Artvoice's Jack Foran on the Steel exhibitions at the Burchfield Penney
Thursday, June 7, 2012
Community of Steel by Jack Foran in today's Artvoice
Read the article at www.Artvoice.com.
A small exhibit of photos and other items from the Steel Plant Museum on display at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (in conjunction with an exhibit of steel industry related artworks from the Burchfield Penney collection) was sufficiently intriguing that I thought I really should get out to the Steel Plant Museum and see that facility.
I’d been meaning to do this for some time. I had been to the Steel Plant Museum some years ago, in the basement of the Lackawanna Public Library on Ridge Road, but hadn’t gotten around to getting back. I figured the museum would have significantly expanded its holdings in the meantime. I hadn’t realized that it had also moved—last year—to more commodious quarters at what is called the Heritage Discovery Center (the center also houses the Western New York Railway Historical Society museum) at 100 Lee Street, between South Park and Elk Streets, not far from the former Republic Steel plant location.
The Lee Street museum has plentiful photos and maps and artifacts, particularly of and from the behemoth steel operation here, Bethlehem Steel, originally Lackawanna Steel, including the authentic wall tally board of accidents and deaths at the plant during the plant heyday years, from 1924 (427 lost time accidents, eight deaths) to 1956 (25 lost time accidents, three deaths).
Separate case displays include a brief history of steelmaking, starting as far back at the beginning of the Iron Age (following the Bronze Age, 3,000 to 4,000 years ago) but focusing on the 19th century technological advances (Bessemer, open hearth, and basic oxygen processes) that made the improved product steel the “basic metal of civilization.” Steel Age would not be a misnomer. Other case displays on life within the plant, unionization, safety issues, employment-related off-duty activities, such as work in the company-provided gardens and holiday festivities at company clambakes. A table display on the ornately detailed 1901 Lackawanna Steel then Bethlehem Steel administration building long slated for demolition but still standing and currently the subject of a heated preservationist versus demolitionist wrangle recounts some of the historical vicissitudes of the protracted controversy, and ends with the statement that the building “will be removed by the end of 2011.” Not so fast.
The Burchfield Penney display includes several George Grace near-photorealist paintings of steel plant panoramic vistas, and copies of some vintage photos of plant or plant-related scenes that are also on display at the museum. These are very telling. For instance, among the photos of workers—whether at work or play or on break—you have to look hard to find one where whites and blacks are in a photo together. Two juxtaposed photos are one of workers or family members in the company gardens, tending neat rows of corn and other vegetables, all blacks, and predominantly women, and one of a gin mill scene of workers after work, all men, and all white. And hard drinkers from all indications. Prelude to a fight scene, the picture could be titled.
The Burchfield Penney collection materials include a number of photos by Patricia Layman Bazelon of industrial structures and facilities as modernistic sculpture; photos by Stephen Mangione of steelmaking procedures as Inferno events; and Robert N. Blair’s slightly distanced and thus romanticized watercolor versions of the same or similar procedures. With an added note of holiday fireworks spectacularity. Fourth of July every workday of the year. Also, several Louis Vastola chaos abstractionist pieces—an ink on paper drawing entitled Industrial Tentacles of Progress, and a watercolor called Pouring the Heat—conveying the hectic and dangerous work environment in the steel production plants.
Another featured artist in the Burchfield Penney collection exhibit is photographer Milton Rogovin, with several of his diptychs and triptychs showing steel workers sweaty and grimy on the job, and then later at home, with family and pets, in settings startlingly in contrast to the harsh milieu of the steel mills, full of chotchkies and filigree.
The Burchfield Penney dual exhibits continue through July 1. The Steel Plant Museum exhibit is ongoing. All worth seeing.