- New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950
Shot after dusk from the peak of an unfinished 1930s skyscraper, the gorgeous cover image of William Chapman Sharpe's New York Nocturne makes a rich promise to the reader: here is a city sparkling its way through modernity, saturating page and eye with a rhythm of glare and impenetrable black. It is a promise that the author keeps, delivering to the reader a panoramic view of hundreds of dense images of New York at night, drawn from over a century of photography, painting, poetry, and fiction. Sharpe demonstrates his command of this diverse material throughout, and readers are likely to find plenty to enjoy. I was reminded, for example, of the delicious Victorian paradoxes in Poe and O. Henry, and I discovered such oddball wonders as "Thrust at the Sky," a 1932 narrative poem on the erotics of skyscrapers by the improbably named Futurist writer MacKnight Black.
The book delves into urban history only occasionally, recapitulating some milestones of street lighting, but offering little on the histories of crime, alcohol, transportation, or even demographics. But it bristles with the lively texture of James McNeill Whistler's libel suit against John Ruskin, for example, and of Jacob Riis's midnight photographic invasions of Lower East Side tenements. This varied and comprehensive treatment, clearly built on years of reading and looking, earned New York Nocturne the Modernist Studies Association's Book Prize in 2009.
The Riis section is one of the best in the book. It debunks any simple notion of the muckraking photographer's moral purity with the story of his confusion—nursed on his own early destitution—between his true target, poverty, and the poor themselves. We see Riis manipulating his subjects, entering uninvited and blasting their homes with illuminating Magnesium powder shot from a gun. Sharpe also draws out the complicated sexuality of Edward Hopper's paintings, and he demonstrates throughout the book (if sometimes in a restrictively essentialist way) that gender has been fundamental to New Yorkers' love for and antipathy toward their city. [End Page 683]
Such complications are relatively rare, however, and this is a fundamental weakness of the book. The author seems to want his material to be straightforward and lyrical rather than richly halting or uncertain. This disposition may explain Sharpe's decision to end his account, for the most part, around 1950—before Vito Acconci's conceptual-art experiments on Manhattan's darkened piers or Nan Goldin's snapshots of desperate hipsters—but it cannot justify the complete absence of Piet Mondrian's New York abstractions, or of any mention of Jackson Pollock. And while Sharpe does not shy from representations of solitude or murder, he makes regular analogies to Dante and ancient myth, betraying a desire to warmly suture his material into a long history of belles lettres. The postwar cases are selective: Yvonne Jacquette's lyrical paintings of skylines rather than David Wojnarowicz's photographs of gay alienation, George Segal's anodyne sculptures rather than Andy Warhol's diverse experiments at The Factory. The New York School Poets, Diane Arbus, and Hip Hop are likewise entirely sidelined.
It is not more grit that I wish Sharpe had brought to the project (Weegee is well represented), but rather more interest in the problems of modernism, which is after all a putative subject of the book. (It does not help that his citations of primary criticism and of previous scholarship are relatively rare, even in the footnotes.) The author is so keen on cataloguing representations of night-time New York that he sometimes overlooks the fact that, in modern art, the crucial topic is often form or mode—not just what but rather how things are said. All the more so here, because the night and the city both present special opportunities and challenges to representation—the night because it changes the look of everything (hiding, revealing, denaturalizing), the city because it is...