December 21, 2007

Those Fabulous Anarcho-Socialist Ashcan Artists, and A Walk to McSorley's

''Never think of beauty or use small brushes.'' - Robert Henri


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Three current exhibitions, two in New York and one in Wilmington, Delaware, highlight the work of the Ashcan artists, a cohesive group of artists active in the early decades of the twentieth century. Two of the exhibits, John Sloan's New York at the Museum of the City of New York and Seeing the City: John Sloan's New York at the Delaware Art Museum, focus on the prolific member of the circle whose drawings, illustrations and paintings of daily life in New York have become illustrative of the movement. His painting of the Carmine Street Theatre (1912) in Greenwich Village is thought to be the only painting that actually depicts an ashcan. The third exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, which I wrote about last week, includes all of the artists known as "The Eight" as well as those artists of similar artistic sensibilities such as George Bellows, Alfred Maurer, and Guy Pène Du Bois.

While the work of these artists to the modern viewer may come across now as nostalgic interpretations of an older New York, several saw themselves as a vanguard of revolutionary culture. Beginning with the debut exhibit at Macbeth Gallery in 1908 and culminating in 1913 with the Armory Show and Peterson Strike Pageant, the artists established working and personal relationships with the likes of the anarchist Emma Goldman and that most famous and authentic of all Trotskyites, Leon Trotsky. The exhibit at the New-York Historical Society pushes the bon vivant life and downplays the "reds."

Robert Henri, the group's mentor, and George Bellows taught at the Modern School, a school dedicated to anarchist principles. Sloan drew illustrations for The Masses and headed the publicity committee for the Paterson Strike Pageant. Not all members of The Eight embraced overt radical politics, and for most, the fervor was all over in a few years, but they weren't just social butterflies.

I've pulled together a self-guided stroll that stops at some of the important places for the Ashcan artists. The main purpose, however, is to wind up at the ancient McSorley's Old Ale House at 15 East 7th Street. McSorley's, a favorite Irish working class watering hole and the subject of five Sloan works, didn't admit women until 1970. "Twoud be a good place to sing "Fairytale of New York," I think, but not too loud. McSorley's rule is "Be Good or Be Gone."

See related post: The Pleasures of the Ashcan Artists

Image: John Sloan. "McSorley's Back Room." 1912, on display at Delaware Art Museum.

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