metropolis. One of the earliest of the Brooklyn Bridge paintings reveals the vitality and spunk Katzman saw in the city, with radial lines emphasizing the city’s centrality and focus. Yet the painting’s subject, the bridge itself, reveals little—the basic shape is definite enough to identify the landmark, but none of its distinctive architectural features receives attention. The painting tells us much about Katzman’s feelings for the city as a whole but very little about his thoughts concerning any of its components.

So here lies the central oddity of Katzman’s love affair with New York: Yes, he loved the city, but what did he love about it? Innumerable artists have depicted the city from every angle, at every magnification, but only Katzman routinely shunned the city’s crowded streets and buildings in favor of sweeping skylines. He dwelled within that human landscape for half a century but never saw it as an artistic subject. As the exhibit’s title suggests, the city itself seemed to interest Katzman less than its aura.

Why would an artist determinedly avoid the subjects of his everyday life, opting instead for vantages only accessible from far away, on islands or boats, or even airborne vistas he could only have imagined? And why would a man with such devotion to the concept of the city seem to have so little interest in its content?

We can find one clue in Katzman’s reaction to 9/11. Though his eyesight had deteriorated by 2001, prohibiting him from continuing his larger paintings, he continued producing small drawings and sketches. The subject matter was unchanged from his earlier career. So unchanged, in fact, that Katzman’s post-9/11 skyline drawings all include the World Trade Center towers (formerly visible from his studio window).

Katzman’s New York City was eternal. It was as much an imagined city as a real one. The real city evolved rapidly and constantly during the fifty years of Katzman’s residence, but his own private city changed only in superficial ways.

No wonder Katzman had difficulty coping with the abstract expressionists. Some of the earliest non-representational painting emerged from an effort to shed perspectival limits—Cezanne’s still lifes revealing the backs of objects through bizarre perspective evolved into Picasso’s flattened forms and eventually became full-blown Cubism. But Katzman resolutely rendered one angle, one perspective, one unchanging concept—sometimes more boldly abstract than others, but always static.

Yet his works do not depict his physical perspective so much as the revelations of his mind’s eye. The eternal city Katzman painted was a mental construct, in some ways an idealization. The affinity between his imagined city and the real city is only as close as a single man’s experience of the city’s ethos can be to its whole essence.

To look at it another way, the New York Katzman fell in love with was a sublime entity, vast and infinitely complex, impossible to understand comprehensively. Perpetually awestruck by this cornucopia, Katzman’s reciprocation was a lifelong artistic homage to the seemingly infinite environment.

In his Critique of Judgment, Kant writes that the sublime invites our imagination to see something boundless, or unending, while our faculty of reason demands limits. This tension is always uneasy:

The feeling of the sublime is…at once a feeling of displeasure, arising from the inadequacy of imagination…and a simultaneously awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with ideas of reason.

Perhaps this is what happened with Katzman and New York. The cultural abundance captured his imagination, and the bounds of the two-dimensional canvas presented an opportunity to intelligibly apprehend something of that infinite nature. If so, we may have an idea of why Katzman’s response to the city’s magnitude and complexity yielded such dark pieces.

Still, for me the city is not a sublime entity but a discrete collection of finite experiences. And William Whyte, by the way, found his own sublimity in the city’s details rather than its macroscopic form. But there is a place for the forest among the trees. It’s actually tough to see much sky from the streets, offices, and apartments of New York City. Perhaps Katzman’s lesson for us is that the little glimpses we capture are gloriously united.

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