CLEVELAND, Ohio — When it chooses topics for exhibitions, the Cleveland Museum of Art spreads its attention around the globe, from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. At the moment, however, it’s in a New York state of mind.
Earlier this year, it displayed a selection from Bruce Davidson’s poignant “Brooklyn Gang’’ photos that documented the lives of rebellious white ethnic teens in the New York City borough during the 1950s.
Last month, the museum followed up with two new, Big Apple-centric shows.
Beautifully organized, the exhibitions focus on 71 prints by the early 20th century Ashcan School realists, and on 44 examples of mid-century street photography — pictures snapped without the subject’s knowledge.
Emily Peters, the curator of prints and drawings, formulated “Ashcan School Prints and the American City, 1900-1940,’’ which focuses heavily on New York subjects. Photography Curator Barbara Tannenbaum put together “A New York Minute: Street Photography, 1920-1950.”
Nostalgia for density
Both shows have a timely subtext: They celebrate a pre-COVID world in which no one thought about social distancing (except perhaps during the 1918 influenza pandemic), and in which everyone shared air, space, and visibility with millions of strangers.
Some city dwellers recoiled from the intensity of it all out of self-preservation. In the 1925 John Dos Passos novel, “Manhattan Transfer,” a troubled character shuffles along busy Canal Street “without hearing the yells of children or the annihilating clatter of the L trains overhead or smelling the rancid sweet huddled smell of packed tenements.”
Images of heavy crowds are ubiquitous in both New York shows. Their prints and photos depict everything from zillions of sweaty bodies at Coney Island Beach to jam-packed bars, theaters, parks, sidewalks, and the ubiquitous elevated trains mentioned by Dos Passos.
As skyscrapers soared in the early 20th century, they cast shadows on neighborhoods that filled with poor newcomers from Eastern and Southern Europe, and from the American South.
In 1920, when the Census Bureau declared for the first time that a majority of Americans lived in cities, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world.
Data from the New York City Planning Department show that the area had more than 500 residents per acre, equivalent to more than 320,000 per square mile. Manhattan as a whole had 2.3 million residents a century ago, compared with roughly 1.7 million today.
The city was rife with poverty and misery. But it also presented big opportunities that attracted the best and the brightest talents in every sphere, including the visual arts.
The Ashcan School, for example, was born in Philadelphia in the early 1890s. That’s where the leading American artist Robert Henri, who championed a blunt, unvarnished urban realism, mentored four talented local newspaper illustrators: William Glackens, Everett Shinn, George Luks, and John Sloan.
Philadelphia couldn’t keep them. Seeking a bigger stage, they all moved to New York between 1896 and 1904, becoming permanently associated with it, and with the Ashcan moniker, used as a disparagement by a New York City art critic in 1916.
Columbus, Ohio, native George Bellows soon joined them. He became a student of Henri’s in New York, and a prominent member of the second generation of Ashcan realists, along with Reginald Marsh, a student of Sloan’s at the Art Students League, located since 1892 at 215 W. 57th St., a half block west of Carnegie Hall.
The print show features a generous selection of works by Bellows and Marsh, but Sloan is most heavily represented, with more than 20 etchings and lithographs including a frame-to-frame display of 12 of his “New York City Life” etchings, made in 1905-11.
The series includes Sloan’s famous etching of a woman kneeling in her nightgown while turning down a gaslight before joining her lover amid the rumpled sheets of their bed. Critics at the time considered this frank glimpse of private life “indecent,” according to the exhibition.
As the two New York shows point out, dwelling in meager interior spaces meant that much of life unfolded out in the open, on streets and sidewalks.
Seeing and being seen are overriding themes, as are images that hint at voyeurism, an easily observable phenomenon in a city where young, single women pursued careers, flaunted new freedoms, and fueled a rising market in ready-to-wear fashions.
An ominous etching by Sloan shows a solitary man seated on a rooftop gazing across a tenement airshaft at a scantily clad woman, visible through a lighted window, as she puts up her hair.
In “Spring, Central Park,’’ a 1921 lithograph by Bellows, two young men check out a pair of stylishly dressed women, who are unaware of the attention they’re getting.
