Douglas Cooper: Picturing the City

Douglas Cooper, Essex House

Bridges, perhaps the most graceful and unobtrusive structures in the built environment, have long been favored by cityscape artists. James Abbott McNeill Whistler uses a venerable span across the Thames in Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1872–75), to shape expanses of sky and water with an economy reminiscent of Japanese art. For the Italian-American Futurist Joseph Stella, the 1883 Gothic-style span across the East River—Brooklyn Bridge (1919–20)—epitomizes New York’s industrial sublime.  The contemporary artist Douglas Cooper, too, finds bridges essential to his city views, but he does not use them as compositional infrastructure. Rather, bridges (along with elevated train tracks) are part of the swarm of visual elements that make up city life.


Cooper’s (b. 1946) aesthetic was reflected in the title of his recent exhibition at Hirschl and Adler Modern Gallery in New York City: “Viaducts and Neighborhoods” (May 28–June 26, 2015). The show provided a good introduction to his primary work, a series of public murals, many in his hometown, Pittsburgh.

The Hirschl and Adler exhibition featured eighteen large-scale charcoal drawings of New York City. Cooper works exclusively in black-and-white, a choice that gives his scenes a graphic punch and a slightly retro quality. The narrow vertical format and elevated point of view in midtown subjects such as Essex House and Rainbow Room (all drawings in this show 2014) create a vertigo effect that evokes the animated drawings Fritz Lang employs in his 1927 film Metropolis.

Cooper does not isolate his bridges, the way Whistler and Stella do; he embeds them in a detailed urban tapestry. He confesses to liking “the approaches more than the spans,” the neighborhoods more than the viaducts. In Broadway and 125th Street, our point of view is not quite bird’s-eye, perhaps terrace-level. We are above the elevated train tracks, a bent diagonal that bisects the picture and looks across to large apartment buildings in the distance. But the artist draws our attention downward, to street level, to the Subway sandwich shop and the car headlights that crisscross the intersection. Cooper is as enamored of vertiginous angles as a film noir cinematographer.

 Douglas Cooper, Eldridge Street

In views such as Crossing the Gowanus on the F Train, Broadway Elevated, Eldridge Street and Harlem River Bridges, Cooper captures the texture of urban life, as everyday human-scale domestic and commercial structures crowd around more monumental city forms. He uses elevated viewpoints to give us a sense of the city’s scale and beauty. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth described London as viewed from above the Thames with a similar rapture, in “Upon Westminster Bridge” (1802), pointing out “ships, towers, domes, theaters and temples” that, in the morning sunlight, were the equal of nature’s “valley, rock or hill.” City and countryside come together in the river, which glides “at his own sweet will.”

While Wordsworth’s vista follows the template of the Romantic landscape, however, Cooper’s compositional strategies are unexpected. Instead of neatly differentiated foreground, background and middle distance, he compresses distances into an up-equals-back space, more like the vertical perspective of Asian hanging scrolls. At the same time, Cooper’s images are as densely filled as the urban environments he favors. This horror vacui finds respite not—as with many landscapes—in expanses of sky but rather in the quiet surface of the rivers that snake their way through the architectural hubbub. 

The drawings in the Hirschl and Adler show succeed as free-standing works, albeit of a dizzyingly and disorienting type—certainly a valid way of picturing the urban experience. Still, the drawings, while expertly finished, are partial views, like stills from a movie. Cooper’s principal works are immersive panoramas, murals that create a sense of continuous space.

For the Rotunda of the Carnegie Mellon University Center, Cooper created a mural (1996) designed to make viewers feel like they can walk into the space. Pictures on the University’s website show two students standing at a railing, as they would at a scenic overlook, surrounded by the mural panorama. Cooper remarks: “the intention is to present no visible edges. The sense of the artwork is not that of a picture on a wall, but of an edgeless view with a space beyond.” The Eastwall mural shows the surrounding neighborhood as it looked from 1945 to 1965. The Westwall mural depicts “the present and future campus.” The Northwall mural opens up the vista, tracing the Monongahela River from downtown Pittsburgh into the countryside and includes several landmarks. Douglas Cooper, Rotunda of the Carnegie Mellon University Center

Cooper studied at Carnegie Mellon from 1965 to 1970 and graduated with a degree in architecture. That background accounts for his skill in depicting buildings, as well as his interest in how architecture and painting can work together. Other mural projects include the Philadelphia Courthouse Mural (1995) and the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center Mural (1992–95) in Pittsburgh; both murals incorporate the memories of elderly local residents, emphasizing the city as a composite or collection not just of buildings and bridges but also of individual experiences and stories. He also created the Kleinmarkthalle Mural in Frankfurt, Germany (1996), and murals for pizzerias in New York City, at John’s 44th Street and John’s 65th Street.

Cooper’s investment in the civic arts suggests the continuity of traditional urban concerns. His book Steel Shadows: Murals and Drawings of Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) represents that aesthetic. But he is also an intriguing contemporary artist, whose distinctive perspective anomalies and layering of visual information are anything but straightforward. Think of another architecturally trained graphic artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78), but bypass the scenic vedute for the Carceri d’Invenzione. You may even glimpse elements of M.C. Escher’s (1898–1972) picture puzzles in Cooper’s work.