CITY JOURNAL, April 14, 2017
The story of Bellevue is the history of public health.
A review of Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital, by David Oshinsky (Doubleday, 400 pp., $30)
The milestones of the modern city are not always measured in building heights or population numbers: sometimes they are recorded in epidemics and how the city confronts these crises of public health. For New York City, where urban density and the diseases borne by international travel have often collided, with catastrophic results, this has meant a history of fighting varied and deadly human pathogens: from the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s to battles against cholera, typhus, puerperal fever, influenza, tuberculosis, and AIDS. Since its founding in 1736, New York’s Bellevue Hospital has been at the center of all these struggles. In Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital, David Oshinsky, a professor of history at New York University and the director of the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, applies his talent for storytelling—he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his book Polio: An American Story—along with a taste for the macabre to deliver a remarkably compelling history of New York as seen through one medical establishment.
“Few hospitals are more deeply embedded in our popular culture,” Oshinsky writes of Bellevue. “The flagship institution of America’s largest city, where free hospital care is provided to the ‘medically indigent’ as a right, not a privilege,” Bellevue continues to stand, “for all its troubles, as a vital safety net, a place of caring and a place of last resort.” The “three centuries” of the subtitle describes not just Bellevue’s history but that of the institutions of public health as a whole. In a city where an outcry over the “body snatching” of cadavers by medical students led to the deadly “doctors riot” of 1788, and where the upper classes long sought refuge from their infirmities at home rather than in a hospital, Bellevue grew out of a pest-house, or ward for those who were often terminally ill, established in what was then New Amsterdam. “Citing records from the West India Company, when the Dutch ruled Manhattan Island,” writes Oshinsky, Bellevue’s existence can be traced to “a small infirmary built in the 1660s for soldiers overcome by ‘bad smells and filth.’”
The institution that became Bellevue was first used more as a quarantine for those dying from “periodic eruptions of measles, influenza, scarlet fever, and ‘throat distemper’ (diphtheria)” than as a place for fighting what were then misunderstood infections. By the 1730s, the primitive hospital had advanced north from the downtown population center to an almshouse on the city common, near what is now City Hall. In 1798, New York secured the land of the remote Belle Vue farm, on what was then a bucolic hill overlooking Kips Bay. When the city grid was laid down in 1811, this became the block of land east of First Avenue between 26th and 28th Streets, where the hospital has been in near-continuous operation. Today, from this same quadrangle, NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue annually handles some 650,000 clinical visits, 110,000 emergency calls, and 25,000 inpatients each year, with an attending physician staff of 1,800 and 5,500 nurses, assistants, and clerical employees.
Early on, Bellevue helped protect a swelling immigrant (and often indigent) population from the diseases that plagued their slums. In the nineteenth century, New York became one of the world’s most densely populated places. With half its population living in infested and overcrowded tenements, the city for a time suffered a mortality rate exceeding that of London and Liverpool. “In 1870, one child in five in NYC would not live to one,” Oshinsky writes, and “25 percent who reached adulthood would not live to thirty.”
Bellevue doctors played a central role in writing Sanitary Conditions of the City, the groundbreaking 1865 study that led to the creation of New York’s first official Board of Health. Even without fully understanding the vectors of disease—such as mosquitos, lice, fecal waste in tainted water, and vermin—they installed new sanitary measures to replace fetid wells with fresh water conveyed through the new Croton Aqueduct. The Board of Health also cleared livestock from city streets and banned the driving of cattle through residential neighborhoods. Out of the necessity of its urban circumstances, Bellevue shepherded other innovations, in particular the science of modern pathology. New York’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner originated on Bellevue’s second floor and soon became the “gold standard for detecting intoxicants, barbiturates, and poisons.”
Oshinsky traces the emergence of the many private hospitals that began opening around Bellevue, paralleling the city’s diverse ethnic communities and their desire to attend to their particular religious customs in illness and death: St. Vincent’s, the city’s first Catholic hospital for a growing Irish population; German Hospital, which became Lenox Hill after the First World War; Jews’ Hospital, which became Mount Sinai; Presbyterian Hospital, St. Luke’s for Episcopalians; St. Francis for German Catholics; Columbus for Italians.
