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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why Not Use the "L"?

Reginald Marsh, Why Not Use the “L”?, 1930. Egg tempera on canvas, 36 × 48 in. (91.4 x 121.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase  31.293  © 2010 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society, New York

A few nights ago, we were walking through the Whitney Museum's recently re-installed top floor, "American Legends: From Calder to O'Keeffe," when Reginald Marsh's 1930 painting "Why Not Use the 'L'?" caught our eye. If you've read Inside the Apple, you know that we're fans of Marsh's work in the US Custom House on Bowling Green.

In this work, Marsh captures a slice of the city that's now gone: riders on the elevated train. The train depicted appears to be the Third Avenue "L" (or, sometimes, "El"), but transportation aficionados should chime in if we are wrong about that. As in many of Marsh's paintings, there is a gauzy quality to the canvas, though a few things are in sharp focus. Above the sleeping man's head is a sign that gives the painting its title: "The subway is fast, certainly. But the open-air elevated gets you there quickly, too! And with more comfort. Why not use the 'L'?" Below the man's feet is a newspaper, the headline of which trumpets, "Did Sex Urge Explain Judge Crater's Disappearance?"

Judge Joseph Force Crater disappeared on August 6, 1930. Having had dinner with his mistress and a friend on Forty-fifth Street, he hailed a taxi, never to be seen again. At first, he wasn't even reported missing--the courts were in recess and he had been frequently commuting back and forth to his summer house in Maine. But when he didn't show up for work on August 25, the police were called in; the disappearance went public in early September and consumed the New York headlines for weeks. Had he been murdered? Kidnapped? Run off to a tropical island with a woman? It remains one of the great unsolved cases in New York history and anchors Marsh's painting in a very specific moment in time.

A few years after this canvas was painted, the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts hired Marsh to complete sixteen murals in the rotunda of the Custom House. As we write in Inside the Apple:
"[His] murals depict the dominance of American shipping; the eight larger panels show the stages of a steamship's entrance into New York harbor, from its approach to the Narrows to its discharge of passengers and cargo. In one panel, the ship pauses to take on the press so that they can interview an arriving celebrity--Greta Garbo.... Just before work was to begin in September 1937, Marsh received world that Joseph P. Kennedy, U.S. maritime commissioner, objected to the fact two prominent ships in the panorama were foreign vessels--the Queen Mary and the Normandie. Kennedy wrote that Marsh should instead depict 'the new passenger liner that we will probably commence building.'"
Marsh ignored Kennedy. Supposedly the word "Normandie" is smudged on the bow of that vessel, but it is still perfectly legible. The old Custom House is now the Museum of the American Indian and is open to the public free of charge so that you can check out Marsh's work yourself. The Whitney Museum is pay-what-you-wish on Friday nights. There are other Marsh works in the "American Legends" installation, as well as, of course, some of the finest works of American art in any New York collection.

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Find out more about Reginald Marsh in
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