Transcending Matter

The Ashcan painters may have “lost” most battles during their time, but we should remember them by their goal: to paint the force of life.


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Human history is written from the perspective of the winners. But it is also the case that the winners are, more often than not, assholes. Looking back over the wreckage of past ages, losers can come off looking pretty good in comparison. The story of what-could-have-been sometimes beats the story of what-actually-was.


One scenario for meditations upon history’s winners and losers took place in New York City, 1913 when a group of painters decided to put on a show at the Armory building. The idea behind the show was simple. One of the organizers, John Quinn, expressed it in his opening address, “The members of this association have shown you that American artists — young American artists, that is — do not dread, and have no need to dread, the ideas or the culture of Europe.”

America was ready to confront the big boys (and a couple of girls) of European art. American art would no longer be perceived as the mostly provincial, second-order stuff of a colonial backwater. The Armory exhibit would display American artists like Oscar Bluemner, Patrick H. Bruce, James Earle Fraser, and Henry Twachtman alongside Cezanne, Redon, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, and Duchamp. Likewise, art enthusiasts in the U.S. would get their first glimpse of Continental art movements: Neo-Impressionism, Futurism, Fauvism, Abstraction, and Cubism.

Viewers of the exhibit were also going to see the newest creations of those American artists who had come to be known as The Ashcan School. Painters like William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and a young Edward Hopper. The Ashcan artists painted with a dark and sooty realism. They favored street scenes, often at night, frequently in less-savory parts of town. They were not prim and proper artists of the salon. They were artists making art about real people doing real things. In the confrontation with the newest in European painting, the Ashcan School was bringing to the Armory show a blend of social relevance and a brazen, forward-looking painting style. It was going to be a good fight.

Suffice it to say, the Ashcan School lost. Badly. A headline in the Sun — a New York newspaper of the time — read, “Cubists, Futurists, and Post Impressionists Win First Engagement, Leaving the Enemy Awestruck.” The Ashcans were overshadowed. They weren’t, it turned out, as radical as they thought they were. Next to the wild lines of a Kandinsky, the utter breakdown in form of a Duchamp, the Ashcan paintings looked tame.

The Ashcan School has since been deemed a minor movement. They failed at the Armory and they were forgotten. Art history, like all history, is usually written from the perspective of the winners. But of what does this “winning” really consist? The “victory” of, say, Futurism over the Ashcan School in 1913 has much to do with the outbreak of WWI one year later. Futurism’s vision of a mechanized and war-torn reality was confirmed by real-world events. But are we to judge the worth of a school of painting by its prophetic powers or by, in this case, its celebration of industrialized war? Maybe the road not taken deserves a second look. What do we really know about the Ashcan School?

Because the Ashcan painters often painted scenes from urban life, from the immigrant-strewn streets of New York City, their work is often judged, positively or negatively, as a form of journalism. They were thought to be “documenting” the reality of life on the Lower East Side, “editorializing” the plight of the urban poor. In fact, neither of these motivations drove the Ashcan painters.

The Ashcan painters followed a specific path that was laid down by the charismatic painter and teacher Robert Henri. Henri was born in 1865. He recognized, as did most painters of the late 19th and early 20th century, that painting was at a crossroads. Newer technologies like photography and early moving pictures had displaced painting as the means for creating documents of record. Painting was forced to find itself anew, forced to ask what it could do that a medium like photography could not.

Robert Henri’s answer was to point to the 17th century, to painters like Franz Hals and Diego Velazquez. “Velasquez and Hals,” Henri once wrote, “made a dozen strokes reveal more than most other painters could accomplish in a thousand.” These and other thoughts from Robert Henri are collected in a volume of his letters, teachings, and aphorisms called The Art Spirit. In his writings, Henri talks about one thing more incessantly than anything else. “I am interested,” he writes time and time again in various formulations, “in life.”

What becomes clear in The Art Spirit is that painting “life” is different from, perhaps even opposed to, the kind of painting that would attempt to portray exactly what a camera might find. Life, for Henri, is both something more mysterious and more direct. “Life and art,” Henri wrote, “cannot be disassociated, nor can any artist, however he may desire it, produce a line of ‘sheer beauty’, i.e., a line disassociated from human feeling.” This might sound like the airy musings of a sentimental man. Maybe they are. But they are also the musings of a painter, a brilliant painter, who was trying to find answers to a serious problem. If the task of painting has nothing to do with mirroring and reproducing exactly what the eye sees, then the true subject matter of a painting must be found elsewhere. Otherwise, every painter ought to put down the brush and take up photography. Many of the European painters had found an answer to painting’s dilemma in breaking down the visual image, deconstructing it, looking behind appearances at fundamental shapes, forms, and colors.

