SEE Magazine plunges into DENYS WORTMAN’S NEW YORK

The Life and Times of the Classic City

SEE Magazine    |    SEE Magazine Staff    |    March 11, 2011

What a headlong plunge into a mad, vibrant whirlpool this cartoon collection is.

Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 1930s and 1940s celebrates the titular artist, who was not only a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post, Life Magazine, and The New Yorker, but also produced over 9,000 drawings for the New York World newspaper over 30 years, from the 1920s to the 1950s.

As art historian Robert W. Snyder points out in an introduction, Wortman spanned eras. He captured, in visual form, New York from the Depression through World War II to the post-war boom. Like the Impressionists, he was a chronicler of his time and place; his collected work is a remarkable time capsule.

If Wortman was never recognized by art historians, as editor James Sturm declares in an afterword, then this volume demands attention simply on that level. Yet in no way is Wortman’s work drily archival — it pulsates with vitality. Its overarching subject is nothing less than the Life of the City.

There seems no social class, milieu or activity left untouched by Wortman: his subjects include men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds, the High and the Low, at both work and play. (One glaring omission is the shortgage and depictions of African-Americans, who appear only rarely as The Help.)

And we see them everywhere imaginable — in apartments, penthouses, bars, restaurants, rooftops, offices, the subway, workshops, clinics, hospitals, the theatre (both backstage and otherwise), diners, soup kitchens, the docks, construction sites, beaches, classrooms, train stations, movie palaces and the circus. The breadth of setting evokes the familiar saying about a million stories.

Appropriately then, Wortman’s incredible draftsmanship breathe monumentality into his tableaus. Some of this most dramatic compositions involve high and low angles of women on fire escapes — or one awesome image of window washers descending in front of a massive clock tower face.

In Wortman’s city, the epic is everyday. Sometimes it’s as simple as incorporating architectural details like Neo-Classical arches and soaring skyscrapers into the frame. The book’s larger-format presentation is thus fitting; as Sturm notes, Wortman’s art is best appreciated before reduction.

Yet Wortman’s own reductive powers lend his compositions focused power.

Like Joe Sacco (Footnotes in Gaza), Wortman adroitly balances realistic, observable details with the economy demanded of cartoon art on the page; never do his scenes seem busy or overcrowded. There’s a beautiful symmetry to how he orders the elements of every frame.

As Sturm points out, Wortman’s cartoons don’t’ function like typical, one-panel, captioned gag cartoons: rather, the art functions as completely independent. Wortman’s would draw first, and supply captions later; the panels are hence more akin to New Yorker caption contest winners.

(Of course, the contrast is sometimes precisely from where the humour derives, as when a woman tells a gin-blossomed panhandler: “What! Don’t you know coffee is bad for you?”)

One should also consider Wortman’s approach to faces: they’re the one thing not presented realistically, but rather as caricature. They’re the most direct visual link to the comical captions, slyly undercutting the bold visuals to remind us of humanity’s inherent clownishness.

Denys Wortman’s New York not only makes the case for Wortman as an important twentieth-century artist, as Sturm argues — but also for the tremendous, central importance of comics to our shared visual history over the past hundred years.

One need not be either an art or cartooning aficionado, however, to powerfully engage with this volume. Like good fiction, it pulls us through a breathless tour of a fully realized, fully real world.

This is a New York of flesh and blood as much as concrete and steel. And its chest rises and falls with the breath of life.

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