What medium is best suited to represent the contemporary city? Our urban existence might manifest most clearly in a series of data points, or digital images captured by drone or a more terrestrial autonomous vehicle. Yet, working in the old-school medium of oil on canvas, the artist Stipan Tadić has as of late been painting cityscapes that capture more dimensions than a LiDAR scan. With perspectival shifts and tricks, sectional cutaways, digital overlays, historical references and autobiographical interventions, his portrayals of New York City buildings and streetscapes feel uniquely faithful to an experience of living in it in 2023. Charles Baudelaire suggested around 1860 (not long after the invention of photography) that the “painter of modern life” knew that the fleeting, the fashionable, and the ephemeral is a truer picture of our time than grand compositions made with history in mind. Tadić’s recent cycle of 36 Views of New York was inspired by Hokusai and organized along the route of the D train. With stops from Norwood to Coney Island via Harlem, Rockefeller Center, and Industry City, it creates a picture of a city wrested from the centers of wealth and power and imbued with the dignity and fragility of the workaday. Following a recent exhibition, we share some of the work in the series and speak with Tadić about the timeless encounter of the newcomer artist with an unknowable metropolis, and a critical reflection on what the artist brings to the city.
Even as it follows a subway line, your series, 36 Views of New York, is a walking project. It also began as a pandemic project. How did Covid affect your work and your relationship to the city?
When I came to New York, I was stuck on what I would do here. Then when Covid came, I was just walking around taking pictures. That was my first New York series.
Before, my work was very centered on people. When people disappeared, I saw buildings. That was kind of crazy because I was one with the architecture. Going through the Financial District or Hudson Yards, I was the only one there. It was really eye-opening aesthetically. Because if you look at a building, you can read it, as much as you can read a human, how they’re dressed, how they make their decisions.
Since then, I’ve continued with street scenes. Here, I saw how people are parts of bigger entities such as neighborhoods or buildings, a more sociological perspective which is very apparent here in New York. You have the whole world unfolding, street after street.
How did you choose to follow the D train specifically? Did you map a trajectory? It feels that there’s a stylistic trajectory, from a more historic focus in the Bronx to the digital overlays you start to apply as you move south.
I was reading about Hiroshige and Hokusai and about how they mapped Tokyo at that time. I also read that it was a commercial project; they wanted to make postcards. I thought that was kind of funny.
So I thought: How to map the city? Subways, of course. Which neighborhoods do I want to cover? I was sure I wanted both the Bronx and Coney Island, and then I just connected the dots. The Warriors, the film from the ‘70s, is an important reference for me and my idea of New York. In Croatia, it was very famous. I thought, “That’s interesting, because it’s a kind of journey.”
First, I went to the Bronx. I walked up and down the Grand Concourse, mapped, watched the stops, and made sure that I got enough pictures from the surrounding area of each stop. That was where I walked the most. I read about each neighborhood, which is maybe why the paintings are more charged with information. We’re seeing really a distinct cut from Manhattan and all those fancy finance things.
With Manhattan, you can joke around. I’m there anyway, so when I would be around a stop, like Broadway-Lafayette or Grand Street, I would take pictures and notice.
Brooklyn was easy because that’s something I understand. In the art world we know about Williamsburg, but when you go deep, you will see a huge industrial city: people are working, there’s metal and tires everywhere. I think that’s a good picture of the United States; it’s a big industrial place.
That’s why I like to stretch it. There’s so many changes from place to place. In that sense, I also wanted to do a lot of paintings in one line, so it will show the transformation between my own views on this matter and how the city’s big and layered. I don’t want to say just one thing about it.
The depth of your painting on the Grand Concourse is especially compelling, with the building perspective and the apartment cutaways, the train underground, and the painter Ralph Fasanella in the sky. I wanted to ask you about your approach to layering information that way, and making room in these representations for the historical dimension, and in other cases, the autobiographical, or the underground? I’m struck by what you’re able to show with all of these different layers of perspective.
