Gleizes arrived in New York in September 1915, after a period of upheaval both in his artistic style and in his life. His early impressionist visions of landscapes and villages had given way to an evolving cubist style; experiments in geometric cubism were followed by multiple viewpoints, which ultimately gave way to flat surfaces, as we see in the skyline of New York.
Gleizes' alienation and confusion upon arrival in New York - a city of spectacular noise, speed and sky-scrapers - was extreme. To Gleizes, New York was the new world, a striking contrast to the vieux monde where war yet raged, and he saw the city's sky-scrapers as the new cathedrals of Europe. On the one hand Gleizes reacted against the overwhelming scale of American architecture and all that it represented: 'Bientôt l'insolence du sky-scraper dépassera la noblesse de leurs flèches. La grande parole altruiste s'éteignait sous les voix rauques des égoïsmes les plus étriqués' (Gleizes, quoted in exh. cat. Albert Gleizes, Le cubisme en majeste, Paris, 2001, p. 149). And yet Gleizes recognised and praised the superlative technical and artistic achievements embodied in these architectural giants: 'Les sky-scrapers sont des oeuvres d'art. Ce sont des créations d'acier et de pierre qui égalent les créations les plus admirées du Vieux Monde' (loc. cit.).
Gleizes' ambivalence towards New York is clear in the present work. He incorporates the overwhelming scale of the city, with its crowded sky-scrapers disappearing off the top and sides of the canvas, but also hints at a feeling of instability, with many of the buildings tilted at precarious angles. Gleizes captures this instability in his book Dieu nouveau: 'Les lignes verticales ont le vertige et fléchissent en s'élevant, des plans entiers tombent à la renverse et s'arrêtent tout à coup soutenus par d'autres plans qui tombaient en avant' (Gleizes, quoted in A. Varichon, op. cit., p. 216).
Echoing his writings, in which he unflatteringly describes Broadway as 'le coeur de l'Amérique, un coeur futile et dur, sentimental et sec' (Gleizes, quoted in exh. cat. Albert Gleizes, Le cubisme en majeste, Paris, 2001, p. 150), the deep shadows and vibrant neon at the heart of New York seem to illustrate both his fascination and aversion to American culture. Gleizes is certainly attracted by the excitement and pace of life in New York and, just as we see his conflicting views of sky-scrapers, we also see his excitement, in spite of himself, at the intensity and speed of life on Broadway, describing it as a 'fantastique fleuve aux mille courants se contrariant, s'enchevêtrant' (loc. cit.). Gleizes was also irresistibly drawn to jazz music, a proliferating art form which seems to encapsulate the atmosphere of New York at this time: 'cette musique extraordinaire qui nous prend dans son tohu-bohu, qui nous berce sentimentalement un moment, s'arrête subitement pour vous fracasser avec une dégelée de sons et de cris rauques, aigus, tendres, qui vous entraîne dans un tourbillon insensé auquel il est impossible d'échapper' (loc. cit.).
New York is an exciting, vivid depiction of a city which at once delighted, enthralled, surprised and repelled the artist. Of the differing versions of this motif, all created in 1915-1916, the present work is the largest and certainly the most vibrant, presenting a timeless image of neon and steel, of scale and tumult that perfectly represents the heart of New York.