“One Question” with Rebecca Zurier

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Rebecca Zurier is Associate Professor of the History of Art and Faculty Associate in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and their New York (with Robert Snyder and Virginia Mecklenburg; 1995), Art for The Masses: A Radical Magazine and its Graphics (1988), The American Firehouse: An Architectural and Social History (1982) and most recently Picturing the City – Urban Vision and the Ashcan School.

Picturing the City takes an innovative look at the group of urban realists known as the Ashcan School, and at the booming cultures of vision and representation in early twentieth-century New York. Offering fresh insights into the development of modern cities and modern art in America, Rebecca Zurier considers what it meant to live in a city where strangers habitually watched each other and public life seemed to consist of continual display, as new classes of immigrants and working women claimed their places in the metropolis. Through her study of six artists—George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan—Zurier illuminates the quest for new forms of realism to describe changes in urban life, commercial culture, and codes of social conduct in the early 1900s.

Synthesizing visual and literary analysis with urban cultural history, Picturing the City focuses new attention on the materiality and design process of pictures. The author scrutinizes all manner of visual activity, from the pandemonium of comics to the mise-en-scene of early movies, from the mark of an individual pen stroke to a glance on the street, from illustrators’ manuals to ambitious paintings that became icons of American art. By situating the Ashcan School within its proper visual culture, Zurier opens up the question of what the artists’ “realism” meant at a time when many other forms of representation, including journalism and cinema, were competing to define “real life” in New York City.

Neoteric Art: How did your interest in the Ashcan period come about?

Rebecca Zurier: I became aware of the Ashcan artists during a college survey class on American art history, but really got interested in them while researching a paper for another class on “Moral and Social Inquiry”. That’s when I found original copies of the early twentieth century radical magazine The Masses in the library stacks and was surprised to see that Sloan and Bellows had contributed very strong drawings to this left-wing periodical. That discovery led to research for an exhibition (1985) and eventually a book (1988) titled Art for The Masses. As I learned more about the entire Ashcan group, I began to see that the drawings in The Masses were only part of a story that involved six artists, dynamic paintings, changing concepts of realism in the media, the history of New York City, and the way people continue to live and look at each other in cities today.

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