John Sloan, McSorley’s Bar (1912), oil on canvas, 66.04 cm. x 81.28 cm.
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Any critic whose name is on the mailing lists of museums and galleries soon becomes inured to the extravagant claims found in press releases. So much so that the most bounteous string of superlatives is likely to be met with little more than a sigh. Yet there are occasions when a press-release statement, made on behalf of an artist or exhibition, is so preposterous that it can cause even the initiated reviewer to blanch. Such a moment came for this writer upon receiving notice of the exhibition Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York at the New York Historical Society. In the press release, we are informed that one aspect of the show deals with the Ashcan School’s take on “changing gender roles.” Only in the politicized art world of the 1990s could it be suggested that stalwart fogeys like George Luks and John Sloan occupy the same ideological turf as Cindy Sherman.
The curators of Metropolitan Lives might balk at such a comparison, and it is an overstatement. But if you guessed that the paintings in this show are exhibited as a means of validating its wall labels, you would not be off the mark. “Metropolitan Lives” reduces art to artifact. It presents the paintings, drawings, and prints of the Ashcan School as historical documents overlaid with a polite veneer of politics. The art of Luks, Sloan, George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, and Everett Shinn is presented alongside postcards of the period, sheet music, brochures, a rattan subway bench, a video monitor playing nickelodeon films, and musical recordings. (Never trust an art show with a soundtrack.) This is not to deny the kitschy charm of the sheet music for “It’s Tough When Izzy Rosenstein Loves Genevieve Malone” or a Coney Island gambling wheel populated by six silver dragons. But Metropolitan Lives doesn’t suffice as art or history. It’s a hodgepodge and a skimpy one at that.
The Ashcan School derived its name from the group’s paintings of urban life in turn-of-the-century New York. As Oliver Larkin, author of Art and Life in America, wrote in 1949: theirs is an art of “types, localities, and incidents to which Americans were conveniently deaf and blind [as subjects for art] … drunks and slatterns, pushcart peddlers and coal mines, bedrooms and barrooms.” While I would be the last to suggest that Americans (or anyone else for that matter) aren’t capable of a willed ignorance, this quotation does hand the organizers of Metropolitan Lives the license they need for the exhibition’s extra-aesthetic interests.
Robert W. Snyder and Rebecca Zurier— the curators of Metropolitan Lives, along with Virginia M. Mecklenburg—must, one would think, admire the Ashcan School’s art. Why else would they dedicate time and effort working on an exhibition such as this? Yet one gets a nagging impression from reading their catalogue essays that they would admire these artists a whole lot more if they were, well, a bit more hip. Zurier and Snyder spend the better part of the catalogue going over the Ashcan School’s paintings, checking for bits of political impropriety. This makes for some onerous reading—do Glackens’s illustrations really show “little sympathy for people presented as foreign”?—and one wonders if Snyder and Zurier have really seen these paintings at all. There is fretting here, for instance, about the “limited and partial” social vision of the these artists. Is it impolite to suggest that using art to illustrate history (or ideology) is more limited and prejudicial than any of the paintings in Metropolitan Lives?
Of course, the Ashcan artists were no strangers to politics. Sloan was a member of the Socialist Party and contributed illustrations to the radical journal The Masses, as did Bellows, Glackens, and Henri. But as painters they put art ahead of politics. (Sloan quit The Masses in protest over editorial captions that politicized his already political illustrations.) The painters of the Ashcan School were far from hell-raisers, artistically or otherwise, as Mecklenburg makes clear in her fine catalogue essay, and their notoriety as such was largely due to Henri’s knack for publicity. Yet, even by the standards of the day, their paintings were traditionally made and well-crafted, qualities that can be traced to the artists’ day jobs as illustrators. With the exception of Henri, all of them worked as commercial artists, and their paintings owe as much, and probably more, to the conventions of newspaper and magazine illustration as to the Dutch and Spanish masters they revered. So while individual images may recall Hals and Goya, the front page of the New York Herald is never far behind.
Whatever else it’s meant to be, Metropolitan Lives is not intended as an exhibition of art. Anyone wanting an overview of the Ashcan School and its accomplishments will be disappointed by the show’s scantiness. Robert Henri was the artistic and philosophical mentor of this group and a notable figure in twentieth-century American art, but he is represented here by only three paintings. Shinn and Luks have some fine pieces on view, but both artists emerge, basically, as accomplished ciphers. Glackens the illustrator is given priority over Glackens the painter, though Bellows’s paintings are adequately represented, along with some handsome prints. It is John Sloan, however, who dominates Metropolitan Lives; of the eighty-odd pieces here, twenty-nine are his. A more apt title for this show would have been John Sloan and Friends.
Because Sloan’s paintings embody so much of what we think of when we recall the Ashcan School, tipping Metropolitan Lives in his favor does make a kind of sense. It helps elucidate the Ashcan School’s appeal—and limitations. Sloan was probably the most gifted of all of these artists yet, even at his best, there is a certain dullness to his vision. In his paintings, we always feel the illustrator’s acumen for devising pictures and a concomitant effort to get beyond mere craft. Consequently, his compositions and paint-handling seem efficient rather than felt. So while there is much to commend in a smartly constructed image like Six O’Clock, Winter (1912) or the Rembrandtesque lighting of McSorley’s Back Room (1912), the pictures are timorous and somewhat pedestrian. They are, finally, an illustrator’s paintings. Sloan’s failure, as with the rest of the Ashcan School’s, lies in his inability to get beyond the anecdotal. This is why the Ashcan painters aren’t major artists so much as solid ones.
The one exception is William Glackens, whose Fruit Stand, Coney Island (c. 1898) and Skating in Central Park (c. 1910) are of such a high quality as painting that they positively soar above the rest of the work. Despite the trenchant observations found in his fine illustrations, one wishes there were more of Glackens’s paintings on display. But, of course, the art here seems beside the point. If Metropolitan Lives reveals that there is some documentary value to these artists’ work, it does so at the expense of the pictures. Perhaps this is what we should expect from an exhibition that is as much an appendage to its handsome catalogue as the exhibition’s paintings are to the curators’ theses. I don’t doubt that a savvy curator with an eye for painting could put together a show of these artists that would make an effective case for them. But anyone who has a soft spot for the Ashcan School will find Metropolitan Lives a most dispiriting affair.
© 1996 Mario Naves
Originally published in the June 1996 edition of The New Criterion.