The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:
In the early twentieth century, a local American art scene arrived in New York, commemorated by the critic Paul Rosenfeld, embracing elements that felt homegrown: the sea, the skyscraper, the structural lines of the Brooklyn Bridge. Alfred Stieglitz, with his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, brought together writers and artists in his galleries, the Intimate Gallery, An American Place, and 291. As early as 1893, Stieglitz had photographed Coenties Slip on a slushy winter day, also looking north across the busy intersection at South Street. The broad prows of the great ships cut over the street like a canopy of branches to the streetlamp, which itself resembles a mast. The sidewalk, below signs for sail lofts and sailmakers and paint shops, is crowded with overcoated men, and South Street is clogged with horses and carriages and a lone man shoveling dirty snow. In the far distance, the Brooklyn Bridge stretches against the murky gray sky.
After spending his twenties in 1920s Paris, soaking up the art crossroads there, Stuart Davis tapped into the hectic energy of a city that did not discriminate by subject matter. Besides art, he took his inspiration from “the thing Whitman felt—and I too will express it in pictures—America—the wonderful place we live in.” For Davis, the United States was wood and iron, “Civil War and skyscraper architecture; the brilliant colors on gasoline stations; chain-store fronts, and taxi-cabs . . . fast travel by train, auto, and aeroplane which brought new and multiple perspectives; electric signs . . .” He depicted Coenties Slip in 1931 in his House and Street, a strange and colorful painting that is bifurcated like two movie stills. Front Street is composed of abstracted fire-escape ladders and windows, the Slip as a series of lower brick warehouses, and bright blue triangles against a green column suggest the elevated train tracks. Taller buildings even then rising behind the nineteenth-century buildings are made from patterned lines, stripes, and grids, not unlike samples of the work to come at the Slip by Kelly, Martin, and Tawney.
Berenice Abbott, another artist returning from Paris to New York to document an evolving metropolis, embarked on her decade-long series Changing New York in 1932. She had photographed the downtown waterfront area several times in her New York perambulations: Coenties Slip as early as 1929, and the El at Hanover and Pearl Streets in the spring of 1936 and ’38. Abbott’s Shelter on the Water Front, Coenties Slip, Pier 5, East River, Manhattan, captures a view of the Slip at its seediest, with a group of down-and-out men squatting in front of a ramshackle building and a row of low warehouses, set against the taller skyline. On this early May day, she took pictures with her new medium-format Linhof camera on a tripod while her assistant, in the words of her biographer, Julia Van Haaften, “pacified some drunks outside the East River pier caretaker’s shack.” As Abbott later recalled, “They dragged these alcoholics out of the river every day.” Ship masts can be seen rising behind the structure. The only man who is standing appears to have just hit one of the seated men; another man is prone on the ground asleep or passed out from drinking. Abbott became fascinated by the canal boat culture, and even looked into buying a barge.