Art Review: The New Cable by Sybil Andrews
The Geometry of Labor
The New Cable, by Sybil Andrews, is a linocut piece composed of eight male figures towing a large cable down a pyramidal structure. The work is on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Created in 1931, this piece captures the “energy of the workforce” during the height of American Industrialism[i]. When analyzing this piece it is important to note that the stock market had crashed only two years before its publication, and Americans were feeling the crunch of unemployment in the Great Depression. Andrews’ linocut is composed almost entirely of geometric shapes, which gives it a rigid, strenuous quality that works to emphasize the figures’ labor. It also uses earthy colors, mostly brown, green, and blue, which adds to this sense of the working class toil, as more vibrant, bright colors often symbolize opulence and affluence.
Given that The New Cable is largely composed of geometric figures, it is important to first note what these shapes do when observed as a whole, before breaking them down specifically. An implied line diagonally from the bottom left to the top right separates the linocut into two halves. The pyramidal structure (which actually resembles more a Sumerian ziggurat) and the sky divide by this implied line that is created by the workers and the cable and its spool. At the first cursory glance, the observer might read the image (rather logically) from left to right. However, when the subject is interpreted, this logic becomes distorted. The workers are pulling the cable down the pyramid, not rolling it up, and the observer realizes he or she should read the image from top right to bottom left. This duality of implied motion may have been intentional by Andrews to stress the backbreaking quality of manual labor, with its rigorous push and pull.
The human figures are abstracted into triangular and crescent-like shapes, which add stress to their movements. Choosing geometric lines and shapes assists the emphasis of the work these figures are doing. The strain of pulling a heavy cable down a pyramid can be felt more vividly by the angularity of these shapes. If the lines were soft or calligraphic, this effect would be erased, as the figures could be interpreted more as dancers than as laborers. Their movement would not be sharp and abrasive, but rather, fluid and flexible. Unlike the human figures, the cable spool is fairly representational. The cable has little ridges grooved into in, the crank looks like a real crank, and the large circular ends of the spool look three-dimensional and naturalistic. It feels as if the spool is going to roll right down on top of them.
The pyramidal structure has two different dimensions to it. The left side of the pyramid is composed of rectangular shapes, for the practical purpose of providing the laborers steps, but it is also curious as to how they got that spool up there in the first place, it must have taken a great deal of effort. The right side of the structure uses, like the human figures, long, triangular/crescent shapes which slope down and seems to slide further below the image itself. Again, breaking down the image into separate parts shows that the work as a whole is composed of several distinct forms that provide similar functions. The purpose of these geometric shapes individually also add to the feeling of the piece.
The use of earthy tones emphasizes the work that is being carried out by the figures. They are workers; the “salt of the earth”, so it makes sense that Andrews chooses to capture their toil in greens, browns, and blues. The negative space above them is a light tan[ii]. This choice of a light color opens up the sky above them. It is not so much a weight pushing down on them, but more so, a large empty space that they could easily fall into. This adds even more to the precarious nature of the piece. Most of the uniforms are green, probably overalls, with some shirts being brown and some pants being black. The black is used to reference shadows, where the sun stands somewhere beyond the top left of the linocut, which adds some representation to the piece. The undershirts of some of the figures are blue, referencing blue-collar workers. The skin tones are somewhat abstracted, and more importantly they are all the same. Additionally, the faces are featureless. These characteristics of the human figures, their anonymity, add to the universal quality of labor.
Could the incorporation of a pyramid providing the stage for these workers imply a social message, paralleling the modern worker with the slaves of Ancient Egypt, or were Andrews intentions of a simpler nature: purely to capture the hustle and bustle of a busy factory or yard? Either interpretation can be arrived at due to the way in which Andrews depicts her human figures and pyramidal structure in mostly geometric shapes and earth-toned colors. Perhaps the interpretation is not as significant as the tools Andrews provides to allow the viewer to arrive at their conclusions.
[i] Didactic Panel
[ii] When I saw the piece in the Zimmerli, the sky was tan. In the image attached to this paper it is light blue. This is probably a different print in the series, though the other colors are nearly identical.
- The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum
Homepage to the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, NJ. Free if your a Rutger's student, very cheap (a few dollars) if your not. Great collection, numerous galleries, specialty in Russian art.
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