By Robert Beck
Ninety-eight percent of us hate cleaning windows. That’s just a guess, but a good one, with a two-percent margin of error.
I grew up in a small house in New Jersey with 14 multi-paned windows, plus the little one on the front door. They were my mother’s responsibility, and my sister helped when she was old enough. Most of those windows had wood-framed storms and screens that would be swapped fall and spring and stored in the basement. My father did that, along with all the house maintenance. Ours was a nuclear family run by mostly prewar European rules. I made out pretty well, as not much was asked of me.
When I was a bachelor living alone in an apartment, which accounted for more than a third of my adult life, the windows didn’t get done, and they looked it. Maybe now and then, but just when I couldn’t see what the weather was anymore. And then it was not the flowered apron, rubber-gloved production-line cleaning you found in the sparkling house my mother kept. More like rubbing a hole in the middle.
So why all this about window washing? I bought a book about the painter John Koch (at the New-York Historical Society) who, for much of his mid-20th Century career, lived on the Upper West Side, and there are window washers in some of his paintings.
Many of Koch’s images were scenes from his life, and they defined a place and time. Other fine representational artists were building on the Ashcan sensibility, but the abstraction and expressionism that dominated the era largely obscured the genre. After seeing ourselves through the reflective work of Hopper, Bellows, Benton, and others, our attention was directed toward the new and the modern. The contemporary conversation was still being recorded in representational art, but many of those artists and a lot of good work are missing from the stage on which cultural mid-to-late-century New York has been celebrated.
John Koch and his wife Dora (Zaslavsky) had an apartment in the El Dorado when that place wasn’t all it is now (but still involved window cleaners). He created studio paintings depicting parties, his musician wife, and a diverse mix of friends. People in an environment. Always with an eye toward the commonplace. He excelled at those moments between, giving you a sense of before and after — that liminal encounter you find in Caillebotte’s Floor Scrapers.
That’s what we have here. A commonplace moment, complete with hard reality, as the cleaner balances above the street, reaching for that last smudge. It’s one of those things representational art does exceptionally well.
See more of Robert Beck’s work and his UWS studio by visiting www.robertbeck.net And let Robert know if you have a connection to an archetypal UWS place or event that would make a good West Side Canvas subject. Thanks!
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