A Marsh etching from 1930 shows a female stripper striding a catwalk at the Gaiety Theatre as hundreds of men leer at her from overflowing balconies and orchestra seats.
Such images embody a ravenous appetite among predominantly white male artists who sought to portray the city as a vibrant, daily spectacle. Photography presented new opportunities to do so, spontaneously, without being observed in the act.
New, 35-millimeter cameras equipped with light-sensitive, high-speed film, enabled photographers to react reflexively when something caught their eye, snapping photos of their oblivious subjects.
Walker Evans, for example, secretly took photographs of subway riders using a camera hidden in his jacket.
In the resulting images, “the guard is down and the mask is off,’’ Evans said, in a quote cited in a label. “People’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.”
Photographer Lou Stoumen shot from the hip with his flash on in his 1939 photo, “Sailor and Girl, Times Square, New York.’’
“If I’d raised the camera to my eye the sailor and his girl would have reacted, with anger perhaps or laughter,’’ he said, according to the exhibition. “But then this moment of amorous electricity between them would have been forever lost.”
It’s timely, given that it’s summer, that the museum exhibitions show how people tried to cope with what environmentalists now call the urban heat island effect — in which unshaded paving and masonry intensify the sun’s heat.
In the 1906 etching, “Summer Roofs,’’ Sloan showed how tenement dwellers escaped stifling apartments by sleeping on tarpaper rooftops.
Bellows depicted teeming crowds of children cooling off by diving off wharves into the East River, a polluted estuary ripped with dangerous currents and wakes from passing tugs and barges.
The photography exhibition revels in depictions of Coney Island, including Lisette Model’s widely-reproduced 1939-40 portrait of a zaftig woman in a black bathing suit standing barefoot in a wide stance, laughing as waves lap at her feet, or a 1949 Andreas Feininger photo in which a multitude of human bodies nearly block out the sand and water.
Both shows are liberally sprinkled with these and other classic 20th-century images demonstrating the richness and depth of the museum’s permanent collection.
The print show, in particular, underscores the importance of Ashcan masterpieces routinely on view in the permanent collection galleries, including, “Stag at Sharkey’s,’’ 1909, the best of Bellows’ portrayals of boxing matches, and “A Woman’s Work,’’ 1912, a Sloan painting depicting a woman hanging out the laundry to dry on a clothesline strung over an air shaft.
(It should also be noted that the print show has benefited significantly from loans from a private collector, Cleveland native Stephen Dull, an executive advisor based in Greensboro, North Carolina.)
But one of the real delights of the exhibitions comes from the ways in which they focus attention on less widely appreciated artists and photographers who deserve more attention.
Among them, in the print show, is Isabel Bishop, an enormously gifted draftsman who specialized in scenes of well-dressed young professional women enjoying the freedom of urban life while shopping or conversing on park benches or city sidewalks.
Also notable is a series of Depression-era lithographs by Benton Spruance showing cutaway views of teeming factories or city streets and subways, emphasizing the nature of the metropolis as a crowded, multi-layered hive of activity.
The photography exhibition gives a nod to James Van Der Zee, the noted Harlem portrait photographer, and to Roy DeCarava, whose Harlem street scenes illustrated the 1955 Langston Hughes book, “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,’’ a contemporary copy of which is displayed in the show.
Lastly, there are the sweetly nuanced photographs of Walter Rosenblum, who grew up as one of five children in a Jewish immigrant family living in a three-room, cold water apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
His photographs of a family sitting on a stoop outside a synagogue, of women chatting in front of a chain-link fence, and of boys betting over a game played by tossing nuts or coins, are filled with warmth, affection and a sense that city life, no matter how tough, could be improved through advocacy.
For Rosenblum and other photographers whose careers spanned the Depression and World War II, advocacy meant documenting what they saw, right before their eyes.
That immediacy and passion is one reason not to miss the museum’s current focus on New York.
What’s up: “Ashcan School Prints and the American City, 1900-1940,’’ and, “A New York Minute: Street Photography, 1920-1950.”
Venue: Cleveland Museum of Art
Where: 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland
When: “Ashcan’’ through Sunday, Dec. 26; “Street Photography” through Sunday, Nov. 7.
Admission: Free. Call 216-421-7350 or go to cma.org.