Henri felt that painting didn’t need to do something completely new since some painters had always been doing something that photography cannot do. Painting, thought Henri, can reveal the “life” that percolates beneath the surface, which cannot be shown simply by creating the illusion, however brilliantly, of three-dimensional space. It is with great zeal and an enthusiasm bordering on hysteria that Henri exhorted his students to know something about life so that they may convey this feeling into their paintings. “The object, which is back of every true work of art,” Henri explained to a student, “is the attainment of a state of being… a more than ordinary moment of existence.” Once this state is attained, the painting that results is, “but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state.” To become a painter, Henri thought, is to become a kind of cipher for the force of life.

Robert Henri wanted his students to paint everything, every object, as if it were alive. “Paint not the material,” he wrote, “but the spirit of the necktie, that is, its relation to life, thought, breathing of the model.” Matter, as Henri saw it, ought to bend, and does in fact bend, to the spirit that inhabits it. In critiquing a painting shown to him by one of his students, Henri wrote, “Paint even the rungs of the model’s chair so a poem could be written about them. Remember that your model is not against space, but in it. … Everything on the canvas, hair, coat, background and chair should help express your idea of the man’s character.” And this is exactly what Henri did in the portraits he painted. Look at his portrait “The Failure of Sylvester”, from 1914 (on view right now in the exhibit “Return to the Ashcan” at the Museum of Art / Fort Lauderdale). The painting is of an African American child. The child has fallen asleep in a chair. His head is slumped over onto his left shoulder. The chair Sylvester is sitting in is slumped over to the left as well. The right arm of the chair is literally crumpling inward to mirror the sleep of the young boy. The child’s white shirt is painted in bold, impressionistic strokes, reminiscent of something you would see in a Franz Hals portrait. The white shirt is alive with inner tension. And the floral pattern on the fabric of the chair Sylvester is sitting in sets off the action of the shirt. The child is sleeping; the chair is cozy and comfortable. But the overall feeling of the painting is one of motion and the organic potential for motion. Henri had a special feeling for children, he often wrote things like, “children are greater than the grown man.” Nothing summarizes “The Failure of Sylvester” like one of Henri’s short aphorisms: “The tremendous activity of a boy sitting still.” Here is what painting “life” actually looks like.

Henri told his students, “That which is worthwhile in a landscape is the expression of human emotion in it.” The task for his students, for the younger painters who made up the Ashcan School, was to figure out how to translate that thought into practice. How do you make a landscape an expression of human emotion? George Luks’ answer, in “Children Throwing Snowballs” (1905), was to make the street upon which the boys are playing a riotous participant in the act of throwing snowballs. You can actually see, in Luks’ painting, the marks of his brush jumping and playing on the canvas as he worked to build up piles of snow in the street. The street is not the background for the action of the children. The street is involved in the game. The piles of snow are piles for the game, they only look as they do because the children are using them that way. Matter here, like the otherwise inert material that makes up the sleeping Sylvester’s chair, cannot remain indifferent to the human activity all around it. The matter is taking on life. And Luks’ painting is able to show us this fact, to “reveal” it, as Henri would say, in a way that a photograph never could. A photograph would be too literal. A painting, however, can show us both the children playing and the street playing with the children. The same thing happens in John Sloan’s “Bonfire in Snow,” (circa 1919). The painting shows no ordinary bonfire. The fire looks almost like a cartoon. Sloan’s implication is that the fire, as a substance, is mutable. The fire that consumes a house is different from the fire that delights children. The fire in this painting is a child’s fire. It bends itself to the children’s games, to their activity. It makes itself into a fairytale because of what the children are doing with it.

“People’s houses,” Robert Henri wrote, “get to look like them. There is more in a house than the materials it is made of. Humanize the house.” The Ashcan School painters took this very seriously, finding ways to humanize nearly everything. In George Luks’ 1908 painting, “The Guitar (a Portrait of the Artist’s Brother with His Son),” a guitar is shown to be a tool by which the father will teach the infant son how to become a man. The guitar is an outgrowth of the father’s character as it is being imprinted on the baby boy.

There is a great deal of beauty in the paintings of the Ashcan School. This beauty has historical and documentary value. It tells us something about the urban milieu of early 20th century America. But the beauty transcends the documentary value. The Ashcan approach to the problem of painting after photography was novel and internally consistent. The Ashcan painters transformed painting into a tool for humanizing matter, for revealing the ever-mysterious force of “life” that for Henri was all-important. It wasn’t just a theory, it was a way of painting that can still be seen and felt in the paintings.

The Ashcan painters were largely forgotten for their troubles. In the win-or-lose game of art history, they lost. In his writings, Robert Henri tells the story of a young painter who asked Henri whether he could make a living painting in the Ashcan style. The young painter designed can labels. Henri advised him to, “make tomato-can labels and live well that he might be free to paint as he liked.” Henri could not have known how bittersweet, how darkly humorous that advice would sound 50 years after the birth of Pop Art, when painting tomato-can labels became, itself, a form of art. In the end, the Ashcan painters came and went with few regrets. They stayed true to an idea, win or lose, painting always just as they liked. 13 February 2013