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Out of the Ashcan 

The "apostles of ugliness" have the last laugh

Wednesday, Oct 1 2003
Over a century ago, a group of New York painters scandalized the art world with images of the seedier side of urban Americana: burlesque shows, Bowery bars, back-alley brawlers, and street entertainers. Dismissed by critics as "apostles of ugliness," its members experimented with and introduced new techniques: the use of slashing, liquid brushwork for a sense of immediacy; dark, contrasting color tonalities to suggest depth; and more abstract representation of figures, tenements, and landscapes. The Ashcan School, as it came to be known, brought a new vitality and social realism into American art during the Gilded Age. Its most recognized proponents -- John Sloan, George Bellows, George Luks, and the charismatic Robert Henri, the group's overall mentor (whose work in this show isn't as strong as his protégés') -- would have a profound impact on painting in this country. The school's legacy is evident in a presentation of 40 works by Ashcan artists and their followers now on view at the George Krevsky Gallery on Geary. This museum-quality exhibit, "In the Tradition of the American Ashcan," is notable for the inclusion of both lesser-known women artists as well as West Coast followers of the school, whose influence continued through the Depression and World War II.

Although the group's work hearkened back to the humanism of Rembrandt, Hals, and Goya, it celebrated a Whitman-esque, utterly contemporary vision of American life. This is evident in one of the show's most dynamic works, Don Freeman's oil on canvas Sing Out, Baby June! It portrays the young vaudeville star June Havoc (a headliner at age 5), sister of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, performing outside a fish market on a street corner in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. In this gritty 1934 work, Havoc tap-dances with white buckled shoes on an overturned washbasin amid a crowd of fascinated onlookers, some enthralled, some clearly disapproving. Havoc, who would marry her first of three husbands at age 13, struts her stuff like a bawdy, break-dancing version of Shirley Temple. A cherubic Goldilocks, dressed in a pink and white frock and a yellow straw hat, she glows in the midst of a raffish throng painted in muddy umbers, pearly whites, and ruddy, Venetian reds.

Many Ashcan artists began as magazine illustrators and "artist-reporters" (as they were then known) employed by newspapers to produce on-the-spot sketches. John Sloan, the master of these quick-sketch draftsmen, drew inspiration from French lithographers like Honoré Daumier, and was an early contributor to the left-wing magazine The Masses. His haunts were New York City's Lower East Side, Brooklyn dance halls, and nickelodeons. A street voyeur, he liked capturing his subjects unawares in fleeting scenes of exposed emotion: a street quarrel, a figure undressing in a window, the rough-and-tumble of children playing in the snow. He was the first to portray the Marilyn Monroe­esque image of a woman's skirt ballooning from the waft of a subway vent.

The Sloan works in the Krevsky show include the high and the low. In Fifth Avenue Critics, a 1905 etching he called "the most salable, popular of all my prints," we see a pair of well-heeled society women, each a study in pomposity, riding in an open horse-drawn carriage. One of them sneers disdainfully as she adjusts her elbow-length gloves, while her older companion, who sports a ridiculously ostentatious feathered hat, casts a withering glance at a passer-by. In Mars and Bacchante, a 1915 etching, two imperious cops tower over a floozy leaning in a stupor over a postal box, as she croons to a bemused crowd of male onlookers. The smudgy face and chaotic crosshatched lines detailing the woman's clothing accent her disheveled state, in contrast to the square-jawed features of the darkly burnished officers.

Two remarkable oil paintings in the exhibit are the work of Helen Farr, the daughter of an affluent New York society family, who married John Sloan after studying with him at the Art Students League in the 1920s. In IRT and Chance Meeting, Farr shows the Ashcan School's penchant for depicting the shabbier realities of city life -- as opposed to the genteel, urbane imagery of American impressionists like Mary Cassat. IRT captures the interior of a New York City subway car, in which an elderly, one-legged violinist performs for passengers bundled up for a chilly day. Wide, quickly applied brushstrokes convey the scene's immediacy; the artist uses an autumnal palette of fading greens, brilliant reds, and sepia tones to suggest the seasonal mood. With the exception of the fiddler, whose intense, bespectacled face resembles Sigmund Freud's if he'd fallen on hard times, the riders' features are sketchily rendered, suggesting either collective indifference or unconscious reverie inspired by the music.

