Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on March 11, 2009 with permission of the Boston University Art Gallery. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or wish to purchase a copy a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Boston University Art Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Sidney Hurwitz's Meditations on the Industrial Age

By Patricia Hills

 

Since the early 1970s Sidney Hurwitz has focused on the industrial and urban landscape as the subject for his complexly organized and austerely beautiful intaglio prints. He has seen, studied, photographed, and thought about the elements of this landscape of factories, bridges, docks, and train stations. Away from the sites and back in his studio, he selects the sketches and photographs that best recall the light and shadow and intricate geometry of bricks and cement, steel and stone, girders and joists, hoppers and storage tanks, as well as pipes, ducts, vents, sheds, conveyer belts, chimneys, smokestacks, steel decks, railings, and ladder rungs. The results in his aquatint prints are what he has called, "the portrait, landscape, and still life of the industrial age." These representations of the actual sites, filtered through his experience and memories of them, become meditations on a heroic past of American industry. They are sites that have not yet lost their awesome presence.

Although drawn to printmaking soon after entering art school in the post-World War II years, Hurwitz would wait two decades before turning to the industrial landscape as the focus for his art. At the School of the Worcester Art Museum in 1950, he soon discovered that printmaking appealed to him because prints enabled him to make his drawings "more tangible," and he "found the idea of making multiples quite appealing." Carl Pickhardt taught him etching techniques, and, during his second year at the school, Hurtwitz met the printmaker Leonard Baskin, ten years his elder. Baskin made a strong and lasting impression on the young artist, who took a turn at printing some of Baskin's large woodcuts. After three semesters at the School of the Worcester Art Museum and with the encouragement of Baskin, Hurwitz enrolled at Brandeis University, where he studied English literature and art history and took studio courses with Mitchell Siporin and Peter Grippe. He then studied with David Aronson, Reed Kay, Jack Kramer, and Karl Fortess at Boston University, where he received his MFA in 1959. At the time, the art faculty at both Brandeis and BU held strong ties with figurative expressionism, a style and an outlook on art that influenced his choice of subject matter for many years. After teaching stints at the DeCordova Museum and Wellesley College, in 1965 he joined the faculty of the School of Fine and Applied Arts at Boston University, from which he retired in 1999.

A sabbatical leave from the University allowed Hurwitz to spend about eight months in London during the 1972-72 academic year. He sought out Islington Studios near his home in north London and introduced himself to Hugh Stoneman, a master printmaker who ran the Studios. He also frequented the Print Workshop run by Birgit Skiold on Charlotte Street in Soho, London, and enjoyed the camaraderie of the London printmakers he met, several of whom had been students of Stanley Hayter's famous printmaking atelier in Paris. As Hurwitz honed his skills in intaglio printing, he became interested in the city itself and shifted his attention to city scenes as subjects for his prints. In 1986, he recalled:

I had begun work intending to translate the loose figure compositions of the woodcuts into intaglio and managed to do a few plates along those lines. Although this was not my first stay in London, living there made me acutely aware of the character of the architecture and the particularity of the cityscape. I was struck by the appearance of the somewhat shabby but solid aspects of the industrial urban environment of Islington and Hackney. I spent many hours walking and taking the tube to various parts of the city, sketching and photographing, and soon began to translate these images onto plates. The first prints marking this change in imagery were Highbury Station, Rooftops -- Barnsbury, and Warehouses -- Hackney. These were the beginnings of what has been a continuing involvement with urban, architectural, and industrial themes in my work.

In his first London etchings, such as Blackfriars Bridge, he elaborated on the abstract geometry of the structures of the bridges and buildings. However, the physical reality fascinated him more. The sense of a place achieved through the telling features of the working-class suburbs of Islington and Hackney within sprawling Greater London appealed to him, and in subsequent prints he focused on the specificity of the architectural elements, such as Highbury Station with its unique station platform, tracks, staircase, and tunnel.

Cities that proudly display their nineteenth- and early twentieth-century industrial structures reminded Hurwitz of his own youth in Worcester, MA. Worcester, still the second-largest city in New England after Boston, boasts venerable cultural institutions such as the Worcester Art Museum, the American Antiquarian Society, and Mechanics Hall and universities such as Clark, Holy Cross, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. During World War II it hummed as an industrial city, but began its decline shortly thereafter, especially after the Massachusetts Turnpike, built in the late 1950s, bypassed the city. When, as a youngster, Hurwitz walked to school and downtown from the flat his family rented in a triple-decker house on Barclay Street, he could see the deterioration of old factories. Later, his family moved to West Boylston Street in the Greendale suburb. Across from his home were railroad tracks along with storage sheds, a coal hopper, and conveyor belts to service the trains. A factory, Norton Abrasives, was a few blocks away and many of Hurwitz's neighbors worked there. Today he remembers his fascination with walking through this industrial landscape of railroad tracks, equipment and factories.

