George Bellows, Excavation at Night, 1908, Oil on canvas, 33 x 44 inches
No other artist captured the chaos created in the name of progress in early 20th century New York City better than George Bellows. His paintings of the Penn Station excavation, violent and gritty, show the negative side of progress; they’re the quintessential example of man at odds with nature. Once the renovations for Penn Station were complete, Bellows did not return to work there. His interests were focused on the intrusiveness of man on nature. As an artist, Bellows was a truth seeker and a Transcendentalist; he had no interest in painting his surroundings in a formalistic way alone. His landscapes reflect a profound respect for nature; he seamlessly portrayed the ever-growing and complex tension between humans and their surroundings.
George Bellows, Blue Morning, 1909, Oil on canvas, 33 x 44 inches
Bellows was a skilled communicator; his paintings intensely engage my senses. I can feel the bitter cold of winter, the stench of burning coal, the exhaustion of the men who have been shoveling for hours. The social issues he raises in his work, including the plight of the working poor, are just as relevant today. Bellows’ paintings have a prophetic quality; they foreshadow the routine practice of destroying our natural environment without regard for the future. The timeliness is uncanny. Bellows documented America in the wake of the Industrial Revolution during a momentous building boom. But the pace of development continues to increase today, even though the forms have shifted from factories and railroad stations to luxury condominiums.
George Bellows, Pennsylvania Excavation, 1907. Oil on canvas, 33 7/8 x 44 inches
When I look at a Bellows’ piece, I am overcome by a feeling of urgency. I imagine him trying to capture the scenes he paints as quickly as possible, stabbing at the canvas with his brushes, motioning wildly with his arms. Critics often marvel over his Modernist tendencies; I envision him as a proto-action painter–applying the paint with thick, free brush strokes that bring the scenes to life. The surfaces of his paintings are breathtaking, far more evocative when viewed in person.
Whenever I am at the Brooklyn Museum, I make it a point to visit Pennsylvania Station Excavation in the permanent collection so I can admire Bellow’s stunning virtuosity. I can track the many decisions that he made in the layers of his ferocious brushwork, perfectly suited to depict those explosive sites.
George Bellows, Pennsylvania Station Excavation, ca. 1907-1908, Oil on canvas, 31 3/16 x 38 1/4 inches
Bellows’ compositions and vantage points are wildly varied. The times of day, seasons, and color palettes in his work are diverse and well conceived, despite the fact that many of those pieces were painted from the same excavation site. A true master, Bellows’ used painting to address the most pressing issues of this time and his work remains relevant in its brilliance and poignancy.
Elena Soterakis, Mountain of Garbage, 2015, Oil and collage on paper, 22 x 30 inches
Elena Soterakis is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work explores the conflict between economic progress and environmental preservation. Soterakis received her MFA in painting from the New York Academy of Art and received her BFA in illustration from the School of Visual Arts. www.elenasoterakis.com