Unidentified: (Underpass--Binghamton, New York), 1934
oil on photograph on canvas mounted on paperboard
19 7/8 x 23 7/8 in. (50.6 x 60.8 cm.)
Transfer from the Internal Revenue Service through the General Services Administration 1962.8.41
The street and sidewalks are empty; not a person, car, or even a stray dog is to be seen. What is the viewer supposed to see in this unpopulated street illuminated by glowing street lamps? Do the yellow street sign and the modest fireplug have some unexpected significance? The real subject of the painting turns out to be a newly built underpass designed to safely route cars under the train tracks in Binghamton, New York. During the 1930s several underpasses around Binghamton were upgraded by federal and New York State agencies working to improve city infrastructure while providing employment to those thrown out of work by the Great Depression. The stark lighting of street lamps at night shows off the clean lines of the freshly cast concrete as if the underpass were a modernist sculpture or an elegant new office building. The Smithsonian owns two other paintings documenting railroad underpasses built elsewhere in the country during the same era. All three were painted by unidentified artists working over photographs printed on canvas. Through documentary projects of this kind civil works became allied to artworks, providing employment for builders and artists alike.
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