Hurwitz returned to London twice, in 1975 and 1976, in order to study the dockside of the Thames, the river that had made London a major industrial port in past centuries. His project was to produce a series of ten prints. Over a century before, the area of industrial London that perched on the banks of the Thames had fascinated another American, James McNeill Whistler. From the river's banks near his studio in Chelsea, Whistler had viewed the docked ships and workers and had produced some of his most stunning pictures and several etchings. But whereas Whistler's etchings look like delicate ink sketches (the result of an etching needle scratched into the wax-covered copper plate before the acid bath and printing) with meandering lines and cross-hatching to create darker tones, Hurwitz's Thames prints, completed when he returned to Boston, are imposing and complex, 20-by-24 inch, intaglio compositions.

Hurwitz's aquatint technique, for the Thames series and others, is to draw the contours and internal elements of the image's design in detail on an opaque acid-resistant adhesive paper covering the plate. Thus, the arrangement of the lines and forms has priority in this process, and in many of the compositions he emphasized the frontality of the forms, with the flat facades of the structures paralleling the picture plane. Hurtwitz then carefully follows those guidelines to cut through the paper to score the plate, which is then placed in the acid bath. The acid bites through the cuts to etch the lines on the plate. He removes the paper and proceeds with the aquatint process, a technique used by Goya and other 18th-century printmakers. Hurwitz coats the whole plate with a layer of powdered resin. The plate is then heated and when the resin dust melts, it forms a pattern of dots on the plate around which the acid penetrates, creating a pitted surface. Through a series of stages in which areas of the plate are coated with acid-resistant stop-out varnish and repeatedly dipped into the acid bath, Hurwitz can achieve degrees of biting and stopping out. Hence, he achieves tonal variations in his aquatint print. At the end of the process the plate is inked and the surface wiped, with the result that ink pressed into the areas of heavy biting resists being wiped away. Those areas would be a velvety black; lightly bitten areas (more easily wiped of their ink) would have lighter tones. After inking and wiping, the plate would be put through a press and the image transferred to a dampened sheet of paper under heavy pressure.

It is a meticulous process of working with and against the plate, but ultimately rewarding when the results produce a print such as Thames Series IX -- Ventilators [Plate 04] -- a display of tonal variations from matte blacks and delicate nuances of grays to pale whites. Without actually using color, Hurwitz nevertheless achieves almost coloristic effects as in the light and dark patterning of bricks that make up the buildings in Thames Series V -- Doors. In Thames Series IV -- Storage Tank the tonal range throws into relief the stairs and their shadows that wrap around the tower.

A reproduction in a book or catalogue might trick the eye into believing that one is looking at a photograph of a site, except that photographic detail has been eliminated and surfaces display a purity of reflected light without distracting highlights. The prints, moreover, have a physical tactility -- a slight burr on the blacks, a raised armature of lines, and, of course, the indentation of the plate mark, created when the damp paper and plate were run through the press. The physicality -- the "thereness" -- of Hurwitz's aquatints cannot be approximated by photographic reproductions.

In the greater Boston area Hurwitz found many areas of the industrial landscape to serve as potential subjects for his art. During the 1970s he turned to the Fort Point Channel area of South Boston, an area then undergoing urban renewal. The Fort Point Channel Bridge III [Plate 03] was one of three prints in which Hurwitz focused more and closely on the design qualities of the bridge's intricate structure and mechanics. In 1979 Hurwitz embarked on a series of seven aquatints based on an active oil and natural gas terminal facility in Everett, MA. Sand and gravel installations he discovered in Eastham (on Cape Cod) and in Weymouth, MA, provided the subjects for three more prints. About Weymouth I he remarked, "The wonderful complexity of the storage tanks, conveyer belts, supports, etc. suggest the architecture of fantastic castles or amusement park rides." In Concrete Plant [Plate 06], an Eastham site, the rich blacks and thick lines of the lower part of this composition overlap the plate mark, reminding us that this is not photographic realism but a handmade construction of his experience of the structures and forms.

