George Bellows was not a great artist. He was, for a brief period, a very good artist, an accomplished painter of difficult, turbulent, turn-of-the-century New York City, a daring stylist who repeatedly found subjects that matched his free paint-handling and swift brush. Thereafter, he was often an interesting illustrator who painted lifeless canvases best forgotten. [Image: George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909. Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.]
Both Bellowses are in evidence in curator Charles Brock’s thick National Gallery of Art retrospective, the third devoted to the artist since 1979. It is on view through October 8. The exhibition is, if anything, too faithful to the range of Bellows’ output, preferring encyclopedic breadth to focused examination. The result is a kind of twinbill: Four-and-a-half densely installed galleries of very good Bellowses: boxers, boy-bathers, the celebration of the urban and the proletariat, followed by a roughly equal number of galleries of wince-worthy regression featuring maudlin landscapes, saccharine pictures of the wealthy at play, lifeless portraits, war propaganda and, finally, a late Bellows boxing picture so inert that it mostly reminds us how much better the early boxing paintings were. But perhaps any Bellows retrospective must be a mixed bag.
George Bellows, athletic son of a well-to-do Ohio builder, arrived in New York City in 1904 as a 22-year-old illustrator, a starting-point that Brock smartly makes clear in the exhibition’s first gallery, which includes five drawings and four paintings. Occasionally these early New York paintings look like Bellows doing someone else: Kids, a 1906 picture of children playing around a city stoop, could be a blown-up Daumier. Several 1907 portraits in the show’s second gallery, including Little Girl in White, are Bellows doing Robert Henri, an instructor to whom Bellows gravitated once he arrived in New York.
Bellows finds his first great subject in 1906 and in 1907, when he started making paintings of naked boys cavorting around bodies of water. Begun just two years after his arrival East, these pictures show that Bellows had already discovered what he did best: Paintings of action, the busier the better, composed with a sharp, focusing triangle, loose brushstrokes and occasionally provocative presentations. Of Bellows’s Forty-two Kids (1907, collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, above left), at least 13 are bending in two or otherwise presenting their hindquarters to the viewer or another kid. At least half a dozen others are presented in a state of presentation or male adjustment. (Readers interested in a sophisticated historicization of Bellows’s several paintings of boys and later drawings of men should see Jonathan Katz’s excellent 2010 essay “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” in the catalogue for the National Portrait Gallery exhibition of the same title.)
At 25, Bellows would begin the series for which he is best known: His three 1907-1909 paintings of boxers, canvases popularized in the ensuing years by Bellows’ own lithographs. These are among the finest American paintings of the half-century. The three here are characterized by free brushstrokes that seem to match the movements and pace of the fighters. They seem all the greater today, when ultimate fighting is ascendant and boxing is in decline: Bellows’s boxers, one of whom has his leg raised, apparently for leverage, is more UFC than IBF. [Image: Bellows, Both Members of This Club, 1909. Collection of the National Gallery of Art.]
These paintings seem to have encouraged Bellows to continue to free up his brush even more. Over the next few years he would make the paintings in Brock’s next gallery: Views of New York City life, of the excavation of what would become Penn Station, of riverside promenades on stormy days and so on. The boxing paintings seem to have helped Bellows understand what a Bellows painting was: a painting of urban life that relies more on the movement of the brush across the canvas than on composition, a painting with dramatic transitions between light and dark and an emphasis on workers, on the underclass that made the city tick, grow and throb. (Like other illustrators who painted, including Hopper or Homer, Bellows could get lost on a canvas.) Most of these elements are on splended view in Rain on the River, a 1908 painting (below, left) composed from two triangles, one light, one dark, and brushy atmospherics.
