LOU REED: A WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY TRIBUTE
Having just recently returned from a brief week’s vacation, I was saddened to hear on the radio of Lou Reed’s passing. Many of my earliest associations of New York City street life come from the songs and lyrics of Lou Reed’s repertoire. From Walk on the Wild Side to Dirty Boulevard, his songs captured something of the urban experience, with an insistent focus on the ordinary and the ignored.
His music, often full of social criticism and righteous anger against hate-mongers, covered everyone from transvestites, the invisible poor, African-Americans and other minorities. So in tribute to his passing, I thought I would include a few images of New York from the Wolfsonian museum and library collections that, although from an earlier period than Reed described, seem to mirror his views and concerns.
As early as 1925, German-American artist Winold Reiss (1886-1953) contravened bigoted American social conventions that stereotyped and degraded African-Americans by contributing to The New Negro a series of positive portraits and images of the people of the Harlem Renaissance such as this one, titled: “The School Teachers.”
The first set of images of New Work street life come from a portfolio of 14 leaves of plates illustrated by the French artist, Charles Laborde (1886-1941). Although illustrating American urban life in the 1920s Laborde’s Rues et visages de New-York captured life in the Italian and Jewish ethnic quarters, the nightlife on Broadway, entertainment venues like burlesque, the bar scene, music and dance halls, and boxing matches.
Other Wolfsonian materials document New York during the depression decade–the so-called “dirty thirties” when artists were very much attuned to the economic, social, and ecological crises of their era. The Communist party pointed to the onset of the Great Depression as proof of the inevitable decline and failure of Capitalism. This Hugo Gellert (1892-1985) illustration, “Useless,” from his 1936 portfolio Comrade Gulliver transformed earlier photographic celebrations of the workers who built the great city into biting social criticism of a system that left urban workers suspended and stranded in thin air.
Other Communist works in our collection criticized not only the economic system, but racism as well. One work from the era of the infamous Scottsboro race trial, for example, went so far as to show Miss Liberty being hijacked by the KKK.
It’s an image not so very different from the visuals conjured up in Lou Reed’s sarcastic lines from Dirty Boulevard:
Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em
that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard
Of course, depicting the social costs of the Great Depression was not confined to card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Many of the artists plying their trade in the 1930s did so with a sense of social conscience, even when illustrating book covers and dust jackets.
Virginia Berresford’s 1936 painting, The City, recognizes the progress symbolized by the almost crystalline city, but nevertheless insists that the viewer first recognize the social costs by placing a blighted natural landscape and emaciated worker in the foreground.
Peter Berent’s carved fiberglass panel oil painting of the 6th Ave El created the following year similarly focuses our vision from the elevated station down to the unemployed standing in line outside an employment agency.
Some of the many lithographs in our collection also focus on the plight of the poor and unemployed, as does this powerful print by Clare Veronica Hope Leighton, New York Breadline, [ca. 1932].
An edition from our own rare book and special collections library collected 100 prints by artists chosen by the American Artists’ Congress and published by the Equinox Cooperative Press in 1936. A number of the plates depict urban scenes presumably from the “Big Apple.”
In closing, I thought that I would end with a couple of more hopeful images of New York City from our collection. The first is a mural study of children of many races playing together. It was created by Lucienne Bloch for the Federal Art Projects to depict The Cycle of a Woman’s Life for the House of Detention for Women, Greenwich Village.
The second is an illustration of the Statue of Liberty taken by photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) and reproduced in her Say, is this the U.S.A written by Erskine Caldwell and published in 1941, just one year before Lou Reed’s birth. There is something both hopeful and subversive of the perspective she chose to photograph the iconic monument–as something to look up and aspire to, but simultaneously suggestive of our peering up her robe. It’s an image and a slightly twisted angle of Miss Liberty I can image Lou Reed appreciating.