In the early 1980s Hurwitz began to add color by hand to his prints. New York Roofscape II has delicate washes that articulate the penthouses, water tanks, and container gardens that sit atop New York's tall buildings. In Boston, Hurwitz looked up at the old elevated railroad tracks and stations of a train system that wove its way through the city, plunged into the ground, and emerged again in the Boston suburbs. In Station Stairs the elevated station dominates the composition with its three stories of platforms and station, under which automobiles pass by. The water color washes highlight the grey steel base, red painted iron, and green copper sheathing. Like many other cities, Boston's public transportation project for the last quarter-century dictated the dismantling of the elevated lines and replacing parts of the rail transit system with buses. The kiosk perched upon the elevated track in Orange Line [Plate 08] was removed and the track demolished some years after Hurwitz did the print in 1984. That lonely, aging cooper structure exists now only in photographs, memory, and Hurwitz's print. Green Line [Figure 4] reminds us of the functionality of a system that once monitored the flow of traffic and permitted the unimpeded movement of trains through complicated patterns of urban design. None of these structures survived the intense urbanization of those years.

Since the late 1980s Hurwitz has continued his quest to find industrial structures that are coming to the end of their usefulness. Sometimes he discovers active factories and working equipment, but mostly he records the deteriorating relics and rusting machines of a decaying urban infrastructure. Friends, knowing of his interest in these old structures and their inevitable demise or replacement with more modern facilities, have recommended sites to him that he might visit to view clusters of industrial plants not only in the Boston area, but also in Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He also visited industrial sites in Italy in 1990 and 2002.

In 1995 he traveled to Sparrows Point in Maryland to experience the sights and workings of the Bethlehem Steel Company's massive industrial complex, for many years one of the world's largest for making steel and ships. He recently described this trip and a later one:

Through the good offices of Mr. Roger Wildt, an executive with Bethlehem Steel, I was able to gain access to the Sparrows Point steel mill on Chesapeake Bay. Mr. Wildt was an amateur photographer and was receptive to my plan to use images from Sparrows Point. I was provided with a hard hat bearing my name as well as protective clothing, since at least a third of the plant was still making steel -- a very hazardous process. I was staggered by the scale and power of the operation in the eight prints I produced from that visit tried to give some sense of that.
 
A year later, Mr. Wildt invited me to the Bethlehem plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which had only recently shut down. It was the oldest and largest of the company's mills. It was something of an eerie and elegiac experience seeing this gigantic installation lying fallow. Many of the buildings had scrawled messages from workers who for generations had spent their lives there. I made twenty-one prints from that site.

Among the prints from the first visit are Bethlehem III with its large forms of smokestacks, ducts, and storage tanks with intricate patterns of tubing and pipes. Bethlehem XIII [Plate 14], the result of Hurwitz's 1996 trip after the huge plant had closed, presents the remnants of the industrial scene in the foreground and, through a tunnel, the buildings and green hillside of the city of Bethlehem in the distance. The tunnel suggests the time elapse between the remnants of the plant and the city where the townspeople no longer were subjected to the battering pounding of the oxygen furnace every two minutes or so.

Hurwitz continues to travel between the United States and Europe. He wrote to the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose industrial photographs he had long admired, asking for suggestions as to where he might find interesting industrial sites. At their suggestion, in 2002 he went to Duisburg, Germany, to look at the obsolete Thyssen-Krupp AG steel plant that had shut down its operations in 1985. Since then, Duisburg civic leaders in partnership with government groups had hired the landscape architects Peter and Anna-Liese Latz to convert the buildings and the site into an industrial theme park. The Duisburg-Nord Country Park first opened in 1994, and Hurwitz was amazed, and somewhat amused, by what he saw -- a museum, a sound-and-light show, and other amusement park features. The park's website describes the transformation:

At the centre of the park there is a decommissioned metalworks, the old industrial facilities of which are today being put to a variety of different uses. The former factory buildings have been converted to accommodate cultural and corporate functions; an old gasholder has become the biggest artificial diving centre in Europe; alpine climbing gardens have been created in the former ore storage bunkers, and an extinct blast furnace had been developed into a panoramic tower.

This park is for the residents (they can rent spaces for parties of to film movies) and tourists.

In his large prints, Duisburg-Thyssen III and Duisburg-Thyssen V, Hurwitz suggests something of the heroic scale of the steel company that contributed to the manufacturing power of Germany in the postwar years and that dominated the landscape of the Ruhr Valley. However, steel manufacturing did not disappear from Duisburg: a new modernized steel manufacturing complex was subsequently built by Thyssen-Krupp Steel at the edge of town.

