Joseph Stella was born in Italy in 1877, but he is linked inextricably to New York. Though he would return to Europe periodically, his depictions of the Brooklyn Bridge are icons of both American Modernism and the city itself. His work and personal associations put him in touch with artists as diverse as Stieglitz and Duchamp, and his work is variously grouped with Futurism, Precisionism and even Surrealism. None of these groupings are unfounded, and his pursuits in a variety of idioms were as deep as his influence. He left an immense oeuvre that ranges from silverpoint in the vein of old masters to explosive modernist canvases, ultimately crafting a personal lexicon of symbol and gesture that expressed his Italian heritage in vibrant 20th century terms.
Born in the small Italian town of Muro Lucano, Joseph Stella was one of five sons, and at the age of 19, he followed his brother, a successful doctor, to New York in 1896. The city would never prove a good fit. Like the older Antonio, Joseph at first tried his hand at medicine, but quickly found himself drifting towards his interest in fine art and illustration. Antonio paid his way to America, and, however reluctantly, blessed Joseph’s decision to pursue a career in fine arts, bankrolling his studies and early career.
Though the artist’s Italian lineage is often cited as an influence, his first earnest study of Old World masters came during his studies in New York. (Barbara Haskell cites a possibly apocryphal assertion that Stella was already a celebrated artist while a teenager in his native village, but no canvases survive to corroborate) (Haskell, p. 11). William Merritt Chase, with whom the young artist studied, incited in Stella a love for old masters of northern Europe. Only on a return trip to Italy did he begin to emulate the work of the Italian Renaissance – but when he did, he was so successful that reportedly he had difficulty removing his own work from the country, so convinced was the customs agent that an antique treasure was being looted. (Haskell, p. 30) Yet where many other Americans of this period of modernist ferment left their classical training by the wayside, Stella returned to archaic methods and media, both as source material for radical abstraction and for his own satisfaction, throughout his career. His was an indomitable output, immense in both his dedication to his craft and in the range of idioms in which he worked.
The broad-minded Stella quickly outgrew Chase’s lessons and sought new influence. Living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then known as an overcrowded and poverty-stricken haven for new immigrants, Stella inevitably collided with the group of artists that came to be known as the Ashcan School. Robert Henri drew Stella out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he was absorbing Flemish masters, and out into the streets of his own neighborhood. Surviving studies from this period show his rapid acclimatization to these new environs. While Henri emphasized a romantic bravura to his street scenes, Stella approached his subjects with the subtlety and care of a Renaissance fresco. Painstakingly cautious draftsmanship records every wrinkle and sag of flesh in the faces of indigent inhabitants of the neighborhood. Along with these forays into public portraiture, Stella sustained a small income as well as his appetite for recognition on illustration work for small magazines. Many artists found commercial support through magazine illustration, but the gritty urban poverty themes of Henri’s coterie were generally less viable for mainstream magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, finding a more natural home in left-end magazines like The Outlook and The Masses. The Outlook printed muckraker contributions by Jacob Riis and socially aware essays from Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, and Stella’s portraits of “the other half” perfectly illustrated the magazine’s position. The Masses, while more extreme in its politics (socialist, anti-war, and ready for a total restructuring of society’s values) drew a careful line between propaganda and art-for-art’s-sake. Editorial board, led by John Sloan, printed both captioned political cartoons as well as explicitly non-message work by figurative and abstract artists, including Abraham Walkowitz, A. B. Davies, and a young Stuart Davis. Antonio again made Joseph’s way, connecting him to The Outlook and later to The Masses. Stella’s drawings for these rags admitted the politicization of their editors, but were not in themselves pedantic. Depicting conditions in a Pittsburgh mining town, Stella’s drawings are hazy and impressionistic; drafting caricatures for America in the Rough, his working men bespeak the same weary dignity that transcends political stripe. And for his own politics, Stella was never carried any party’s card. His view was a deep-seated humanism that quietly flowed beneath the partisan squabbles of the moment. Stella’s work again outgrew its influence: these early works bare the stamp of the Ashcan group, but stands oblique to its trajectory. By 1913, the Ashcan School’s influence was buried under the thunderous arrival of modernism at the Armory Show, and Stella’s star continued to rise.