The one institution among these that comes out as a villain in Oshinsky’s story is New York Hospital. Chartered by King George in 1771, it opened in 1791 as a “‘handsome structure set amid shaded lawns,’ a few short blocks, yet a world away, from the almshouse where Bellevue was born.” The contrasts between the public mandates of Bellevue and the private privileges of New York Hospital were stark. “By law, private hospitals can unload on Bellevue, and Bellevue must receive them,” Oshinsky writes. So New York Hospital would turn away “drunks, vagrants, and those with smallpox, ‘the itch,’ and ‘contagious distempers.’” Or, in what is known as “patient dumping,” it would redirect its sickest patients to Bellevue, as it did well into the twentieth century.
Yet just as often, Bellevue proved its own worst enemy, as both disease and mismanagement frequently overran the institution. “There never was a time when Bellevue appeared even remotely trouble-free,” writes Oshinsky. In the 1848–49 epidemic of Typhus or “Irish Fever,” a bacterial disease that “thrives in close, filthy quarters” and is spread by a body louse, the patient death rate at Bellevue topped 40 percent; it was even worse for staff. In the 1850s, a sensational story spread of Bellevue’s rat infestation, as a woman was discovered in a hospital bed with a lifeless child whose face had been eaten by vermin (posthumously, it was determined).
In 1887, a young reporter named Nellie Bly feigned insanity and was involuntarily committed to the city’s system of institutions for the mentally ill. Her story, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,”published in the New York World, became a sensation for its depiction of brutality and neglect. Yet while her tale mainly focused on the city’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), the psychiatric unit of Bellevue also became associated in the subsequent public scandal and investigations, cementing a “connection between Bellevue and insanity.”
Sensational episodes persisted into modern times. In 1989, a “homeless cocaine addict” named Steven Smith, who had been released from psychiatric care against his wishes, took up residence in the machinery closet of the hospital’s 22nd floor. Wearing stolen doctor’s scrubs and bearing a stethoscope and security badge, Smith was free to roam the hospital. He entered the office of Dr. Kathryn Hinnant, who was five months pregnant, and over 20 minutes “beat her unconscious, raped and sodomized her, and strangled her to death with an electrical cord.” The investigation of the “Beast of Bellevue” uncovered “at least three reports of unauthorized persons living in the fourth floor locker room and at least five reports of persons sleeping in other common areas and in stairways around the hospital.”
Still, these incidents to the contrary, Bellevue’s reputation as an out-of-control hospital for the mentally ill might be exaggerated, argues Oshinsky. “Bellevue’s hold on our popular imagination has come at a price,” he writes. “The relentless focus on its eccentricities has obscured its role as our quintessential public hospital.” Bellevue was a leader in psychiatric research and treatment, he maintains, yet here again, the hospital eventually became embroiled in controversy. Recognizing a connection between seizure and the treatment of schizophrenic symptoms—still not fully understood—Bellevue inaugurated the practice of electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. “Thousands would undergo ECT at Bellevue,” writes Oshinsky, “many of them children. Indeed, few units employed it as systematically.” Bellevue largely abandoned ECT after its lead practitioner, the child neuropsychiatrist Lauretta Bender, left for Creedmoor State Hospital in 1956, where her psychiatric research turned to the experimental use of LSD.
For Bellevue, the “medicine and mayhem” of Oshinsky’s subtitle came together, triumphantly as it turned out, in its confrontation with a new illness beginning in November 1980, when “a man arrived at Bellevue with a fever and shortness of breath.” Detecting “Pneumocystis pneumonia with profound cellular immunodeficiency,” a team that included doctors Fred Valentine, Alvin Friedman-Kien, and Linda Laubenstein raced to understand the nature and vectors of a new urban epidemic. Originally called “gay cancer,” then Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), the disease was eventually renamed Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.
Even as “nobody knew what precautions to take or how long the epidemic would last,” writes Oshinsky, “Bellevue became the epicenter of the spreading epidemic,” as it served “both the gay neighborhoods of Greenwich Village and the drug-plagued streets of the Bowery and the Lower East Side.” The heroics of the city’s medical professionals, many of them involved with Bellevue, became the subject of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart. “The challenge of battling AIDS held a strong appeal to those steeped in the Bellevue tradition,” writes Oshinsky in a moving closing chapter. The story serves as the model for the next time Bellevue confronts an urban epidemic that will, inevitably, arrive at its doors.
THE NEW CRITERION, April 2017
On the “Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts” at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, “Paul Resika: Empty” at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, the “Talking Pictures 1st Invitational” at 106 Van Buren Street, “Bewilder: New Work by Brece Honeycutt” at Norte Maar & “Rough Matter: New Work by Rebecca Murtaugh” at Stout Projects.