In contrast to the imaginative retrofitting of the steel mills and furnaces to create the Duisburg-Nord Country Park, many of the old structures of European and American industry are left to corrode in the landscape, such as the giant cranes in Hurwitz's Double Cranes situated in the old Antwerp harbor -- sentinels left behind when the harbor was modernized and pushed further out toward the sea. Too expensive to dismantle, these giant cranes remind us of a time past, when industry kept Europe and the United States producing and increasing their gross national profits.

Hurwitz's prints, then, sound a meditative note. He has created his art through a span of fifty years, from the time when the economy was expanding and Americans thought of their era as "the American century," to the present, when heavy industry seems to have disappeared from our shores and moved to foreign countries. That is not wholly true, but rusting machinery, boarded-up old factories, and blighted urban landscapes -- and the unemployment that accompanies that situation -- make us wonder whether America's industrial base will ever again achieve that era's greatness for Americans. But whatever the future holds, Sidney Hurwitz's art has captured and preserved the sublime beauty of those old factories, bridges, and elevated trains.

About the author

Dr. Patricia Hills teaches courses on American art and visual culture at Boston University and is a specialist in the history of American painting, African American art, and art and politics. Major books and catalogues for exhibitions she organized include: Stuart Davis (1996), John Singer Sargent (1986), Alice Neel (1983), Social Concern and Urban Realism: American Painting of the 1930s (1983), The Figurative Tradition and The Whitney Museum of American Art: Paintings and Sculpture from the Permanent Collection (1980), Turn-of-the-Century America: Paintings, Graphics, Photographs, 1890-1910 (1977), The Painters' America: Rural and Urban Life, 1810-1910 (1974), The American Frontier: Images and Myths (1973), Eastman Johnson (1972). She has also contributed essays to catalogues of major exhibitions, such as Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series (1993), Breaking the Rules: Audrey Flack, a Retrospective 1950-1990 (1992), The West as America (1991), Eastman Johnson: The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket (1990). Her articles have appeared in American Art, Oxford Art Journal, Prospects, Archives of American Art Journal, Dictionary of Women Artist, The Encyclopedia of New York City, American Paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts Vol. 2, Art in Bourgeois Society, 1790-1850 (1998), and Redefining American History Painting (1995).

Eastman Johnson: Painting America (1999), which she co-curated with Brooklyn Museum of Art curator Teresa A. Carbone, won the Henry Allen Moe Prize for most outstanding exhibition catalogue in the State of New York for the year 1999.

She has held both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, and has been a fellow at the Charles Warren Center and the W. E. B. Du Bois Center, both of Harvard University.

Her textbook/anthology, Modern Art in the USA: Issues and Controversies of the 20th Century, was published by Prentice Hall in 2001. She is currently writing a book on Jacob Lawrence. (text courtesy of Boston University)

 

About the exhibition Sidney Hurwitz: Five Decades

The Boston University Art Gallery (BUAG) begins 2009 with the February 13, 2009 - March 29, 2009 presentation of Sidney Hurwitz: Five Decades. The exhibit is a collaboration between BUAG and the Boston University School of Visual Arts featuring the work of Professor Emeritus of Art at Boston University (BU), Sidney Hurwitz.

Sidney Hurwitz: Five Decades is Hurwitz's first major retrospective exhibit and will feature prints spanning the last fifty years of his career. No stranger to Commonwealth Avenue, Hurwitz has maintained a nearly 35 year-long relationship with BU. "I am so pleased that my work is being exhibited at BU where I studied and taught for so many years," featured artist Sidney Hurwitz said. "The show is truly my view of the last 50 years, including my experience with urban imagery here in Boston." The exhibited work ranges from his early woodcuts and figure studies of the late 1950s to the intricately rendered etchings of industrial architecture for which he has become well know, and which he continues to pursue today.

The exhibit is associated with The Boston Printmakers 2009 North American Print Biennial event presented by the Boston University College of Fine Arts and being held at three of BU's on-campus art galleries. Hurwitz is on the Board of Directors of the Boston Printmakers and works out of the Fenway Studios in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston.

To view images from the exhibition please click here.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 11, 2009, with permission of the Boston University Art Gallery, which was granted to TFAO on March 11, 2009.

This essay by Patricia Hills is excerpted from the exhibition catalogue titled "Sydney Hurwitz: Five Decades" conaining 32 pages and 17 color reproductions. Readers may obtain a copy of the caalogue by accessing Boston University Art Gallery's Web page for ordering catalogues.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Siobhan Nguyen of Boston University Art Gallery for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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