A Performance in Three Acts:
American Entertainment in the Mid-20th Century

Exterior of the Apollo Theater, circa 1940. Courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives.
Exterior of the Apollo Theater, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Municipal Archives, City of New York.

The lights flicker, the audience takes their seats, the curtain draws…it’s showtime!

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Jonathan Boos’ three act exploration of the splendor, drama and immaculate showmanship of the American theater. As a part of The American Art Fair Online 2020, we’re presenting  Jacob Lawrence’s masterpiece Makeup (Dressing Room), 1952. But that’s not all: we’re also taking Makeup as our muse as we pull back the curtain on the 20th century entertainment world.

For our first act, watch an original film about the story behind Lawrence’s Makeup before exploring the diversity of leisure activities from the past century, as depicted by some of the era’s greatest artists. We’ll then dive into the wider world of entertainment in our second act. Our final presentation will be revealed on October 15 following a short intermission.

Enjoy the show!

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Act One: Makeup on Film

Play Video

Recognized as one of the foremost American artists of the last century, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) portrayed contemporary urban life and the greater historical African American experience through his signature Dynamic Cubist style. His “Performance” series, created in the early 1950s, explored the breadth of stage acts found on the streets of Harlem. Press play to hear more about one of the crown jewels of this series, Makeup, which is available now through the gallery. 

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Act Two: An Exploration of 20th Century Leisure Activities

Let the good times roll! The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a significant rise in leisure time for workers across the United States. Thanks in part to union pressure and a number of new pieces of federal legislation, industrial employers began to decrease work hours and institute a half-day holiday on Saturdays at the turn of the century. [1] Led by the Progressive Movement, shifts in societal thinking underscored the importance of leisure time for the health and wellness of workers, while new technologies like streetcars and electric street lighting expanded the geography and time scale for non work-related activities.[2]

Americans reveled in their additional free time, taking in a variety of amusements both in and outside of city limits. Below, we explore how Americans of the past century spent their time off, from enjoying new forms of urban entertainment like spectator sports and vaudeville shows to escaping industrialized centers to reconnect with the great outdoors.

INDOOR ENTERTAINMENT

One of the most vivid forms of recreation that I had, as many in the community had, was visiting the Apollo Theater, and the Apollo became an institution in the community. There were comedians, there were chorus girls, and there were big bands.

Jacob Lawrence [5]

Jacob Lawrence moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood at 13 years old and was immediately taken with the area’s dynamism and sense of artistic community.[4] As a young artist, he soaked in Harlem’s creative diversity, visiting jazz lounges, attending vaudeville shows and riveting theatrical productions at institutions including the storied Apollo Theater on 125th Street. It was this community that influenced is experimental “Performance” body of work from the early 1950s. Channeling the color and drama of show business, the Performance series was Lawrence’s first to not follow a distinct narrative chronology. 

The present work, Makeup, takes us backstage, depicting actors transforming into their characters through elaborate, Harlequin-esque stage makeup. These masked faces resemble the highly stylized masks worn by the Mbunda people of Africa (present day south-east Angola), the likes of which Lawrence would have seen echoed in pieces by contemporary Harlem artists. With its flattened and fragmented composition, Makeup is an excellent example of Lawrence’s signature Dynamic Cubist style. The work is among Lawrence’s most abstract, yet its subject of role playing directly ties to the post-war discourse on individuality and authenticity – subjects that continue to resonate today.

The ideal artist is he who knows everything, feels everything, experiences everything, and retains his experience in a spirit of wonder and feeds upon it with creative lust.

George Bellows [3]

The presentation of the winner of a boxing match.
George Bellows
Introducing the Champion, 1912
Black crayon, India ink and collage on paper
24 3/4 x 20 inches
Signed upper left

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) captured the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-century New York City in his gritty urban street scenes, portraits of tenement life and rabble-rousing sporting events, such as illicit boxing matches. The youngest member of the Ashcan School, a group that advocated for the depiction of contemporary American subjects in every form, Bellows addressed the social, political and cultural issues of the day in his art. His practice was varied, however; he also painted landscapes, seascapes, portraits and war themes during his shortened career.

The present drawing served as a study for two lithographs, Introducing the Champion, No. 1 (1916) and Introducing the Champion, No. 2 (1921). John Wilmerding states, “[Introducing the Champion] depicts the theatrics of the ring as the announcer, with a dramatic sweep of his arm, introduces the current champion, Tornado Black, who cockily accepts the crowd’s applause. Light is used to emphasize various figures in the arena and audience and to unify the composition, while one dominant line runs from the left foreground up the back of the spectator climbing into the ring and then up the left arm of the referee.”[6]

Alton Pickens image of an acrobat
Alton Pickens
The Acrobat, 1947
Oil on canvas
49 3⁄4 × 34 inches
Signed and dated lower left

