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A work of art with an emphasis on work

George Bellows piled on the paint in “Pennsylvania Excavation,’’ which depicts work beginning on the railroad station in New York City in 1907. George Bellows piled on the paint in “Pennsylvania Excavation,’’ which depicts work beginning on the railroad station in New York City in 1907.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

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Oil painting and excavation seem to go hand in hand: It’s something about the texture and viscosity of paint, a substance that wants not just to accumulate on canvas but to be dug up and pushed around, too.

No doubt that’s why a lot of great painters (Cézanne, De Kooning, Auerbach) have a thing for quarries and building sites, and it’s why I love this symphonically bleak painting by George Bellows, one of the leaders of the Ashcan School of American Realist painting.

“Pennsylvania Excavation’’ is a brand new addition to the permanent collection of the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton. Given to the museum last month by 1960 Smith graduate Mary Gordon Roberts, it’s big, it’s tough, and it helped launch the career of Bellows, one of America’s most versatile, impressive, and underrated artists.

It shows us what that great transportation hub, New York’s Pennsylvania Station, looked like in 1907 when it was still just a gash in the ground. Close up, you can see the energy with which Bellows has troweled on the paint. At its thickest and most viscous in those drifts of snow in the foreground, it seems to have been poured on like cake icing, then scratched and scraped away with a variety of tools, from palette knives to brush handles.

The subject may be a great big gaping yawn, and the composition almost entirely devoid of color. But no part of this picture feels dull. Bellows makes the entire surface bubble and fume with energy. He punctuates the scene with two brilliant plumes of steam and smoke (one of the great subjects of modern painting: Has anyone ever organized a show on the theme?). And he frames it cunningly with two toiling men in the foreground and the tall buildings (not yet skyscrapers) of Manhattan behind. The precipitous perspective makes the eye dive down to the train before stretching out and back across the site toward the city.

Manhattan is usually associated with relentless elevation. Here, we get a different, possibly prescient, view: a city digging itself into a hole.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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PENNSYLVANIA EXCAVATION

By George Bellows

At: Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton. 413-585-2760, www.smith.edu/artmuseum