In my seminar on New York and modernism last fall, we used New York Modern: The Arts and the City by William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff as our point of departure. In their introduction, Scott and Rutkoff make a distinction between the terms modern and modernism:
We use the term modern to denote the broad range of art produced by artists who defined themselves as modern. We use modernism, or modernist, in reference to the much narrower, but still broad, rangeof European art that consciously rejected realism and historicism. European “modernists” insisted that art should not be mimetic, should not correspond to sensory experience, but rather should express artists’ inner consciousness, their subjective perception of sensory experience.
The argument of their book is that New York modern is a continuing style that predates and outlasts formalistic modernism and grows out of the realism of Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, and Thomas Eakins.
Scott and Rutkoff argue that the Museum of Modern Art adopted “an essentialized definition of modern art” based on the formalistic modernism of “nonmimetic European or European-inspired art.” In contrast, the original Whitney Museum in the Village adopted a collecting style that reflected the openness of “New York Modern.”
We spent one of our classes at the Whitney Museum, now on Madison Avenue, and I asked the students to find and discuss two works, one that seemed to them to embody “New York Modern,” the other “modernism.”
Today, I present two responses to a work identified with New York Modern, Paul Cadmus’s 1938 painting, Sailors and Floozies.
Paul Cadmus was 94 at the time of his death. A native New Yorker, he was discovered in the depression era when he was commissioned to paint for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), for which he completed his first piece The Fleet’s In! in 1934. He painted in a style that is referred to as magic realism.
The painting Sailors and Floozies is a picture that depicts sailors in Riverside Park, near a monument called the sailors and soldiers memorial. Three sailors are meeting their lovers (the floozies) and there is garbage and litter all around them. Interestingly, Cadmus paints the frame with graffiti as well, so that the artwork extends out of the picture onto the actual frame.
According to New York Modern: The Arts and the City by William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff the painters that had their art on exhibition in the Whitney “offered sober, critical, and satirical images of contemporary life.” What Cadmus achieved with his painting was very “modern” because he displayed something that many people might not even have thought of as art, and he painted it in an interesting way. The painting was very controversial; many critics thought that it was “tawdry, repulsive, and unpatriotic” because it depicted drunk sailors during the dawn of the Second World War. This wasn’t Cadmus’s intention though; his image is more about homoeroticism than patriotism.
The Whitney’s acceptance of all styles of modern American art allow it to have a much broader range of works with a much more eclectic offering. Sailors and Floozies doesn’t follow exact standards of other modernist formats, but displays Cadmus’s vivid and expressive “magic realist” style, as it is often called. Cadmus’s pieces of this style have also been called cartoons due to their somewhat exaggerated and “caricaturistic” appearance.
Unlike the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum welcomed undefined styles and the relatively unknown artists who heralded them, such as Paul Cadmus and his magic realism. Whereas MoMA aimed to leave out politics and society from the works in its collection, art such as Sailors and Floozies at the Whitney aimed to provide a window Americans across the country.