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The Great East River Bridge, 1883-1983

DATES March 19, 1983 through June 19, 1983
ORGANIZING DEPARTMENT American Art
COLLECTIONS American Art
  • February 28, 1983 The Brooklyn Museum, in celebration of the centennial of the Brooklyn Bridge, is preparing a major exhibition entitled The Great East River Bridge to be held March 19 through June 19, 1983. This exhibition has been made possible by a generous grant from Chase Manhattan Bank.

    Central to the exhibition is the extraordinary cache of beautifully drawn engineering plans recently found in storage under the Williamsburg Bridge. These original drawings were executed by John A. Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge and his son, Washington, who supervised the building of the bridge, and their engineering colleagues. Works of art in themselves, these plans add a new perspective to our understanding of the Bridge and include changes and revisions that illustrate the uncertainty and experimental development of this great suspension bridge. In their day they were a primer on bridge building, illustrating the use of steel in conjunction with traditional materials.

    A selection of important paintings, drawings, prints and photographs will illustrate how the bridge has been interpreted as a practical object, as an inspiration to artists and as an emblem of the City of New York. Artist interpretations of the Bridge include the straightforward responses of Childe Hassam and George Luks; Joseph Stella’s great symbolic series; a cool, abbreviated abstraction by Georgia O’Keeffe; John Marin’s vibrant images; a witty cartoon by Saul Steinberg; fantastic pastiches by Michael Knigin combining the Bridge with motifs from classic Japanese prints; and a wonderfully zany construction by Red Grooms. The great variety of styles and the diversity of media with which artists have documented the bridge from the time of its inception until today will be clearly reflected in the wealth of material selected.

    Nineteenth Century photographs in the exhibition will record not only the process of construction but the interest generated by the bridge from its beginnings. Such famous photographs as the 1875-76 five-panel image by Joshua Beals, Walker Evans’ illustrations for Hart Cranes’ The Bridge, published in 1930, the grand vistas of steamships sailing up the East River under the Bridge arch taken in 1940 by Andreas Feininger, and the monumental 1980 panorama by Kenneth Snelson are further manifestations of the popularity of this subject.

    By the time it opened in May 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was an established American icon. Reproduced endlessly, the Bridge appears on decorative objects ranging from wallpaper and lamps to paper weights, commemorative dishes, engraved spoons and toys - romantic and whimsical all attest to the power of this unique monument to stir the imagination. A computer program demonstrating the building of the bridge which has been created expressly for this exhibition by the Apple Computer Incorporation, perpetuates the iconography of the bridge in modern day technology.

    A 180 page book entitled The Great East River Bridge: 1883-1983, will accompany the exhibition and will be available in the Gallery Shop at The Brooklyn Museum. This book ($18.50, paperback) will contain 258 illustrations with 2 gate folds, 65 in color. A cloth bound edition will be distributed by Harry N. Abrams, New York.

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1971 - 1988. 1983, 003-004.
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