The Astor, recently revitalized to become one of the premier luxury condominiums on the Upper West Side, is a direct and immediate descendant of America’s Gilded Age of the late 1800s. During this period, a rapid influx of wealth led to a surge in industrialization and the construction of the many structures that served to redefine urban architecture. Over these few decades, urbanization and New York’s population grew exponentially, and as the Gilded Age faded into the background, it left behind a wildly diverse and vibrant new cultural and architectural landscape that fostered creative expression. The Astor, which was “born” in 1901, helped to cement the Upper West Side’s reputation as a home for the wealthy business class and serves now as a vivid testament to the refined grandeur of the past, as well as an example of high-end contemporary urban living. Much in the same way that The Astor has improved with age, a large swath of the art created as a part of this era has followed suit.
While the remarkable expansion of the New York art scene was the result of many factors, including the growth of that same wealthy business class, there was one specific influential event in 1913 that changed everything; the Armory Show, which was the first sizeable exhibition of modern art in the country, showcased artworks in an array of avant-garde styles that Americans had never seen before. Featuring work from over 100 artists, including van Gogh, Hopper, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, and Renoir, the seminal event opened the eyes of New Yorkers to a world of expression beyond realism and changed the way they thought about visual art.
What followed was a period of experimentation and subversion, during which time the Ashcan School, a movement associated with painter Robert Henri, sprouted up. Though the goal of Ashcan was never explicitly stated, Henri, as well as other artists associated with the movement, sought to capture everyday life in New York on all levels and show things how they really were—to find the life and vitality within everyday struggles and to represent the entire structure that composed life in New York City. The movement made painting a more accessible medium, democratizing and humanizing it.
The Ashcan artists helped usher in a wave of abstract expressionism from Europe. In his famed Gallery 291 in Midtown, photographer Alfred Stieglitz displayed work from Georgia O’Keeffe, Wilhelmina Weber, Stuart Davis, John Marin, Arthur Dove, and a cadre of other American modernists. The success of his gallery and the acclaim for the art on its walls served to develop the New York art scene’s diversity and significance. Over subsequent decades, the art community in New York continued to expand and embrace the rebellious spirit which spurred its initial ascension. New York is now known for welcoming all forms and formats and providing outlets for every unrepresented subsection of the art world. And this all stemmed from events in the early 20th century.
The Gilded Age and the years that followed laid the foundation, both literally and figuratively, for the many ways in which the city became a stunning center of self-expression and artistic and architectural innovation. The early work that fostered the art scene in New York can be seen on museum walls around the world. And the three towers of The Astor condominiums are still standing tall and proud over the Upper West Side, invoking the special time and culture that created them—and welcoming each new generation of artists and New Yorkers.