“City of Boxes”
By Robert Beck
It’s different on the roof. You’ve got the air and the sun, or maybe a clear blue night. There could be weather, too. Looking out over the top of the city when it’s snowing, whispers Fitzgerald in your ear. The sound is different up there. Just having nothing above your head feels good. And the higher the building, the more abstract and unique being on top of it becomes. It’s almost as if the city gets stripped off your back and left in the hall when you come out the door, and you can see across the world as far as the clouds allow.
I don’t expect I will come to love the confining nature of the city; the grid pattern, the chaotic traffic and lights, and that strip of concrete where you are supposed to walk. I grew up straight-lining it wherever I went. A lot of us are that way; you can see it in the parks. The landscape architects pave winding lanes and raise fences, telling us where they want us to walk, but within weeks, people have started making shortcuts, going where they want to go. It’s part of the NYC mentality because it’s part of everybody’s. That squishy place between rules and looking after your own interests. Nowhere is that line less distinct than in a big city.
But that’s down there; people going from their day box to their night box, sometimes taking a moving box to get there. There are no walls or ceilings on the roof. I know there are thousands of people out there around me, even if I can’t see them.
One of the most influential paintings in American art was Cliff Dwellers, by George Bellows. It depicted the Lower East Side in 1913, with people spilling out of their tenements on a hot summer day. Things have changed in the past hundred years. I don’t see laundry hanging between buildings or families avoiding the summer heat by sleeping under the stars in Central Park like there used to be. Bellows and other Ashcan School Painters showed us the music in the everyday life of how it was back then.
Their work arrived at a time when the arts had been set free from those who dictated its form. The late 19th into the mid 20th Century was golden, especially here in the U.S. We started looking at and into ourselves. It was the age of permission. Permission to dream. Permission to try. Permission to say, “This is how I see it.” The future was being born around us, and a great spirit enveloped all of the arts. And from my roof, I can see a lot of the boxes it came in.
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And 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. Thank you!
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