Ashcan School - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Ashcan School
At the turn of the last century, a group of young artists appeared who were set on challenging the refinement, polish, and idealistic American Impressionists who then dominated the art scene. Philadelphia's Robert Henri was the leader of the group which was made up of John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Luks, and William Glackens. Each one varied in style and subject matter; yet, all were urban realists who adhered to Henri's motto "art for life's sake," rather than "art for art's sake." Despite their common economic and ethnic backgrounds, each approached the urban scene in a unique manner. Henri had studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art, as well as at Paris's Academie Julian. He began to mentor the four artists, all of whom were newspaper illustrators, circa 1892; we consider this grouping to be the first generation of Ashcan School painters. The second generation commenced with Henri's move to Manhattan and the inclusion of his New York student George Bellows.
The Eight is Formed
In 1908, the core Ashcan School artists were joined by three other painters, Edwin Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies, to form The Eight. This new formation only exhibited as a group once, at the MacBeth Galleries in New York. What united this varied grouping of artistic rebels was their opposition to the conservative and very powerful National Academy of Design's system of juried exhibitions. Henri and many other artists believed that the National Academy was not supportive of more liberal, modern ideas and was indifferent to their art. Opposing competitions and the selections of conservative juries, Henri advocated a no-jury, no-prize, open policy for exhibitions that he felt nurtured a creative atmosphere. The Eight was putting power back into the hands of the artists who selected the works, and its members designed the installation themselves.
The Radical Exhibitions of New York City
Sloan and Henri worked together with Davies and painter Walk Kuhn to assemble the 1910 Exhibition of Independent Artists (1910), America's counterpart to the Salon des Refuses in France. In Paris, the then-unpopular Impressionists came together to exhibit their work, which had been rejected by the official Salon organized by the French government and was met with harsh critical reaction; this served as a model for Henri's group. The 1910 Exhibition was a second attempt, after the exhibition at The MacBeth Galleries, to pull the presentation of art into the power of the artists. There was no jury, no prize system, and the works were hung alphabetically to encourage a democratic viewing. Almost five hundred works by over one hundred artists were displayed. Over two thousand people attended the opening night, and thousands more visited the three-week-long exhibition. It was a media sensation, but reviews were mixed, and only few works sold.
The Eight and the Armory Show
The single independent exhibition that had, and still resounds, the greatest influence on American art was the 1913 Armory Show, which expanded the ideas of the 1910 affair to an international exhibition by displaying great numbers of European modernist works. The exhibition ran in three cities, where a total of 250 thousand people visited it. Arthur B. Davies and Walt Kuhn were the key organizers of the Armory Show; Henri was minimally involved. In January 1912, a committee of twenty-five artists formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, which was the nucleus of the Amory Show of the following year. Most of the involved artists were either allied with the National Academy of Design or with Henri. Davies, of the Eight, was allied with both groups and was at the forefront of the exhibition. Glackens produced a listing of over one thousand American works for inclusion. Davies felt that the American aesthetic provincialism must be challenged; the artist was well-versed in European modernism. Kuhn travelled to Europe gathering works, a total of over four hundred, beginning with the French Romantic period. The show's viewpoint was overwhelmingly French modernism, which would direct the course of American art for generations. Attendance at the Armory Show was initially disappointedly low until vitriolic reviews were published that captured the public's fancy. At this point, people came in great numbers; many came merely to mock and make sport of the works on view, especially Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. After New York, which drew the greatest crowds and reviews, the massive exhibition traveled to Boston and Chicago; the Chicago Vice Commission investigated supposedly immoral material on view, which served only to boost attendance. Students at the Art Institute of Chicago hung Constantin Brancusi and Henri Matisse in effigy. The Armory Show's immediate impact was the proliferation of galleries in New York City. Previously, in 1911, Alfred Stieglitz had exhibited some works by modernists at his 291 Gallery, but this did not equal the number of works on view at the Armory Show. American artists were interested in and influenced by Synethetic Cubism, which was exhibited in great number at the Armory. An additional consequence of the Armory Show was the creation of private venues such as the Mable Dodge Luhan and the Arensberg salons that became fertile grounds for discussions of modernism.
