A Painter’s Brush With the Bridges of New York

September 17, 2008 at 4:51 pm Leave a comment

New York, a city of five boroughs spread across four land masses, would be a giant clump of Bayonnes were it not for the 2,027 bridges linking the pieces together.
And for eight years, Antonio Masi has painted these bridges, or at least the major ones. Not with a foot-wide brush, gray paint and a safety harness, but with watercolors.
His favorite is the 59th Street Bridge, because his maternal grandfather, a man he never met, had hauled steel girders to build it. Mr. Masi’s family settled on the Upper East Side, not far from the bridge, also known as the Queensboro.
“You think about these things backward — is it a coincidence or is it destiny?” he said last Thursday at his home and studio in Garden City.
Mr. Masi’s watercolors of bridges will be featured at a show next month at the Phyllis Lucas Gallery at 981 Second Avenue, and he is compiling a book of the more than 60 paintings he has completed of the city’s spans.
In explaining his gephyrophilia, or love of bridges, (for the opposite, see here), he explained:
Were it not for the bridges of New York, there would really be no city like we have. The only reason the city grew the way it did was because of the bridges, and they have a real emotional connection for thousands of people.
Hats off to Othmar Amman, the Frederick Law Olmsted of the space between the riverbanks.
Mr. Masi traces bridges’ grip on him to 1947, when, he was a seven-year-old boy entering New York Harbor late at night on a freighter from Sicily. As he went through Ellis Island, he was thrilled by the great, shining unknown that was New York.
“In the distance, thousands of glowing lights dotted the skyline. The metropolis beckoned, and I intuitively grasped the promise, excitement, and staggering immensity of the place,” he wrote decades later in his Artist’s Statement. “I found that I wanted, somehow, to replicate on canvas those first sensations.”
Since retiring from the graphic design business in 2000, Mr. Masi, now 69, has been painting watercolors of the city’s bridges that try to capture the strength of emotion he has continued to feel for the city, and the way the structures form links between the familiar and the future.
To get to know the bridges, he walks across and around them whenever possible, and does oil sketches of them.
“I can really get the emotional feel of a place when I do it that way,” he said. He also has good friends who drive him across. “I clean their windshields very well, and we go back and forth across, four or five times,” he said, wearing out the old E-ZPass while he makes sketches and takes pictures.
“It’s not cheap, being an artist,” he said, shaking one of his unframed watercolors. “This costs $50 a sheet.”
And it’s more complicated, being an artist, than it was in simpler times. Once, while sketching the Throgs Neck Bridge and walking around at a Queens park underneath it, Mr. Masi was detained by police, who, even after he identified himself as an artist, checked him through a list of terror suspects and confiscated his film.
He is glad to be devoting six to 10 hours a day to painting. “Now I can paint the things I want to do,” he said, “instead of always feeling I had to do what people wanted me to do.”
Mr. Masi joked that he has sold the Brooklyn Bridge three times, or at least paintings of it. He calls the Williamsburg “the Willie B,” and uses up to 30 glazes and “juicy washes” to achieve bold effects more common in oil. He says he is influenced by Diego Velazquez and Michelangelo, while his palette has been compared to Rembrandt’s. His waxed mustache clearly owes something to Salvador Dali.
In 2006 he won the Artist’s Magazine’s landscape category in its Best Art of 2006 competition, which had 14,000 entries. But the opinions of his six-year-old grandson carries great weight with Mr. Masi, who recalls showing him a painting of the undersides of the 59th Street Bridge.
“I said, ‘Luke, do you like the painting?’ and he said, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to get hurt, it looks rust and old.’ I said, ‘Thank you, that’s what I wanted.’ I try to paint what I feel.”

By Tina Kelley, City Room

New York Times


Entry filed under: Get Wet, Public Waterfront. Tags: , , , , , , .

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