An Italian-American Futurist
Where the Italian futurists played a chromatic range from tangy to shrill, Stella maintained a more meditative palette. Formally, his work was frenetic, an embrace of the new, on the brink of chaos: Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, his breakthrough futurist work of 1914, anticipates Pollock in its all-over tangle of emancipated line.
Joseph Stella’s feelings towards his adoptive city were ambivalent. Homesick for an Italy to which he could not return, he kept New York at arm’s length, even as his name became irrevocably associated with its rising skyline. The tone of his futurist elegies to Coney Island was of triumphal modernity – the spray of bright lights, a city alive and in motion. The artist was working in a mode pioneered by fellow Italians, and those pictures shared the naïve idealism with the Futurist Manifesto. The promise of gleaming steel and many-colored electric lights left no room for the shadowy downsides to industrialization and urbanization. But by the 20s, Stella’s view of both the city and modernity had grown considerably more nuanced, growing to include murkier mood. And at the same time, he was bending his futurist inclinations to encompass media and compositions closer in spirit to Old Masters.
The object of Stella’s greatest attention, by the late teens, was the Brooklyn Bridge. He described it, in line and in word, in terms of a religious experience: “Apparition … traced for the conjunction of Worlds…the cables, like divine messages from above.” It was “a shrine,” and Stella was “on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new DIVINITY…” (as quoted in Jaffe, Joseph Stella’s Symbolism, p. xiii) New religion was just the phrase. When he completed his mammoth five-panel polyptych in 1922, it was a concise mediation of modernity and religious icon. Powdered with darkness, the city appears under cover of nightmare rather than that of night. The tonal patchiness throughout evokes El Greco, complete with the sense of uncanny awe. If Coney Island was about celebration and gayety, The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted expresses a mixture of power and dread. Coney Island is alive at night because of the revelers there: if the Brooklyn Bridge is alive at night, it is because it is alive itself. We view its arches as if floating high above its empty roadway, almost at eye-level with the pointed apertures. The towers of the bridge still stretch higher than our view, suggesting something still much bigger than us, with an apron of ambiguous industrial landscape spreads below (where the river flows) and, deeper into the scene, impossibly tall skyscrapers rise.
Some of this dread was clearly in the painter himself. “The skyscrapers like bandages covering the sky, stifling our breath, life shabby and mean, provincial, sometimes shadowy and hosile ike an immense prison.” (as quoted in Jaffe, p. xiii)
Modernism back in New York
Though he was not a regular church-goer in his adult life, his life was nonetheless suffused with a deep religiosity, evident both in his recorded statements as well as the recurrent motifs in his art.
The Brooklyn Bridge may have made him famous, but Joseph Stella didn’t live in its shadow. Taking a long view at Stella’s work, the bridge itself fits nicely into Stella’s aesthetic. In his later work, we see the narrow apertures of tall gothic arches incorporated into romantic friezes of plants and animals, and even in abstract works these architectonic forms leer into view. The bridge itself, built over 13 years in the late 19th century, is a mediation of old elements – the stone, the neo-gothic arches.
From studies with William Merritt Chase, to the Ashcan studies of Robert Henri, to the radical left politics of The Masses and The Outlook, to the Modernism of the Stieglitz Circle, to his strange friendship with Duchamp and the Arensberg Circle, Stella traced the rapid revolution in American art from beaux arts to modernism. He was perfectly comfortable in none of these camps, but managed to exact a critical lesson from each while leaving his mark everywhere. Like a master thief, his fingerprints are everywhere across the early American Modernist scene, and yet he is himself conspicuously absent, occupying instead a space entirely his own. The treasure he amassed from each of these intersections is witnessed in the richness of his style, a thread that binds the radical newness of modernism to the foundational concerns of antiquity. When he died in 1946, he had already seen immense success. His works today are in the best collections, private and public, of American modernism.
Public CollectionsArt Institute of Chicago
Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Joseph Stella at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Amon Carter Museum, Texas
Brooklyn Museum, New York City
Brooklyn Museum/Luce Center for American Art, New York City
Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences, Charleston, West Virginia
Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
Guilford College Art Gallery, North Carolina
Hammer Museum, California
Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
Indiana State University Art Collection
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
Joseph Stella at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Seavest Collection of Contemporary American Realism
Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska
Joseph Stella at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
The Huntington Library, California
The Newark Museum, New Jersey
University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City
Walker Art Center, Minnesota