Chance Meeting, a 1947 work, is a richly detailed study of five men seated on a public bench. Farr's group portrait epitomizes the Ashcan impulse to capture the moment in revealing social gestures. She takes reportorial voyeurism to the level of high art. At one end, a young blond artist clutches his books with a despondent stare; he's the only man without a hat or coat. The rest of the group is dressed like characters out of Guys and Dolls: An intimidating gangsterlike figure in a green shirt and maroon jacket gestures menacingly toward a pasty-faced man in a bow tie, who seems to crumble inside his wrinkled raincoat. Next to them, a man in a teal suit runs his finger down a column of the racing form, as the last -- and most sinister -- of this crew, a man in a bowler hat, silk scarf, and sable overcoat, observes the others with the cold, calculating eye of a latter-day Jack the Ripper.

The impact of Ashcan realism on the social documentarians of the 1930s and 1940s can best be seen in Jacob Landau's crayon-on-paper portrait Unemployed. Like the original Ashcan group, Landau began his career as a book and magazine illustrator. In this work, five dejected men sit on a street-corner bench beneath a turned-down "One Way" sign that points at them like the finger of fate. If the turn-of-the-century Ashcan artists were the first to paint the underside of urban American life, they did so in a celebratory tone; their heirs, like Landau, added a more overt political edge. For a 1999 retrospective of his work, Landau wrote, "I have a strong sense of how man's inhumanity to man has worked to create the kind of society we live in." His work has the passionately partisan spirit of artist Ben Shahn or illustrator Lynn Ward.

Dorothy Winslade was a prominent West Coast artist who worked in the Ashcan tradition. Her 1935 etching Girl Show portrays a gaggle of street hawkers and gawking onlookers standing under a group of mute, statuesque strippers. A wailing child is lifted above the crowd, her face turned toward the viewer. Winslade contrasts the loud vulgarity of this peep-show crowd with the languid poses of the naked women suspended within a gigantic stage set. The gallery aptly juxtaposes Winslade's print with some photos and engravings by Reginald Marsh, whose favorite subject matter included burlesque shows, carousels, and dime-a-dance joints. The hysteria of Winslade's spectators is echoed in Marsh's 1941 fantastical engraving Three Girls on a Chicken, showing a trio of Coney Island cuties galloping on a grotesque carousel rooster.

Critics like Robert Hughes have rightly noted that in its turn-of-the-century heyday, Ashcan realism coincided with Teddy Roosevelt's Roughrider vision of American machismo at home and abroad. But its roots go back earlier, as is evident in Mary Moran's 1881 etching The Cliff Dwellers of New York, depicting a group of wooden shacks and shanties precariously perched on a rocky outcrop at the end of a street. These flimsy structures are elaborately detailed in dark tones in the print's foreground, while in the distance, encroaching rows of brick tenements loom above them. It's a wonderfully emblematic image of the end of one America -- the coarse, improvised world of homesteaders and pioneers -- and the beginning of another, the organized grid of Manhattan streets and standardized housing.

George Luks' 1925 oil Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania shows what replaced that earlier world. For this brooding portrait of an impoverished coal-mining town, the artist borrows the palette of van Gogh's Potato Eaters, with its sooty textures and bleak tonality. A smokestack and giant crane hover above some workmen shoveling from a pyramid of coal. The gray, backlit sky and darkly clad figures are rendered with coarse brush strokes and palette-knife smears. Luks, who vaunted his brutal youth of barroom brawls in Pennsylvania mining towns, had this artistic motto: "Guts! Guts! Life! Life! That's my technique."

George Bellows' 1917 lithograph Dance in the Madhouse is certainly the most macabre work in the show. It once appeared as an illustration in Harper's, and portrays a group of inmates and visitors in a round dance, apparently the therapy du jour at the Great State Hospital of Columbus, Ohio, whose superintendent was a friend of Bellows. The characters resemble the lunatics and witches in Goya's series of etchings titled Los Caprichos. Bellows was best known for his startling canvas depicting the brutality and violence of boxing, Stag at Sharkey's, arguably the greatest American sports painting ever and the most famous Ashcan work.

The Krevsky exhibit encompasses nearly seven decades of Ashcan-related art, including oils, engravings, etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs. It reminds us of the breadth and radical content of this school, as well as its enduring impact. There's nothing antique or old-fashioned in these works, whose freshness and candor escaped the critics of their time but which today are welcome for their honesty and spontaneity.

About The Author

Carl Nagin


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