Clyde Singer (1908-1999)
On 14th Street
Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 23 1/2 inches. Signed lower left: "Singer"
Masillon Museum, Masillon, OH, "Exhibition of Paintings: Clyde Singer," August 21 - September 15, 1938, No. 16 (as "14th Streeter"); Denver Art Museum, n.d., No. 60; The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH (solo exhibition of 30 paintings), March/April, 1940; The Parkersburg Fine Art Center, Parkersburg, WV, Third Annual Exhibition, 1941; Massillon Museum, "Clyde Singer Paintings," August 1960; The Butler Institute of American Art, "Clyde Singer: 25 Year Retrospective," November 14 - December 19, 1965; Art Institute of Zanesville, Zanesville, OH (solo exhibition of 30 paintings), November, 1966, No. 2; The Butler Institute of American Art, "Clyde Singer: A Retrospective, 35 Years," 1975, No. 6; Westminster College Art Gallery, New Williamstown, PA, "Clyde Singer," February 27 - March 23, 1976; Canton Museum of Art (in cooperation with The Butler Institute of American Art), "Clyde Singer's America," September 7, 2008-January 7, 2009.
Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, Pittsburgh, PA, March 31, 1940, p. 48; Albacete, M. J., Clyde Singer's America (exhibition catalogue), Canton Museum of Art and Butler Institute of American Art (The Kent State University Press, 2008), p. 95; "Clyde Singer's America," American Art Review, Sept/Oct, 2008, p. 138; "Building Excitement" (Christie's auction preview), American Fine Art Magazine, Nov/Dec, 2020, p. 70 (full page reproduction).
Albacete, M. J., Clyde Singer's America (exhibition catalogue), Canton Museum of Art and Butler Institute of American Art (The Kent State University Press, 2008).
Acquired from the artist by Corinne (Corky) and Theodore (Ted) Davidov, Washington, D.C., 1985; Michael Lawlor, Santa Barbara, CA, 2003; Nancy W. Knowles, Hinsdale, IL (through agent Richard Norton Gallery, Chicago, IL), 2013; estate of Nancy W. Knowles, 2017, Hinsdale, IL; Christie's Sale of American Art, New York, NY, October 28, 2020, lot 115.
Unlined; mounted on new stretcher. Two old paper labels preserved in plastic and affixed to stretcher, one from Denver Art Museum competitive exhibition (no date indicated) and other from The Parkersburg Fine Art Center 1941 Third Annual Exhibition. Fiberboard backing bears exhibition label for Clyde Singer's America exhibition (Canton Museum of Art and Butler Institute of American Art, 2008-09) and recent label of Richard Norton Gallery, Chicago, IL. In fine reproduction gold leaf frame by Carleton-Kirkegaard, Santa Barbara, CA (original frame remains in collection of Michael Lawlor, Santa Barbara, CA).
Fig. 1 - Kenneth Hayes Miller, Women in the Store, 1937, oil on canvas, 19 x 24 inches, Collection of The Art Students League of New York.
The fourth of six children born to a coal miner and part-time farmer in the northeastern Ohio village of Malvern, Clyde J. Singer (1908-1999) showed artistic promise at an early age. By 1928, he was eking out a meager living as an apprentice sign painter in nearby Canton. Three years later, he began a two-year stint at the Columbus Art School before returning to Malvern to launch his art career. Singer’s big break came the following year, when he won a highly competitive scholarship award to study at the Art Students League in New York City. He moved to New York that fall, renting a windowless room on East 35thStreet for $2.50 a week and taking courses over the succeeding two years from eight different instructors including such luminaries as Thomas Hart Benton, Kenneth Hayes Miller and John Steuart Curry. Although he much preferred Curry, Singer credited the critical and demanding Miller as leaving “the greatest impression.”*
Both energetic and prolific, Singer participated in an astonishing eighty-two exhibitions in fifty-six cities during an eighteen-month period from 1935-36. In 1938, the year in which he painted On 14th Street, he won the coveted First Julius Hallgarten Prize awarded by the National Academy of Design for the best painting in its annual exhibition among artists under the age of thirty-five (Barn Dance). It was one of many prizes and awards the artist would garner over a career spanning eight decades.
Unlike most of his contemporaries in the American Scene movement, Singer straddled the divide between the urban realism championed by the successors to the Ash Can school and the so-called Regionalists who focused on life in the heartland. Though he returned to Ohio to pursue his career, he made regular pilgrimages to New York, roaming the streets of the city in search of subject matter. “Go out into the street,” Reginald Marsh once stated in describing his own approach to painting, “stare at the people. Stare, stare, keep on staring.”** Singer adopted the same strategy. “I find that every place I go is a painting,” he once remarked. ***
On 14th Street is among Singer’s most evocative and appealing New York City street scenes. Miller’s influence is apparent in the immediacy of the foreground figures and the meticulous planning of the entire composition (see, e.g., Fig. 1). Singer places himself in the very vortex of the busy intersection of Broadway and East 14th Street, at the southern edge of Union Square. The paths of the three figures in the foreground, each separately engrossed in thought, intersect seamlessly, their momentary presence dutifully recorded by the seemingly invisible artist in their midst, while a parade of pedestrians travel in both directions on the far side of the street. The horizontal bands of colorful signage that dominate the upper third of the composition play off against the curvilinear forms of the figures beneath them. "Although his canvasses are filled with figures, there is never a suggestion of overcrowding or confusion," wrote one observer in 1938. "He has achieved the difficult accomplishment of presenting a full canvass with a simplicity and richness of design marked by fineness of detail and an unerring sense of balance."****
The location of the scene is indicated by the juxtaposition of the street marker in the upper right and the blue sign across the upper left directing shoppers to the entrance of the commercial building around the corner on Broadway.***** A photograph of the same corner taken by Reginald Marsh in the same year (Fig. 3) attests to the general accuracy of Singer’s depiction. Marsh painted the same street corner in 1932, rendering the live models in the Hudson Bay Fur Company second-floor window from a ground-level vantage point (Fig. 4).