Did you know that circuses and the United States came of age at the same time? While circus arts are ancient and transnational, the uniquely American three-ring circus was a product of the Gilded Age. Using the revolutionary new railroad system and constructing innovative, transportable canvas tents and arenas, American entertainers were able to bring their coordinated performances across the country. Entertainment-starved crowds would flock to see daring feats, exotic animals, cutting-edge technology and displays of athleticism. [7]

Alton Pickens' fascination with the circus - and the notable darker side of the carnival - can be seen in artworks over the course of his career. In the present work, Pickens (1917-1991) depicts one of the most recognizable circus figures, the daredevil acrobat, walking a tightrope. But is all what it seems? While the titular acrobat appears to be walking on his hands, he is actually wearing socks imprinted with the image of hands to trick the audience. The red-eyed, blue face at the center of the canvas isn't the result of stage makeup, it's actually a prop used to further the illusion that the performer is upside down. His real head is hidden beneath a sheet at the top of the work.

Curious to learn more about Pickens' illusion? Read on in "Walking a Tight Rope with Alton Pickens" on Boos Knows.

OUTDOOR ENTERTAINMENT

Painting of boaters and rowers passing under an iron bridge on a river.
Henry Koerner
The River, 1949
Oil on masonite
30 x 36 inches

Americans poured into urban areas in the 20th century, yet often took to the outdoors in their free time. At first glance, Henry Koerner's The River presents an idyllic summer day on the water. A muscular rowing team pushes up the river, fueled by directions from their coxswain and coach; a loved-up couple floats downstream in their canoe, ambivalent nearby noise; and the most whimsical of water-crafts, a water bicycle complete with bright red floats, peddles by.

Upon closer inspection, however, something seems off. Koerner (1915-1991) employs an unusual perspective and distorts the scale of the figures, from the oversized bicyclist to the tiny coxswain, to convey a sense of mystery. The composition features a series of diagonal sight lines, from the coach's view across the water to the cyclist's downward gaze at the couple, who in turn look out at nothing in particular. While the viewer's eye is directed every which way, it's curious to note that none of the figures are looking at each other.

This work shows a woman from behind. She is walking on snow near a tree and wearing a green coat
Andrew Wyeth
In the Orchard, 1982
Watercolor on paper
22 × 27 3⁄4 inches
Signed lower right

Andrew Wyeth’s enduring romance with his neighbor, Helga Testorf, transcended the seasons. Beginning in 1971 and executed over a fifteen-year period, Wyeth (1917-2009) completed over 240 works with Helga as his muse, capturing her in tempera, drybrush, watercolor and pencil out and around Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. In the Orchard depicts a solitary figure in a snow-covered orchard. Wyeth's perspective puts the viewer in his shoes, looking out at Helga and the orchard beyond. While we can't see her face, Wyeth reveals Helga’s identity with her characteristic blonde braids and green Prussian coat, alluding to her German heritage. This watercolor, as well as many in the Helga series shows, reveals the influence of Winslow Homer’s works on Wyeth's practice. Like In the Orchard, many of Homer's paintings focused on a lone female figure in nature.

Men diving off of a pier into the ocean.
George Tooker
Divers, 1952
Egg tempera on gesso panel
12 x 18 inches
Signed upper right

In the late 1940s, George Tooker (1920-2011) drew on his memories of growing up on the South Shore of Long Island for a small group of beach paintings. Divers showcases the beach of Tooker's youth with its sun-soaked palette, where the summer heat radiates off of everything from the zig-zagging pier on the right to the artist's teenage self portrait. The angles of the figures, from the divers at center to young Tooker not quite within the ladder frame, reflect the joy and awkwardness of adolescence.

Long Island has long been a vacation spot for New Yorkers seeking to escape the hustle-and-bustle of the City. While illustrations of easily-accessible locales like Coney Island and Fire Island appeared in popular magazines as early as the mid-1800s, many of the more distant areas remained hidden from the masses, gems for locals like Tooker to enjoy all summer long.

INTELLECTUAL ENTERTAINMENT

Photographs left to right: Artist Alfred Jensen pictured in his studio, 1963. Copyright Estate of Alfred Jensen; portrait of artist Charles Biederman. n.d. Photo from the Anderson Center archives.

Detail of a work by Alfred Jensen using bright red, yellow and blue colors
Alfred Jensen
Doric Order, 1962
Oil on canvas
54 × 54 inches
Signed, titled, inscribed and dated on the reverse

Leisure time in the 20th century didn't always equate with physical activity or public entertainment. Many preferred to spend their free hours in solitude, diving into personal study. Born in Guatemala, raised in Denmark and educated in the United States and Germany, Alfred Jensen's multicultural upbringing laid the foundation for his wide-ranging interests . While Jensen (1903-1981) settled in New York during the rise of Abstract Expressionism, he remained an outsider and continued to develop his personal style, as well as his decades-long study of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's seminal text "Theory of Colors." [8]

Jensen was an intellectual, speaking five languages and studying ancient Peruvian, Mayan, and Egyptian calendars and architecture; ancient Chinese and Greek mathematical systems; physics and astronomy. Doric Order is a culmination of these interests. The work's title references an ancient Greek and later Roman order of architecture while its impasto bands of color contain neatly rendered ancient numerical symbols. If you look closely, you'll see that they are squeezed directly onto the canvas. The three vertical bands of scroll-like flourishes that intersect these symbols recall another Greek architectural device.