The 2017 “Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts,” at the American Academy of Arts and Letters through April 9, is the survey of contemporary art that isn’t the Whitney Biennial.1
Far up the river from the Meatpacking District, at 155th Street and Broadway, the “Invitational” is well removed from the art world’s sociological pageants downtown. In a space given over to artistic sensitivities, the “Invitational” is also my favorite of the cultural season, with one of the few broad contemporary exhibitions that remains truly receptive to the transformative power of art.
This all is due, no doubt, to the private, artist-based leadership of the Academy, an honors society for architects, artists, writers, and composers. Today it is still underwritten by a 1914 founding endowment created by the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington. Unfettered by institutional mandates, or the not-so-invisible hand of commercial backers, the “Invitational” brings together art for art’s sake—this year, thirty-five contemporary artists selected from 165 nominees submitted by the membership. Funds supplemented through donations by late members such as Jacob Lawrence and Childe Hassam underwrite prizes for the artists in the exhibition. Some of the awards are dedicated to purchasing and then donating selected work in the show to American museums.
This year the Academy’s Art Award and Purchase Committee includes the artist-members Judy Pfaff, Lois Dodd, Mary Frank, Robert Gober, Yvonne Jacquette, Bill Jensen, Joan Jonas, Dorothea Rockburne, and Joel Shapiro. Rumor has it the selection of work can become contentious among the membership, but the result is always a well-honed distillation, with divergent art finding new connections—aided by a curator who knows how to hang art within the Academy’s rambling rooms on its beaux-arts campus of Audubon Terrace.
This “Invitational” brings together the guerrilla realism of the late Arnold Mesches with the fugal portraits and contrapunto abstractions of Phong Bui and the totemic figurines of Vanessa German. There are the apotropaic bird sculptures of Jonathan Shahn with the swampy luminism of Caetlynn Booth, my painter-colleague here at The New Criterion. There are the color-rich abstractions of Andrea Bergart reflecting the inchoate shapes of Helen O’Leary near the diminutive color blocks of Janice Caswell and the synapse-singeing installations of Hap Tivey. A video work by Kakyoung Lee, along with related drypoint prints, brings to mind the animation of William Kentridge, while Walter Robinson, Beverly McIver, and others all give varying interpretations to painterly figuration.
The independence of the “Invitational” continues as a remarkable relic of a more uncompromised age, no doubt aided by its uptown remoteness. At a time when most other artistic institutions are heralding their “public engagement” (those windows and balconies at the Whitney!), the Academy’s remove clears the air for its artists and gives this exhibition an unalloyed intensity.
Last month the paintings of one great academician, Paul Resika, were on view on the Lower East Side at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects. In a haunting exhibition called “Empty,” Harvey assembled a small but brilliant selection of Resika’s paintings from the early 1990s to the present—work that Harvey has seen first hand as they were created.2
For such an omnivorous painter as Resika, who has found nourishment in both the abstractions of his mentor Hans Hofmann and the figurations of the Old Masters (who are also his mentors), what was brought together here was absence: empty boats and shacks, paintings cleared of people and inundated with color. “Like getting lost in Venice at night,” Harvey writes in his catalogue introduction, “the empty spaces of de Chirico, Carrà, and Sironi are echoed in Resika’s boathouse architecture and empty vessels, redrawn in cool blues and hot oranges.” Paint has become both the water and the mirror, with angular shapes and reflected lines becoming their own presence. For someone who has been painting for seven decades across the full landscape of art, a unifying theme has been such tonal poetry—well reflected in this sensitive exhibition.
In case you were wondering, it’s been a good season in Bushwick. The symbolic abstractions of Lawrence Swan at Schema Projects; the urban impressionisms of Kerry Law at Centotto; the cosmic figures of Elisa Jensen and the grounded portraits of Janice Nowinski at Valentine; the painterly fire of Arnold Mesches at David & Schweitzer; the “river women” of Odetta gallery with the most uncanny sculptures of New York’s East River and Newtown Creek by Fritz Horstman and Kathleen Vance: just some of the shows in an abundance of energetic offerings.
At the same time, Bushwick’s artists have been seen ranging farther afield: the supple, constructivist collages of Austin Thomas at Chelsea’s Morgan Lehman; the finely painted dreamscapes of Ryan Michael Ford nearby at Asya Geisberg; and Rico Gatson, at Ronald Feldman, stealing the show in an otherwise frivolous Armory fair, with the power of pattern connecting across time and space to find deep meaning.
