June 14, 2017

“Proud and Passionate Manhattan”: A Celebration of Elegance, Style, Beauty, and Life

The city of such women, I am mad to be with them! I will return after death to be with them!

—Walt Whitman, from “Mannahatta”

The beautiful women on view in the James A. Michener Museum’s vision of Jazz Age Manhattan in “Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography and Sculptural Formrange from elegant ladies in “dragonfly-stitched ermine coats” to Ziegfield dancers like the exhibit’s cover girl Bobbe Arnst and little (4’10) Ann Pennington, who can be seen in a series of Sheeler photographs performing Black Bottom moves like “Bon Bon Buddy,” “Down Baby,” “Step Out,” “Raggedy Trot,” and “Clap Hands.”

Although the Michener bills Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) as “one of America’s best-known modernists,” all that I knew about him when I visited the show last week was what I’d read in the poet William Carlos Williams’s autobiography. Among some odds and ends of personal history including an account of the occasions when Williams and his wife would get together with Sheeler and his wife to drink and gossip “to our heart’s content,” I learned that Sheeler’s uncle had envisioned a future for him as “a pitcher for the old Athletics,” even to the point of “taking him to the field to induce him to go in that direction.” Museumgoers and baseball fans alike may be amused to imagine “one of the founding figures of American modernism” playing for Connie Mack’s A’s rather than studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, exhibiting six paintings at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, shooting a short film about New York with Paul Strand in 1920, and creating fashion images and portraits for Vanity Fair and Vogue between 1926 to 1931 as a Condé Nast photographer.

If You Knew Bobbe

For the better part of a week now the woman shown on this page has been staring at me from the cover of the massive, handsome, lavishly illustrated 234-page monograph edited by the exhibit curator Kirsten M. Jensen. In her essay “Figures in Space,” the curator calls Sheelers’s Bobbe Arnst a “riveting portrait.” What interests her is the way the subject’s “sculpted form” interrupts “the geometry of it all.” As “viewed through Sheeler’s lens,” says Ms. Jensen, there is “very little theatricality — what you see is what you get.”

What I see is a spirited woman oozing theatricality. This feisty flirty singer/dancer seems an unlikely banner image for a show dominated by cool, elegant, impassive women embodying the title’s buzz words, “fashion” and “sculptural form.” Bobbe isn’t just looking at you, she’s sizing you up. The suggestive glance she’s giving Sheeler is there for all of us, still vivid after 90 years, still coyly probing, still to be reckoned with. Of all the many Manhattan women Walt Whitman might be “mad to be with,” she may be the one most likely to bring the good gray poet back from the dead.

One reason the curator prefers to point out “striking painterly drama” in “the contrast between figure and ground” in the image is that it supports one of the major premises of the exhibit, which is that the “day work” Sheeler did for Vogue and Vanity Fair (Sheeler called it “a daily trip to jail”) influenced the style he would later employ in Precisionist creations like the striking oil on canvas Steel Croton (1953). While the “strong architectural interest” the curator finds in Bobbe Arnst leads in the direction of Sheeler’s interior photographs of Ford’s River Rouge factory, it led me to the Net.

According to my online search for Bobbe Arnst, she was born Leone Christofferson in 1903 in New York City and died in 1980 in Los Angeles. Her first husband was the original Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, who soon moved on to Lupe Vélez, the Mexican Spitfire. What made the quest worthwhile was a YouTube clip from a 1929 Vitaphone short called Rhythms in Blue. There she is again, wearing the same hair style if not quite as dark, same peek-a-boo curl across her forehead. After singing some forgettable tune, she picks up the hem of her dress and begins dancing, and for one luminous moment all’s well with the world as she softly scats along, da-da-da-di-da, not like a jazz singer but as the spirit moves her, the spirit that won’t stop making itself felt, the spirit visible in the look she’s giving Charles Sheeler in his West 49th Street studio in the summer of 1928 when she was on Broadway in Ziegfield’s Rosalie singing George Gershwin’s unforgettable ballad “How Long Has This Been Going On.”

Enter Walt Whitman

If anyone has a claim on “the proud and passionate” metropolis so brilliantly evoked at the Michener, it’s Walt Whitman, whose poems from the previous century provide the intertitles for Sheeler and Strand’s Manhatta (1921), a somewhat murky print of which can be seen in a side room off the main gallery. The words the far-seeing all-seeing poet wrote in the previous century fit so well with the images that it seems as if he’d had a spectral preview of the film with its “tall facades of marble and iron.” The lingering shot of the Woolworth Building, which went up long after the poet’s death, seems to be in his view when he writes in 1860 of “high growths of iron, slender, strong, splendidly uprising toward clear skies” and of “our tall-topt marble and iron beauties.” His words seem no less prescient when juxtaposed to scenes of construction, laborers, cranes, heavy machinery (“the shovel, the great derrick, the wall scaffold, the work of walls and ceilings”). He’s also there for harbor views in his “city of hurried and sparkling waters, City nested in bays”; and for shots of railroad yards (“this world all spanned with iron rails”). Even the film’s predominant aerial views of city streets and pedestrians have Walt’s imprimatur: “When million-footed Manhattan unpent descends to its pavements.” Finally here he is for the last shot of sunset on the Hudson: “Gorgeous clouds of sunset! drench with your splendor me or the men and women generations after me.”

In case you doubt Walt’s capacity for peering through the generations to see dancers like Bobbe Arnst and Ann Pennington in the city of women he’s “mad to be with,” it happens that the liveliest character in The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, the newly discovered “lost novel” from 1856, is a dancer named Inez who has “the stylish, self-possessed look” of someone who follows “a theatrical life.” Her face “is open and pleasing, with bright black eyes,” and on the stage “she looked really fascinating” in “the short gauzy costume of a dancing girl,” her “legs and feet … beautiful and her gestures and attitudes easy and graceful.”

I prefer to see Sheeler’s women, from high society to Broadway, like Whitman’s, “ultimate in their own right … calm, clear, well-possess’d of themselves.” At the same time, it’s not my intention to disparage the curator’s emphasis on abstraction and analysis, not when the total effect of the show is so positive. What I saw, ultimately, was a celebration of elegance, style, beauty, and life.

Enter the Men

The closing lines of Whitman’s “Mannahatta” refer to “The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!” Knowing this, you know Walt would delight in Sheeler’s series showing former lightheavyweight champion Georges Carpentier dancing the Charleston, not to mention the stunning portrait of young Aldous Huxley (who loved it, you can see why). Another writer shaped by Sheeler’s lens is Theodore Dreiser. You can also see Alfred Lunt, with and without Lynne Fontanne, and silent film star John Gilbert, whose co-star and lover Greta Garbo is present if only in the form of a black rhinestone-spangled evening gown designed for her by Adrian.

Aware that this column would coincide with the Tweet-crazed president’s 71st birthday, I dug some quotes out of a well-worn paperback copy of The Art of the Deal at the Bucks County Library after visiting the exhibit next door at the Michener. As horrified as Walt would be at the prospect of Trump, he would probably agree that “If it can’t be fun, what’s the point?” He might even approve of “I call it truthful hyperbole”?

The good news is “Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography and Sculptural Form will be at the Michener through July 9. Better yet, admission to the museum is half-price in June.