While the artist would have us believe that the figures he portrays are random passersby, this notion is dispelled by the existence of the lovingly rendered bust-length portrait of the central figure reproduced here as Figure 2. The painting, entitled Marion and dated 1938, depicts the artist’s girlfriend in the same outfit and identically coiffed.******
By 1940, Singer had taken a position as Assistant Director of The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, a position he maintained for much of the rest of his life. While he continued to be prolific (completing an estimated 3,000 works over his long career), his later work rarely achieved the energy or brilliance of his earlier efforts, of which On 14th Street is a prime example.
*Rothschild, Lincoln, To Keep Art Alive: The Effort of Kenneth Hayes Miller, American Painter (1876-1952) (The Art Alliance Press, 1974), p. 61.
**Doss, Erika, "'Go Out Into the Street, Stare at the People': Reginald Marsh and Surveillance Styles in Interwar American Art," in Haskell, Barbara, ed., Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York (New-York Historical Society, 2012), p. 111.
***Albacete, M. J., Clyde Singer's America (exhibition catalogue), Canton Museum of Art and Butler Institute of American Art (The Kent State University Press, 2008), p. 8.
****Westfall, Tipton M.,“Exhibit Provides Varied Survey of Artist’s Work,” The Evening Independent (Masillon, OH), September 12, 1938 (critique on solo show of twenty of the artist's most recent oils, including On 14th Street, at the Masillon Museum).
*****Singer's early years as a sign painter are reflected in the meticulous rendering of signage in many of his works, particularly On 14th Street.
******Although Marion's last name is not recorded, she reportedly worked for the New York City art supply concern, Grumbacher.
Fig. 2 - Clyde Singer, Marion, 1938. Courtesy of Ed and Karen Ogul.
Fig. 3 - Reginald Marsh, Broadway & 14th Street, circa 1938. Photograph courtesy of Museum of the City of New York. 126.96.36.199.5A © 2020 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Fig. 4 - Reginald Marsh, Hudson Bay Fur Company, 1932. Egg
tempera on muslin mounted on board, 30 x 40 inches, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio.
Collectors are notorious for maintaining mental lists of artists they covet. Clyde Singer earned a top spot on that list in the early 2000s when my wife and I traveled to Santa Barbara for a vacation. While there, we arranged to visit the home of fellow collector and occasional dealer Michael Lawlor. On the walls of his charming bungalow residence were two works that took my breath away: Homecoming (Malvern), a large (45 x 57) and dramatic 1939 oil depicting the pageantry of a homecoming celebration in the artist’s home town, a canvas teeming with figures, including the artist himself strolling down the sidewalk across the street from his art studio, a freshly painted and framed portrait tucked snugly into his armpit; and On 14th Street, smaller but no less desirable, a masterful portrait of the denizens of a busy street corner on the edge of New York’s Union Square. While the settings are polar opposites, they were the artist’s two favorite haunts: the crossroads of his quaint Ohio hometown and a busy street corner in the most populous city in America. The paintingss were not then for sale, as far as I recall, or if they were, not at prices we could afford. But the impact of our introduction to the best of Singer’s work from his most accomplished period stuck with me.
In early October of 2020, a collector friend emailed me about a Clyde Singer painting that had just appeared in an online catalogue for an upcoming American art sale at Christie’s in New York. There it was: On 14thStreet, in all its glory. Singer’s best work (from the late Thirties and early Forties) rarely appears on the market, so when it does, it behooves collectors to take notice. I did. The estimate was healthy, but considerably less than the prices at which such works have traded hands in private transactions.
We’ve purchased much less frequently over the past few years, constrained by the absence of wall space and a desire to focus only on works that would significantly enhance our collection. Those, of course, always command a premium. So, after a few days of contemplation, we decided to take a serious shot, leaving a bid within the estimated range, confident that we’d gone as high as we could stomach and resigned to the reality that our chances were slim. We’d given it our best shot and would harbor no regrets if we failed to land our prize.
The day of the auction arrived. The stock market had taken a mighty tumble the previous day, perhaps dissuading a bidder or two. A full-page reproduction of the painting appearing in an auction preview feature in American Fine Art Magazine failed to reach many subscribers (including us) until a day or two later. Our friend and former owner of the painting, Michael Lawlor, declined an offer to join a dealer to bid for the work, aware that we were pursuing it. Who knows what other factors may have caused the stars to align. But they did, and much to our amazement, On 14th Street was hammered down to us at a price slightly below our maximum bid. It was meant to be.