This past month, one of my first stops in Brooklyn took a right turn in Bushwick for the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. I have written about the homespun cultural institutions of the painter Cathy Nan Quinlan in this space before (“Gallery Chronicle,” January 2012). In the mid-2000s, Quinlan opened the “ ’temporary Museum of Painting (and Drawing)” out of her loft apartment in Williamsburg. There she turned her interest in the outer-borough painting scene into a self-made institution founded “to exhibit and discuss contemporary painting in all its various forms, whether fashionable or unfashionable (at the moment).” When Quinlan moved to Bed-Stuy, she broke ground on a “new wing” of the ’temporary Museum called “My Collection”—this time based out of her row-house living room.
Over a few weekends last month, in the basement of this same building on Van Buren Street, Quinlan put together what she called the “Talking Pictures 1st Invitational,” named this time after her weblog in which she illustrates contemporary art shows and recalling the initiatives of more established institutions such as the American Academy.3
Curated by Paul D’Agostino, Jeffrey Bishop, and Quinlan, who selected four artists each, the “Invitational” served as background for an underground, as it were, evening symposium
—this one discussing an interview Bishop conducted with Susan Sontag in 1981. The reference was obscure; the setting far beyond the tourist circuit. So the initiative had a personal appeal, disconnected from the world, blissfully out-of-step with outside mandates.
The event was remote, even for me, and I missed the talk, but the “Invitational” was remarkable, when I later stopped by, for the quality of the painters it brought together: the gridded abstractions of Meg Atkinson, the spectral realism of Fred Valentine, and the (new to me) evocative landscapes of Cecilia Whittaker-Doe. I was also struck, as with Quinlan’s other projects, by the show’s homemade authenticity. I would call the spirit “do it yourself,” or diy. But D’Agostino recently corrected me on that usage. As the founder of Centotto, now Bushwick’s oldest continuous apartment gallery, D’Agostino says he prefers DI. Or, simply, “do it.”
Another Bushwick institution, now decamped further along the J-train to the sylvan neighborhood of Cypress Hills, is the non-profit Norte Maar. This month, Brece Honeycutt is exhibiting her textile and sculptural work here in a solo exhibition called “Bewilder,” with collages by the sound artist Audra Wolowiec in the back room.4
I became closely aware of Honeycutt’s work, and her working method, when she collaborated recently on a poetry chapbook with my wife, Dara Mandle—published, I might add, by Norte Maar. Based in Sheffield, Massachusetts, Honeycutt makes resists and dyes out of the hardware and weeds she finds on her farm. Working with paper and discarded linen, she then creates earthy abstractions by submerging these materials in wildflower baths while bundled with rusty washers and nails. The effect is like a shadow, with pentimento traces of history—but the visual impact can also be allusive, not always rising above the level of craft.
At Norte Maar, Honeycutt has now gone back into her textiles and papers with additional interventions. In some examples, she has created free-form and hanging sculptures out of an assembly of paper prints and found objects—whimsical work that calls to mind the anthropomorphic scrap-metal sculptures of Richard Stankiewicz. In others, the introduction of thread, which she weaves into the linens, structures her compositions and serves as drawn lines. Here I found the white, undyed linens of her “winterfield” series most striking. By introducing shapes and textures distilled in deeply felt and spare abstractions, Honeycutt recalls farmland vegetation—as well as the “women’s work” that once stitched farm life together.
Back in Bushwick, in the gallery building of 56 Bogart Street, the sculptures of Rebecca Murtaugh are now on view in a solo exhibition at Stout Projects.5
Resembling modernist shapes lost at the bottom of the sea, Murtaugh’s sculptures are encrusted specimens, living forms animated in paint. Paint itself is her sculptural medium—enamel paint, in bold colors, emulsified and applied like cottage cheese to her armatures.
Until recently, these underlying forms resembled minimalist sculptures—symmetrical, angular shapes with donut holes, or “apertures,” at the center. Now at Stout Projects, Murtaugh has taken a more biomorphic turn. Her influence here is Henry Moore, or even more so Isamu Noguchi. Murtaugh’s latest shapes are seemingly lifted from nature. As she builds them up in an additive way, free and without the structural supports of earlier work, the sculptures become dynamic and internally engaged. Murtaugh’s series of “feelers” consists of C-shaped forms turned in on one another—like cells observed and colored under a scanning microscope. Others called “paddle and burrow” are more like nests drilled into slabs of porcelain. Accretion: Gladiolus and Ultra Violet (2017), the showstopper, is a growth nesting in the pocket of three free-standing branches, repellently alluring and appealing toxic—all at once.