It sounds like something out of Jules Verne. Yet, that is the effect upon the viewer from walking up to George Bellows’ magnificent “Excavation at Night” painting, tucked away in the museum’s second-floor Heekin Gallery. It’s on loan to the museum, probably through January.
It’s amazing to see an early-20th-century American Realist painting use black to such overwhelming, encompassing effect. The 1908 canvas observes the early stages of the building of the massive McKim, Mead and White-designed Penn Station in Manhattan, which required round-the-clock construction work. Bellows, who was born in Columbus, did several paintings observing the work, but this one of night work has special power.
“What gives this one a spectacular quality is the fact it’s nocturnal,” says Julie Aronson, curator of American painting, sculpture and drawing.
“It’s amazing that the longer you spend looking at it, forms start emerging and receding into space. At first, you look at it and wonder what’s there. There’s something very eerie about this painting.”
“Excavation at Night” is a loan from the new — and not yet open — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. That museum has already made some important acquisitions, including the Bellows piece, and has been lending its artwork.
Aronson has surrounded it with several other secondary Bellows pieces related to the highs and lows of urban life — lithographs from a private collection, plus a 1917 painting called “Golf Course, California” that shows golfers under an ominous sky.
Bellows is maybe not so known to the general public beyond his famous boxing painting “Dempsey and Firpo.” That’s because the “school” with which he’s most associated, known as Ashcan because of the social-realist way it sought to chronicle the grittiness of urban life, was pre-Modernist. As such, it’s wound up being a 20th-century footnote.
But the use of black as a predominant color in “Excavation at Night” has the same fearlessness about it that was used by later Modernist abstract painters like Mark Rothko or Josef Albers. It’s definitely pushing beyond boundaries.
“Because Modernism became so valued among art historians, a lot of the Realist school got their reputations diminished for awhile,” Aronson says. “But I think they now have had a fair amount of attention, and Bellows more than any other painter. I think it’s the toughness of his subject matter, but also the strength of the paintings themselves and the way he moves paint around the canvas.”
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