That’s the big advantage of painting, you can mess with perspectives, you can paint whatever you want, however you want. There can be a giant Godzilla coming, anything. You can also show more than one narrative at the same time. In film, for example, you would need a lot of money to make a multilayered scene like that look good at all. But in painting, stuff looks good on its own. I could paint a building and then just make one room transparent, and nobody would even ask why. It took me a while to understand that painting is really forgiving. You can do a lot of stuff that intuitively seems impossible with ease.
It’s funny to think about painting being a relatively affordable way to document. For the last two centuries it is really photography that has been so central to urban documentation, but your work is not in conversation with this history at all; it’s engaged rather with the history of painting. Yet, looking at your image of Grand Street, It’s curious to see the same constraints that would affect a photographic project: the weather and the seasons, and cars being in the way everywhere. There’s something interesting about preserving that.
I wanted to show the cars of today, even though they’re a little generic. Everything else is a little bit timeless, like the walls and the street. And then you have the cars and the clothes: that’s the fashion of today. That’s the thing that I use the photos for the most.
I’m not thinking about photography as a historical reference. Photos are just to see, because I don’t want to make up that much. I want to see where the scaffolding is, where construction is going. I use photos just to document where the fence is, or where the paint is.
And then, sometimes, you’ve added a digital over-layer. Sometimes the identifier of a Croatian television station, sometimes positioning the viewer in a video game scenario.
I chose that as a way to emphasize the kind of lens that I looked at things through. It’s a Croatian TV; it looks like a report. Of course, Croatian people understand what it is, but here they don’t, so I thought that was fun.
Five years ago, I was only a Croatian artist. Now I have to talk to, like, half of the world. The city contains a lot of stories which are not my own. In this way, I made it my story because I’m the observer, the lens. But the fact is that I am telling other people’s stories. So I have to be respectful.
The video game aspect was important, because I thought about that feeling of walking around and observing but at the same time being in your own world. That strong sense of being an observer and the interplay of inside/outside is a big part for this series.
You’ve also put yourself in there, and your family.
When my family came; we went to Coney Island. I was like, “This is perfect as the last painting of the series.” My work is a bit autobiographical.
The project is a really contemporary engagement with the city. You moved to New York not so long ago and have talked in an interview about arriving here and having this feeling of, New York is dead. You’ve also brought up references like seeing New York from Croatia through a 1970s movie. What should we make of the interplay between cultural expectations and historical layers, and what the city is now today?
Painting almost has this nostalgic and dramatic aspect. I try to lower it as much as I can. I don’t like the city particularly. Where I come from, New York is idealized a lot. Maybe I’m playing with that a little bit, showing parts of the city which are not usually seen. I don’t at all have this romantic, like, “Oh, New York in the past . . .” But at the same time, I grew up on American popular culture back in Croatia, and now I’m here, so that is a dynamic I want to portray.
It would be hard to be romantic about the Bryant Park Christmas fair. Your depictions are clear-eyed, almost disenchanted, but not negative.
I’m trying to be objective as much as I can — at least trying to. In Manhattan, of course I’m being uncharitable. I’m almost mocking it.
You’re straddling a fidelity to what is found in the moment, and a hyper-fidelity in representing these simultaneous spatial and temporal experiences in one frame (which is a very digital approach), but doing that in painting: layering the historical, and the subjective, and what we learn from StreetEasy. Bringing it all together creates a portrait of New York as a contemporary encounter. Following the D train, you’re also painting the city as it looks from different ends, as opposed to a centralized gaze. It feels notable to be asking, “What are the subjects, and what are the streetscapes that are worthy of representation?
I think the equality of representation and sizes contributes to this. Giving the same space to Norwood as Rockefeller Center is part of the idea. It’s the flattening of everything, laying it out, and making everything into a map. I think in that sense, painting is beyond the artist. You cannot control everything that comes into the painting. Sometimes even aspects of my own lack of research, or lack of knowledge, comes into the painting, and I’m open to all of that. Here I’m nostalgic, here I’m careful. Here I’m struggling more, here I’m more easy, here I’m more funny.
