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Hauling the Ashes

Excavating America’s Deceptively Workaday First Art Movement

John Sloan’s “Connoisseur,” Part of his “New York City Life” Series

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/18/2006

The Ashcan School: Scenes of Early 20th-Century New York Life from the Sigmund and Mary Hyman Collection Through March 19 at the Walters Art Museum

The image couldn’t be more mundane. A nude woman sits on a bed or bench draped in cloth. Her body weight rests on her right hip and right arm, her right leg extending down toward the floor and her left curled up to her side. Her head is cocked in the pillow of her shoulder, chin pointing slightly down and looking directly at her portrait maker. Out the window behind her is the arch at Fifth Avenue and Waverly Place, Washington Square Park in New York. A black and white etching with engraving rendered in pinpoint-precise crosshatching, it is the sort of figure study littering any number of sketchbooks—nude figure, rumpled apartment, some context-defining detail—an art-school staple for who knows how many years, decades, even centuries.

As one of works in the Walters Art Museum’s new The Ashcan School exhibition, though, John Sloan’s 1933 “Nude and Arch” offers a moment to consider the example set by the Ashcan School artists and their place in the short, convulsive history of American art. So coined in 1934 by Art in America writers Holger Cahill and Alfred Barr, the Ashcan School is generally regarded as the first American artistic group movement, launched with a 1908 show at a Fifth Avenue gallery owned by William Macbeth that included works by de facto leader Robert Henri and some of his former students and their Philadelphia illustrator colleagues: William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, and Arthur B. Davies. The show arose after a jury rejected their work submitted for the 1907 National Academy of Design. They were called “Eight Independent Painters”—shortened to “the Eight”—and were deemed controversial for their subject matter, attitudes, and satirical tone, and they were routinely deemed insurgents.

Nearly 100 years later, their work feels less incendiary, but understanding what made this imagery so volatile offers a peculiar window through which to view contemporary art. The 29 items here come from the collection of late Baltimore entrepreneur and collector Sigmund Hyman and his wife, Mary, and the pieces display a sly eye for the smaller pieces that form an engaging snapshot of Ashcan strengths. Although schooled, many of these eight men were professional illustrators, a commercial enterprise then—and, to some eyes, still—not considered equal to the so-called fine arts. Whatever illustration lacks in academic esteem, however, it makes up for with communication economy. The Ashcan School’s works are relatively small, publication page-sized, and created by draftsmen seasoned with not wasting lines, colors, forms, etc., in creating their scenes, and savvy enough to use little to create mini-narratives.

Such doesn’t mean they were ignorant of the goings-on in the respectable Art World. Maurice Prendergast’s not dated “Two Girls in a Park” is an almost cartoonish treatment of simple plein-air portraiture, depicting two women in simple brush swooshes and bright, primary colors. Scholarship considers Prendergast more an American Post-Impressionist that Ashcan artist, but this watercolor is dramatically different from his parks and promenades paintings that have more in common with Seurat and Pissarro. The buoyant, colorful “Two Girls” feels more carefree, yet not entirely abandoning realism, something in which you can suspect idea-seeds of both Miró and Shahn. Elsewhere, the work offers a more clear-cut allusions. Everett Shinn’s “Opera Ballet” is undeniably Degas-influenced, from the soft-hued palette and pastel technique to the way smudges become dancers and the backs of audience members’ heads.

What branded the Ashcan artists outsiders is best discerned in Sloan’s “New York City Life” etching series from 1905-’06. Over these 12 small pieces Sloan offers a view of urban living hitherto unexplored as unfettered. A husband and wife dance in their apartment, she in her slip. Women hang laundry out to dry on clotheslines, the neighbor’s curvy goods on display for anybody who wants to look. Snooty, older society women roam down lower-class streets on horse-drawn carriages as if taking in the sights on holiday. Entire apartment buildings’ occupants sleep on rooftops during the summer days before air conditioning. Young women crowd around a nickelodeon’s flickering entertainment. These scenes of ordinary people doing ordinary things and the satirical depiction of the upper crusts were derided as vulgar at the time, a charge that hardly feels feasible when looking from 2006.

But in their commentary-less realization of the everyday underclass and their incisive mocking of the middle class; in their casual use of commercial techniques framed and hung on the wall in the guise of “real” art; in their staunch disregard for critical praise; and in their blithe gumption to do their own thing without caring that doing so could be misread as a rejection of the status quo, the Ashcan artists laid a pragmatic intellectual groundwork for many so-called movements of American art over the next century. Sure, the pieces in Sloan’s series read like New Yorker cartoons of their day, slices of life that don’t try to say more than what they’re depicting. But it does inform the eyes to look at them now from a slightly different angle, to wonder what it is about today’s supposedly charged imagery that lends it its power, and to wander, if for second, down the pointless prognosticating path to handicap today’s vulgarity and speculate if it has legs to retain its craft 100 or even five years hence.

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