An abstract work with organic forms of red, yellow, orange and blue against a pale yellow background.
Charles Biederman
Untitled, New York November 1935, 1935
Oil on canvas
37 × 27 inches
Signed and dated lower left

Like his contemporary Alfred Jensen, Charles Biederman (1906-2004) wrote extensively, self-publishing volumes on the history of art and what he saw as the relationship between art and nature.[9] His writings attracted a small following among younger abstract artists, particularly in England and Canada. Fascinated by the sciences, Jensen also maintained extensive correspondence with the physicist David Bohm; their letters were published as “The Bohm-Biederman Correspondence: Creativity in Art and Science” in 1999. [10]

While he was a scholar at heart, Biederman dropped out of the prestigious School at the Art Institute of Chicago due to ideological differences with the faculty. [11] He traveled to Paris, where he befriended leading abstract and cubist artists of the time. Untitled, New York was completed following Biederman's return to the US during an extraordinarily prolific period in the mid-1930s. The flatness and linearity of the composition are contrasted with bold and vivid hues of red, orange and yellow. While largely non-representational, the unusual shapes and forms recall Pablo Picasso’s early Surrealist-inspired works of the late 1920s, with their amorphous and abstract bodies. Untitled, New York went on to serve as a modernist inspiration for American artists, including Alexander Calder, to come.

I like to seize the one sharp instant in nature, to imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships. To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving apparently nothing but color and pattern. I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather, the purity and essence of the idea—expressed in its simplest form.

Milton Avery [12]

Milton Avery's drawing of a black bird and dotted sky against a white background
Milton Avery
Bird and Sun, 1955
Oil and watercolor on artist board
8 3/4 × 5 inches
Signed and dated lower right

While many American painters aligned with the American Scene movement during the 1930s, Milton Avery’s style defied classification. His version of modernism was a blending of realism and abstraction, using color and simplified forms to transform familiar scenes in nature and domestic life into carefully orchestrated arrangements. Avery (1885-1965) emphasized shape and color over content in his paintings, an approach which received critical acclaim following his first solo museum exhibition at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in 1944.

By the 1950s, Avery eliminated extraneous detail from his paintings, focusing solely on the harmony of the canvas. At times, his work from this period reflects his interest in folk art, specifically in his paintings of animals and birds that evoke wooden decoys, weathervanes, and other forms in the tradition of American folk art. Bird and Sun, exemplifies this pared down style, depicting an abstracted bird soaring across a white sky with outstretched wings. The whimsical bird is composed of quick brushstrokes of black paint, with a similar technical treatment for the depiction of the sun and sky.

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Act Three: Boos Knows Interview

Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, where Edwards’ experience seeing Beauty and the Beast influenced his love of theater.

Meet Yale School of Drama's Alan Edwards

To get a fuller picture of the 20th century entertainment world, we spoke with theatrical world building expert Alan Edwards, who's designed lighting and sets for more than 100 productions across the United States and lectures on design for live performance at Yale University. Edwards discusses the evolution of stage design and reflects on how Jacob Lawrence captured this world in his 1952 masterpiece Makeup (Dressing Room).

And that’s our curtain call! Thank you for tuning into all three acts of our third virtual curated presentation.

We hope you enjoyed and look forward to welcoming you to the Gallery in person – we’re now open by appointment!

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[1] “America at Leisure.” America at Work, America at Leisure: Motion Pictures from 1894 to 1915 collection essay. Library of Congress. Accessed Sept 28, 2020. 

[2]Ibid.

[3] Bellows, George. History of Painters. Accessed Oct 2, 2020.

[4] Jacob Lawrence, biography. Smithsonian American Art Museum artist webpage. Accessed Sept 29, 2020.

[5] Jacob Lawrence in a tape-recorded interview with Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Seattle, Washington, October 3, 1992, The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC © The Phillips Collection.

[6] Wilmerding, John. “Bellows’ Boxing Pictures and the American Tradition,” in Bellows: The Boxing Pictures, exhibition catalogue (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1982).

[7] Davis, Janet M. “America’s Big Circus Spectacular Has A Long and Cherished History.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 22, 2017. Accessed Sept 29, 2020.

[8] Fleischmann, Laura Justice. “Alfred Jensen: Chronology.” Copyright © 2004 Estate of Alfred Jensen.

[9] Johnson, Ken. “Charles Biederman, 98, Artist Who Created Geometric Reliefs, Dies.” The New York Times. January 1, 2005. Accessed September 29, 2020.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Larsen, Susan C.; Larsen, Neil Juhl (2011). Charles Biederman. New York: Hudson Hills Press.  p. 13.

[12] Hobbs, Robert. Milton Avery. New York: Hudson Mills Press, 1990. p. 166.