With countless walls to choose from, it's little surprise that artists like Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Thomas Hart Benton, Maxfield Parish, Keith Haring, and Sol LeWitt—and now, working on a different scale, Banksy—have made New York City their canvas. But many of the massive artworks that adorn office buildings, schools, hospitals, bars, and restaurants often go unseen to the many eyes that pass by them every day. Unless shown exactly where to look, a New Yorker can miss the masterworks in front of him or her.
I, for example, never realized that Orozco painted a suite of politically sensitive historical tableau on labor, science, politics and culture at The New School on 12th Street, so close to where I live. But then I saw the paintings in the new book Murals of New York City: The Best of New York’s Public Paintings From Bemelmans to Parrish by Glenn Palmer-Smith with photographs by Joshua McHugh. The tome offers a collection of fascinating, striking images—and should make city-dwellers look on their surroundings anew .
“There is something amazing that takes place when a painting becomes an integral element of the architecture,” author Glenn Palmer-Smith wrote me in an email. “It has a more significant impact than a painting that can shift from location to location indefinitely with no allegiance to the initial aesthetic, like a fickle lover.”
Palmer-Smith, an easel painter and muralist, was inspired by Lucienne Bloch, his first art school teacher at Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan, who painted the “The Evolution of Music” in 1938 in the George Washington High School music room. Bloch also worked as Diego Rivera's assistant on the “Man at the Crossroads” mural, finished in 1933 then blasted off the Rockefeller Center walls after Nelson Rockefeller requested that Rivera paint over and remove a portrait of Lenin—a “sad act of cultural vandalism,” as Palmer-Smith calls it.
“What is amusing," he adds, referring to Orozco's New School mural, "is that during the McCarthy era they solved the problem of Lenin's portrait by hanging a curtain over that portion of the mural until sanity returned.”
I have seen some of Richard Haas’s beautiful outdoor trompe l’oeil around New York, but not the one at Peck Slip, commissioned by Con Ed to make its “clunky electrical substation” blend in with the landmarked buildings of the South Street Seaport. Haas has made a career of painting walls recreating structures that were demolished or destroyed. Other lesser-known works in the book including the Harlem YMCA's and Harlem Hospital's murals and the fading Ben Shahn painting at the Bronx General Post Office on the Grand Concourse, which I had once seen as a young boy but had since forgotten it was there.
A handful of storied restaurant murals are represented. Marcel Vertes’s prosaic Café Carlyle tableau, Howard Chandler Christy’s nude burlesque at the Café des Artistes, Ludwig Bemelmans's fantastical scenes at the Bemelmans Bar, Edward Sorel’s New York literary crowd at The Waverly Inn and Garden, and the sumptuous Sandro Chia mural at the Palio Bar.
Since the majority of murals in this book were created during the 1930s and '40s, not many firsthand accounts are recorded. “Other than Ed Sorel and Richard Haas who both generously spent time with me, I had no contact with the painters,” Palmer-Smith explained. “Most of them have long since passed.”
Undoubtedly the most familiar and frequently photographed space featured in the book is Grand Central Terminal's star-studded ceiling. McHugh faced the challenge of how to do the space justice photographically, and also keep it fresh. That challenge was complicated by the fact that given the size of the mural, and the strict MTA restrictions about photo equipment, he could only use available light when shooting there.
“Scouting was critical in assessing the conditions for each location,” he told me, “in determining the best time of day to shoot—being the time when there was a proper mix of ambient daylight and illumination from existing fixtures.” Standing on the Grand Central floor, McHugh recognized “that we are drawn to the majesty of the entire space, and often miss the finer elements of the ceiling and its celestial allegories. As a result, I chose to mix large overall images with much tighter details that would do justice to certain groupings and individual elements in the mural.”
The Appellate Courtroom, with its Gilded Age flamboyance, is another standout. For McHugh it was also an absolute pleasure to photograph: “The room is filled with all the trappings and gravitas that we associate with a legal forum, and my job was simply to compose the images and light them in a way to let that shine forth.” In that sense, it was relatively straightforward. “The same could not be said for the Court's lobby,” he pointed out. “The room is now filled with the requisite security apparatus of most government buildings: metal detectors, scanning machines.” For the historical murals throughout the book McHugh succeeded in eliminating or diminishing the intrusion of the modern day in order to give the artworks a historically authentic rendering.
“I think we absolutely got the best,” said Palmer-Smith about the murals that were selected. “But one disappointment was not being able to include the Ezra Winter murals in the Cunard Building. I knocked myself out trying to get the management/owners of the building to let us in to shoot and write about them to no avail.”
Quite a few recent murals, many adorning new public schools and subway stations, including ones by Paula Scher and Art Spiegelman, are also omitted. And it is further a shame that a WPA-era mural in the Gramercy Post Office on East 23rd Street was left out because it is so poorly maintained. Palmer-Smith said “perhaps one day someone will do a book solely on the WPA murals of New York.” Perhaps! But there's no need to weep for the murals that didn't make it in when there's so much to admire about the ones that did.