Ashcan School: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The Sidewalks of New York
For such modernists as Lyonel Feininger and John Marin the excitement of bustling Manhattan was captured by looking up and depicting the magnificent skyscrapers that punctuated the skyline, such as the newly built Metropolitan Life and Woolworth buildings. But the Ashcan artists approached New York City at street level, tracking changing trends in immigration, advertisement, and popular entertainment. It has been said that Henri's group was less inclined to paint the city's new architecture than they were interested in the people who built such edifices. They emphasized the action on the street, peddlers, prostitutes, tourist spots, impoverished children, women strolling in newly built parks, and commuters, rather than the picturesque and distant panoramic views.
New York's Workers and Immigrants
As opposed to reformist photographers such as Jacob Riis, the Ashcan School artists were not interested in effecting social change but instead in capturing the vitality of urban life on many social levels. The newly arrived to America, such as the Southern Italians and Eastern-European Jews, held great fascination for native-born New Yorkers who travel on sightseeing tours of the Lower East Side to gasp and gape. Although the Ashcan School artists were not entirely immune to ethnic stereotyping, for example, the many hooked-nose Jews in Luks's Hester Street (1905), overall they sought to celebrate the city's diverse people and their ways of life in their canvases. The exception of an Ashcan artist that was concerned with social issues would be Sloan's graphics for The Masses, which were socialist in intent and sought to feed the workers' struggle against capitalism.
Spectacle and Dazzle: The Art of Entertainment
Mass production of consumer goods fostered leisure time for many New Yorkers who sought out the new spots and forms of entertainment that the city offered. The Ashcan School artists would follow suit with their canvases and sketchbooks. With supplies in hand, Henri and his followers would depict bloody boxing matches (Bellows), drinking establishments such as McSorley's (Sloan), and the picture shows and vaudeville performances (Shinn). But as still remains true today, the greatest theater in New York City is the theater of the streets, which commanded the Ashcan's greatest attention. Then, as now, New Yorkers liked not only to see, but also to be seen. Ashcan artists primarily dismissed the domestic sphere, which was the provenance of women, in order to engage with the rough streets and people of New York and with such social spheres as bars and gentlemen clubs, where women and minorities were prohibited.
Later Developments - After Ashcan School
Constituting the artistic avant-garde at this juncture, the Ashcan School, along with members of the Eight, played a crucial role in organizing the watershed Armory Show of 1913 that introduced American audiences to European modernism; it was this new and shocking European work that rapidly supplanted the Ashcan artists' claim of artistic radicalism. In contrast to the modern works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and others, the Ashcan School, with their tight hold on realism, looked absolutely provincial in comparison and soon became overshadowed. The same investment in the city and modernity that made the Ashcan School so current ironically contributed to its demise. Cameras and news photographs took on the task of reportage which had been the purview of the painters. The increase in photography, between the years 1910 and 1920, may have encouraged the artists to depart from their earlier styles and subject matter. Individually, each artist renounced urban subjects of daily life for stylistic experimentation and "pure art," meaning less socially charged art. By 1915, Henri adopted alternate color theories, resulting in the garish look of his late portraits. Glackens turned to Impressionism, painting such studio-based subjects as nudes and still lifes. Bellows left New York City behind and concentrated on seascapes and landscapes. During the 1920s, Sloan was based primarily in New Mexico, where he documented the lives and faces of the indigenous Americans. Each took on numerous students, several of whom formed the Fourteenth Street School in the 1920s. The influence of the Ashcan School's focus on urbanism, immigrants, and impoverished Americans resonates with the Social Realism movement of the 1930s and such artists as Ben Shahn and Edward Hopper.