NEW YORK, TIME AND AGAIN
12:00 AM, Jul 1, 1996 • By DAVID GELERNTER
The six "Ashcan" artists painted New York City with headlong ardor and limited subtlety starting around the turn of the century; George Bellows, Robert Henri, and John Sloan are the big names. They petered out gradually in the wake of the 1913 Armory show, which introduced Americans to the Fauves and Cubists and turned the six erstwhile American avant-gardists into fuddy- duddies overnight -- one of the meanest tricks in modern art history. Picture Hillary Clinton awakening one morning to discover that the entire country had moved left and she was now a Republican, utterly devoid of compassion ex hypothesi. I for one would want to make sure all White House lamps were battened down tight. The Ashcanners had little originality and merely adequate technique, but their passion and swagger make them interesting. " Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York," at the New-York Historical Society through August 4, underlines a strange fact: The conviction that you are an important painter doesn't make you one, but it helps. Given the necessary minimum of dexterity, vision, and heart, authority is the magic ingredient that separates Art from Noodling Around. The only way to get it is to take it; the Ashcan painters took it.
"Metropolitan Lives" is intriguing for another reason too. These artists were rock-ribbed leftists, but steadfastly refused to mix art and politics. " While I am a Socialist," John Sloan wrote, "I never allowed social propaganda to get into my paintings." It is a line so radically different from what most artists say today, so obviously germane to the ongoing political and cultural debate, you might have expected the press to descend like flies on " Metropolitan Lives." But somehow most journalists missed this story.
George Bellows lays out the Ashcanners' wares -- good and bad, fine and cheesy -- in a 1911 drawing called "Splinter Beach." Three horizontal stripes: Along the bottom, bantering boys strip to their shorts and dive into the East River; in the middle, a huge tug noses south; on top, Manhattan looms. Brooklyn Bridge slices into the picture like a bolt from heaven; it comes to ground amid the Manhattan clutter. "Splinter Beach" has the vibrant, packed- together feeling of a scene through a long telephoto lens, as if the river were two feet wide and you could reach across, and the tight composition keeps the chaos in hand. Yet it has a typical Ashcan weakness also: an unwelcome cartoonishness. The boys have comic-strip faces. Every Ashcanner but Henri worked at some point as a newspaper or magazine illustrator, and so cartooning is a natural influence on their art, and it's not bad in itself. But when it flares up as it does in "Splinter Beach" amid restrained-and- serious realism, like Ronald McDonald strolling onstage during Aida, you don't know what to make of it.
"New York is so different from here," Henri wrote from Philadelphia in 1897; "one feels alive there." The best Ashcan paintings give you (as "Splinter Beach" does) a feeling of swept-upness. The crowd is a dynamo, throwing off sparks. The Ashcanners never sentimentalized, but these crowds are as cheerfully resolute as ripping flags; they are made up of self-possessed people who know they are part of the mass and like it. William Glackens shows the dynamo crowd skating in Central Park, George Luks shows it crammed into the heart of the Lower East Side, John Sloan paints the crowd whooping and boisterous outside a newspaper office on election eve, or dining at a busy restaurant -- in a painting ("Renganeschi's Saturday Night," 1912) you might have mistaken for a loose-limbed proto-Hopper, except that the diners are having fun.