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Dark Reality 

Carl Gaertner's paintings go beyond steel and smokestacks to show a bleaker side of Cleveland.

"The Commuter," by Carl Gaertner, oil.
  • "The Commuter," by Carl Gaertner, oil.
In the late '20s, Clevelander Carl Gaertner was the local art scene's man of steel. He wasn't a caped crusader who taught criminals the folly of their ways, but an artistic warrior who wanted to demonstrate that a homegrown Cleveland artist painting blast furnaces, smelters, and ore boats in his own backyard could produce work of international stature. The Cleveland Artist Foundation's current show, a fine retrospective called Carl Gaertner: A Story of Earth and Steel, at the Beck Center for the Arts, argues persuasively that he met his goal. It also proves that the versatile Gaertner was far more than a steel industry poet.

The exhibit's approximately 50 works, curated by the foundation's director, Christine Fowler Shearer, go all the way back to an oil called "Resting," which Gaertner executed in 1921. The 23-year-old artist, even at this early date, had found a way to capture something of Cleveland's vibrant industrial scene. Though the green ore boat is at rest, the orange blast furnace behind it lets off plumes of smoke. The original stroke is in the contrast between ore boat at rest and seething blast furnace: It's an image combining poise with restlessness, and Gaertner, a lover of extreme contrasts from the start (both in choice of subject and in the sharp contrasts between black and white, which became something of a formal signature), would frequently suggest the bustle of industry by contrasting it with a quiet spot somewhere in the canvas. He always allows the eye a place to rest.

William H. Robinson, associate curator of paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in his fine catalog essay, traces Gaertner's emphasis on these dramatic contrasts of light and dark to contemporaneous photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. Just because one is a regional artist does not mean that one ignores artistic developments in other media, Robinson points out. A strong regionalist like Gaertner could borrow devices used by others, but make them his own.

The exhibit also has several examples of industrial-themed oils that won the artist recognition in the Cleveland Museum of Art's annual May Shows (he won first prize in the Industrial Cleveland category five times). Gaertner's focus on industry would outlast the '20s, but, as independent curator Michael D. Hall notes in a catalog essay, the artist would never again paint such heroic evocations of Cleveland's industrial might. The onset of the Great Depression in October of 1929 and the artist's increasingly "intimate acquaintance with the reality of [the city's] blue-collar world" are cited as possible explanations for the darker mood that does indeed creep into the industrial scenes from the '30s.

Also convincing is Hall's argument that Gaertner was an artist acutely in tune with his time. Like other regionalists, Gaertner sought the universal in particular regional subject matter. Grant Wood looked for it in the rolling fields of Iowa, while Gaertner sought it in the Flats. Although both Wood and Gaertner painted what immediately surrounded them, there are works in this exhibit that suggest an underlying sense of dread in America that is eons away from the satire that one occasionally finds in Wood (his famous portrait "American Gothic" being example).

Indeed, the strongest paintings in this show are not about the external world of industry, but about inner conflicts. Striking in this regard is "Flying Ponies (Euclid Beach Park)," an oil painting executed in 1932. The subject is an amusement park, probably on a balmy summer night. A lot of the scene is enveloped in darkness: One can make out the silhouettes of several figures, but, with two notable exceptions, the artist is more interested in suggesting a crowd rather than individuals. At the center, there is a carousel that glows with an intense orange light. On the far left, there is a balloon stand, and at far right in the background, we see the entrance to another booth. In the far background, we see the lights of a roller coaster. The two figures we can make out are those of a man and a woman at left. She is leaning against a column, and he, considerably taller, is staring down at her. It's a disturbing addition to this scene, because, if one looks closely at the woman's expression, it's evident that she is uncomfortable with this person, who seems to be invading her personal space. Gaertner also shows her tilting her head to the side, so that she does not meet the man's glance. It could be a father scolding his adolescent daughter, but the enormous stretches of darkness elsewhere in this work hint at malevolent things.

Here, the amusement park (as it would be in a German expressionist film of the '20s) is a world of disorder -- as suggested by the swirling roller coaster lights -- and of futility, represented by the circular motion of the carousel. It's a stifling, claustrophobic world that Gaertner paints; you get the feeling that the characters in this painting are frozen into place, and they have no freedom to leave the four corners of the frame. Of course, this literally is true of all paintings: No one in them is free to leave. However, artists often suggest that a world exists just beyond the picture space. There is no feeling of that here.

It's as though the world is an amusement park. Finally, to seal the dark mood, Gaertner uses overhead perspective, often employed by artists to heighten the importance of a setting and to slow down movement. Used here, it reinforces the sense of futility that he seems to find in the scene. Whatever is happening in this disturbing and powerful painting, it's not your normal summer evening at Euclid Beach Park.

A strong 1945 work called "The Commuter" seems to pick up the mood of "Flying Ponies," but Gaertner here dispenses with crowds and gives us one faceless individual huddled against the cold, waiting for either a bus or a train. In the middleground, there is a lake that looks partially frozen over, with a mountainous landscape in the far background. Gaertner's palette is all wintry grays and dark browns. Although there is a lamp above the commuter's head that creates a makeshift halo, and the structure he stands on is in the shape of a cross, the bleak landscape suggests that he will be waiting a long time for his transportation home. Perhaps this desolate scene suggests that the march of progress that Gaertner had so eagerly chronicled in his early adulthood is no longer something he can believe in. This work was done around the end of the war, and perhaps, too, the horrors that took place during it eroded the artist's confidence in the benefits of industrial progress.

Except for routine trips to summer painting colonies, Gaertner spent his career painting and teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He taught a class the day before he died, in 1952, of a sudden brain hemorrhage at the age of 54. Robinson notes that, by the mid-1940s, when Gaertner began regularly showing his work at the Macbeth Gallery in New York, "his style of American Scene "realism' appeared outmoded and passé when compared with emergent abstract expressionism." He suggests that perhaps the dark mood of the late work is a manifestation of Gaertner's sense of isolation, brought on by his marginalization in the art world. It's a plausible theory. However, what about the dark mood of a relatively early work, such as "Flying Ponies" of 1932? It's true that, unlike the late work, it depicts an amusement park, and it's full of people, but one could argue that the sense of isolation there is no less pronounced: It's a lonely crowd.

Although Carl Gaertner is best known for his heroic portraits of the Cleveland steel industry, this illuminating retrospective suggests that his most lasting contribution to mid-century American art may well be found in his doleful interpretations of such common scenes as an amusement park on a summer night and a lone commuter waiting out in the cold. Such powerful works hint that the march of industrial progress cannot mitigate the conflicts that are closer to home, particularly in one's self.

Charles Yannopoulos can be reached at charles.yannopoulos@clevescene.com.

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