And then the Armory Show. For decades art historians have noted that the 1913 exhibition has marked a break in Bellows’s work, and it’s hard to imagine the before-and-after split presented more starkly than here: Midway through the exhibition Brock has hung three of Bellows’s early society pictures opposite pictures of dock workers, snow movers and tenement life in the city. The pictures of urban grit are commanding, harshly brushy in all the best ways. In pictures from 1911 and 1912 it seems as though Bellows has finally, after eight years in New York, figured out how to effectively compose a picture without using a triangular form. Docks in Winter (1911) shows labor in the cold, with abrasive snow or sleet pounding down. As birds scurry for cover, two workers and their team of horses do work that apparently must be done. The painting is simultaneously cold and sympathetic. Nearby, a loaded-brush semi-abstraction titled Gorge and Sea (1911) offers a landscape guided by brushy touch rather than by tangible terra firma, Bellows adding not just oily texture but an apparently increased understanding that tone was more important to his work than was bright color. The artist seems to have not just figure out what made a Bellows a Bellows, but how to build on what he’d done.
Then just as quickly, it all vanished. The post-Armory paintings are confused muddles of ill-defined figures and facial features, ill-conceived compositions (Bellows has given up the triangle for the leading diagonal) and confusing color. Among the later paintings, only Riverfront No. 1 (1914), a revisiting of an earlier theme, succeeds.
Post-Armory landscapes are messy, full of colors that seem off by several shades. Portraiture subjects seem to be holding his or her breath, stiffly, as if they were afraid that if you poked them they’d deflate. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Bellows’s better mid-career portraits — such as Geraldine Lee, No. 2 (1914) – are almost Henris.) The exhibition’s catalogue features several essays that nibble at the edges of how the Armory Show may have affected Bellows for the worse, but never really tackles the question head-on. It is a missed opportunity in an otherwise thorough publication. [Image: Bellows, Lillian, 1916.]
Even as Bellows’ painting declines precipitously, he continues to make strong illustrations. Brock spotlights many of them in a gallery that provides visitors with an opportunity to compare and contrast the dynamism of Bellows’ work on paper with the increasing stasis of his paintings. A series of drawings of football players for captures the brutality of the early gridiron game, a period during which football was so violent that 19 players were fatally injured in a single year and even President Teddy Roosevelt urged that it be banned. Drawings of the evangelical preacher Billy Sunday are full of life and energy, zest which dissolves in a flat, lifeless painting. Brock smartly hangs the painting between a related drawing and a lithograph, allowing us to see how Bellows’ inability to resolve the larger painted composition and make color work within it cause the canvas to seem comparatively lifeless.
The exhibition’s nadir is a gallery with four of Bellows’s awful paintings about World War I, paintings so bad that catalogue essayist Carol Troyen doesn’t bother trying to defend them. They are full of cartoonish, imagined scenes of dismemberment and cruelty. (Bellows never served in the military and neither saw nor experienced the Great War.) Troyen dismisses these paintings as an “ambitious yet problematic attempt to marry propaganda with the grand manner,” which is both correct and a measure kinder than they deserve. [Image: Bellows, Football, 1916. Collection of the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College.]
In fact, that gallery is so bad that it raises questions about the necessity of this, the third Bellows retrospective in the last 34 years: There is nothing new here, no elevation of the unknown or little studied, no tight focus. Instead, it is merely an exercise in ossification that confirms the Bellows of decades-held understanding. In his catalogue essay, Brock quotes historian Daniel Catton Rich writing about Bellows in 1946: “Why, with such remarkable gifts, did Bellows slowly unmistakably surrender a number of them and become a self-conscious stylist?” Sixty-five years later, that’s still a good question. Ultimately, given the NGA’s recent history as a museum intensely devoted to exhibiting the work of white American men – with one semi-exception, the NGA has not originated a solo exhibition of a female artist in nearly 20 years – why is it re-visiting well-trod ground?
The exhibition’s final painting, more or less, is Dempsey and Firpo (1924, collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art), one of Bellows’s three late boxing pictures. This one features a well-coiffed Dempsey laying Firpo out of the ring and into the first row of the crowd. At this point Bellows seems to have given himself over to being an illustrator: The dynamic movement of the first boxing series is gone, as is the loose, free, exciting paint-handling. (Indeed, the 1923 drawing for the painting has much more verve and detail than does the canvas.) In Dempsey and Firpo, it seems as if each figure in the painting is holding a pose – and has been for quite some time. For this exhibition, it is a fitting final work.