SCENES of the degradation of inner cities have become disturbingly familiar to viewers of television news programs, but can they be the stuff of fine art? Robert Birmelin answers affirmatively with his paintings, etchings, and drawings. He is an artist who can take the confusion, alienation, and indeed, the squalor of the contemporary city and find a way to make it art.
I first encountered these works in the Montclair (N.J.) Museum of Art with his series of aquatint etchings, "Harsh Truths." They are harsh and they are art. Birmelin takes the viewer on a hurried walk through a squalid area in New York City, probably in the area around the bus terminal on 41st Street and 8th Avenue and his studio on 14th Street. I say "hurried" because it is not the place for a leisurely stroll taking in the sights. The images are equally familiar as the ones we take away from television
news, remembering them in a fragmentary way but realizing they are striking deep into our consciousness and our conscience.
City walkers will note, with something close to amazement, that the corner-of-the-eye glances, the telling details of hands, of feet, glimpses of faces which are all part of progress through the streets can be recorded with such recognizable accuracy in spite of, or, because of, their blurred, superimposed, and elusive delineation on the paper. The manner of rendering may not be what we expect of painting, but it is indeed the way we see, or, sometimes try to avoid looking in the city. In the background there is the solid, undisturbing presence of taxicabs and buses painted with the realist's exact detail. The urban walker's glance focuses on them for relief from more disturbing sights.
The titles of the individual etchings in the series each tell their own story: "No Agreement"; "Selective Attention"; "The Observers Observed"; "Community of the Moment"; "Handshake From a Stranger." These etchings with aquatint are each 22 in. by 30 in. printed from three or four copper plates. The colors in "Selective Attention," for example, are described by the artist as "Hard ground line drawing in purpleblack, with thalogreen and sienna aquatints." They tell stories of dubious agreements and handsh akes, brief moments of attention and observation, groups forming only to instantly dissolve.
The etching, "Selective Attention" shows Birmelin's eye at its most fugitive. As an avid walker, I recognize the effect of the images as those I would get jaywalking in the middle of a street to take advantage of a break between autos and trucks. As I passed the person shadowed in purpleblack, I saw the raised hand as it caught the light; the man with the mustache was hurrying toward me, and as I could see by his expression that traffic was approaching us, I sped by him in a blur. The normally rendered p edestrians, parked car, and buildings were what I saw before I began my dash.
In both the etching and the painting of "Handshake From a Stranger," the viewer and/or the artist is traveling at a slower speed. The upraised hand demands attention, although the viewer is looking down the street, his eye picking out litter to be skirted and the location of other pedestrians. Without the upraised hand, he might bump into the young woman wearing the bracelet entering his vision on the right. The woman leaving the viewer's field of vision on the left has just about melted out of conscious
sight, although her elbow remains a projection to be avoided.
A genial man who would hardly attract attention on the streets, his manner belying the intensity and acuity of his vision, Robert Birmelin says: "In the midst of a city crowd, one cannot remain solely an observer. Willingly or not, we are enmeshed in its field of energies, participants in its tensions. A half-seen incident happening `over there' causes an urgent clustering that then disperses as suddenly as overheard words, partially comprehended gestures, and guessed-at motives... . " Birmelin himself p articipates in the city's tensions and energies as a commuter from his home in New Jersey to his studio.
A visit to that walk-up studio in a dingy building on 14th Street in New York was very rewarding. It is in the general area where in the beginning of this century, a group of American artists radically refused to follow the European fondness for landscapes and elegant people in opulent settings opting for scenes of the ordinary urban dweller, including the poor and the night people. That group was rewarded by art critics with the name, the "Ashcan School." It included such painters as John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Benjamin Luks, William James Glackens, and Everett Shinn. They broke ground for the underclass emphasis - both urban and rural - of the social realists like Reginald Marsh (with whom Birmelin shows kinship, especially in his drawings and etchings), Ben Shahn, Isabel Bishop, and others, who used the social conditions of the period before and during the Depression as a general subject.
It is more or less agreed that those artists, as contrasted with the photographers of the period, did not paint the real nitty-gritty of poverty and the sordid areas of cities. This criticism cannot be leveled against Birmelin's paintings. His scenes are the scenes of an interested observer who moves through the thick of them on a daily basis. The earlier artists appear to have chosen their scenes with care, trying to balance their social commentary with the more romanticized view that the art-buyers and
museum patrons might be thought to find acceptable. Birmelin seems rather to try to portray without gloss that which he encounters.
I asked the artist whether his many versions of identical or similar titles in paintings, etchings, and drawings followed any order of progression, say, from drawings to paintings to etchings or, the other way around. His reply was, "No." When he gets his teeth into a visualization he goes back and forth from full-scale acrylic paintings to drawings to etchings. Another example of this is an acrylic painting of a trash fire, titled "Fire on 7th Avenue" (1982). The canvas feels almost overwhelmingly huge - 60 by 70 inches - and the dramatically brushed orange-red flames seem to give off an intense heat. Six years later, he did a somber black conte crayon drawing of the same subject with the fire's intensity suggested by the untouched white paper.
AT his studio he showed me his latest works - two related polyptychs of four panels each which are about 6 to 7 feet tall and about 3 feet wide. In one set the viewer is placed on an expressway overpass in bright sunlight watching the frenetic traffic rush by underneath. The other set of four is more subdued in color, dusk or early twilight, on a street featuring all the shifts of Birmelin's fugitive eye as if the kaleidoscopic movements of people were too much for the retina to hold in one clean-cut ima ge. These new paintings are, in a sense, closer in rendering to the "Harsh Truth" etchings than they are to the painting of "Handshake from a Stranger." Birmelin exploits the fast-drying properties of acrylic paint to "move people around" the canvas without losing the effect of complete spontaneity.
Another interesting facet of his work is that the picture gives us the sense of not only moving through space but also through time. The viewer feels that he is moving or watching - both of which palpably involve time.
Birmelin is a pleasant man who doesn't show the intensity or anxiety that one might expect from a painter of such potentially ominous scenes. But he hasn't always been an inner-city painter. His art education was accomplished at Cooper Union in New York, Yale University, and the Slade School of Art in London, England. Josef Albers was one of his teachers and he painted abstracts at that time. In a period living at Deer Island, Maine, he painted handsome, muscular, hard-edge realist landscapes of the rock y coast. But now it seems that all his concentration is given to capturing the movement and the unease of the inner cities.