It’s an accumulation of impressions at different times. Because I went around for six months, I changed mood, or I read something. Maybe that day, someone else was in a bad mood walking next to me, and that’s who’s going to be in the painting. Maybe someone’s happy, or someone got fired.
I was thinking also of the Situationists and the history of the dérive. It’s a very avant-garde, elite kind of thing, but it makes it more into this game, making your experience into a little performance. You’re not there walking to a job: you’re there for an artistic purpose, and that adds depth to the present moment and gives a layer of strangeness to something seemingly ordinary.
There’s a clear dimension of psychogeography — it is you in these spaces, experiencing them in a particular way. But there’s an additional, perhaps a more 21st-century, sensibility. People might ask, “Who the hell are you to go paint Fordham Road?” Here you are also engaging with the ethics and esthetics of that urban encounter — “Where am I? And what belongs to whom?” — which is not an insignificant question.
Art can be damaging. Art can be a sign of gentrification, a sign of infection. I feel almost disappointed with art, what it became, and what the city became. It’s a big disappointment to discover what art actually is in the world — where you see three artists moving into a building, next thing you know, it’s a gentrified building. I’m aware of that, so I think that’s part of the question I am exploring with my work.
But are the artists to blame? We have the rules that we have about rent and development. Everyone’s just looking for somewhere to live.
I think that aspect of living in New York is bad. I don’t think it’s like that everywhere. Everything you do is being used as a strategy of some bigger entity, which is so big that you cannot even realize, so rich, and so damaging to people’s lives.
It’s the degree of equality or inequality that is extreme. To come back to the work in the series, you put it very bluntly in the mapping: in a city that functions as if it’s all about the center and capital, it’s actually large and filled with lots of neighborhoods that are working-class, that are about very different experiences. Ultimately, that’s still the majority.
There’s 8 to 10 million people living in New York, of whom 90 percent are absolutely irrelevant to the art world. That’s bad.
I live from painting, which I always wanted. It’s the first time I have that. In Croatia, I always had to do stupid jobs. Being a full-time artist is kind of nice, but it’s almost a monastic life. You have to learn. you have to read. You have to produce. You have to be part of the bigger picture. You have to understand the politics around it.
You’ve got Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Robert Sampson’s Great American City on the shelf here in your studio.
I took urban sociology classes at Columbia. It was for me to understand American cities. I learned a lot about neighborhoods, gentrification, and segregation. In the MFA program, the question was, “What’s there to paint about?” Art needs to continue existing. How can it remain art and not become a commodity?
I’m thinking about multiples, and things that are both art and circulated and accessible in that way? You work in comics. Are you doing any of that these days?
Comics is a genre that is more aligned with my views. Comics are not so widely read, so when you communicate through comics, you communicate with a very specific audience. You can go deep, and you will be understood.
I’m making my observations, writing down my thoughts on New York, and then doing them in comics. They’re being published mostly in Europe. Painting allows me to do comics. Initially I didn’t want to be a painter; painting’s almost a necessity. But being a full-time comic book artist would be a catastrophe because I would have to pursue publishers. I don’t want to mess with that. There’s a lot of comics people that are pursuing their careers, competing for the biggest publishers, I don’t want to be part of that.
You want to keep a pure space.
You can open up spaces like that for yourself. The aesthetics are very funky. Counterculture is a pretentious word, but something that came out of that is still alive. It doesn’t exist necessarily in the way in which these hipsters think that they’re counterculture, but it still exists in some way. I don’t want to stop believing that even though that idea is so turned over already, like one million times as a commodity. But still, I think somewhere, this is still alive where people actually talk openly. Community is there.
All images courtesy of Stipan Tadić.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.