“The Ashcan School” reveals America’s underbelly and many shades of its character

A prize possession of The Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Ashcan School” collection is the large painting “The Sawdust Trail,” from 1916 by George Bellows. Milwaukee Art Museum

Art Review:

The Ashcan School and The Eight: Creating a National Art. The Milwaukee Art Museum, through February 19, 2023. Bradley Family Gallery

For information and tickets: https://mam.org/exhibitions/details/ashcan-and-the-eight.php

To see a world in a grain of sand” poet William Blake once put it. Later, American poet Walt Whitman would see “a grain of sand” as no less perfect than a leaf of grass.”

These great modernist poets saw things profoundly magnified in the humblest of earthly entities, light years from most of the art and music that for centuries courted royalty. So perhaps it was inevitable that the nation built on the anti-regal and messy moorings of democracy foster an art movement antithetical to royalty-schmoozing. Rather, one of the commonfolk, at least in its ideals. This American motherlode would bear the nation’s first “national art.”

Known as The Ash Can School, its name derived from a pejorative critical comment that the art was as good as “a can of ashes.” But in that comment’s snoot the artists saw soot, as in a poetical paradox. The ashes contained dirt, enough to allow seedlings to grow and tilt toward social justice, found in artistic truth.  That is, a great, if profoundly flawed nation’s life and essence might be extrapolated from something as slight as a cigarette butt’s droppings.

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s The Ashcan School and The Eight: Creating a National Art allows Americans to see themselves in the early 20th century, a time of great cultural upheaval, a nation shapeshifting in its peculiar genius — troubled, compulsively creative, proud, and quotidian. It was also struggling through the first World War with the Great Depression around the corner. Yet immigrants poured in, adding diversity, labor energy, and societal tension.  Perhaps more than anything, modernism’s post-industrial revolution had shackled and driven America.

How did the Ash Can School capture all this? First, they objected to exhibition practices that they considered restrictive and conservative. They often employed an expressionistic, painterly style to portray gritty and downtrodden subjects previously deemed inappropriate for high art and museums, the stuff of “ashcans.”

Accordingly, the museum’s curators and guest show catalog essayists draw parallels to cultural and social issues still relevant today.

The Art Museum owns one of the nation’s largest collections of works by the Ashcan School, and this is the first exhibit to include nearly the entire 150-object collection, says curator Brandon Ruud. Prints, drawings, paintings, and pastels represent artists of the so-called “The Eight,” who largely produced the Ash Can style and sensibility: Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, George Bellows, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, Arthur Bowen Davies, Maurice Prendergast. Several affiliated artists like Stuart Davis reveal the full range of the group’s subjects and artistic practices.

One’s eye might easily gravitate to a large painting in the show, Bellows’ “The Sawdust Trail,” by traditional measures of scale and complexity a “masterpiece,” even though the group’s aesthetics strove to burrow beneath grand art conventions that may obscure the truth as they saw it. The painting earns its renown, an epic canvas with a cinematic view of a religious revival meeting.

It tells a rich and sardonic story of post-Puritan American impulses that continue to this day in evangelic churches. The charismatic preacher, named for a real historical figure, Billy Sunday, would solicit salvation while typically delivering a thunder-and-lightning sermon to spook believers out of their savings. The air above his big tent virtually billows with a dense cloud of sun-lit smoke that might easily exalt the illusion of the divine.

Billy Sunday himself glad-hands one convert. Several women faint (from the fumes of divine inspiration?) amid the dense, motley crowd. Exaltation, or delusion, or some other strange strain of behavior is distinctly American as it is universal, to see the “MAGA” power deluding today, and the global trend to political authoritarianism.

A man with that kind of power might be a Republican presidential candidate — if he can beat out Donald Trump who, heathen though he may be, knows most of the preacher’s hidden gifts for dark persuasion and personality-cult politics.

An even more insidious example of how compromised holiness undermines the truth is Mike Pence, who has said he will not testify to Congress about the January 6 insurrection, even though he was a primary execution target. He’s played it politically all the way, claiming a dubious “separation of powers” privilege — only because he survived.

So, these Ash Can diggers uncovered America haunted by cycles of power as old and foreshadowing as the first conquests of Native Americans and slavery.

Yet one might better experience this exhibit on a smaller scale, as a kind of forensic mystery, investigating the human figures that tell personal stories of lives possibly forsaken or transgressed.

John Sloan The Barbershop, etching and aquatint, 1915, MutualArt.com

Zoom down from, say, the atmospheric expanse of “The Sawdust Trail” to individual figures in intimately revealing scenes. No one surpassed painter-printmaker John Sloan at carving out these small-window revelations of what would become known as Americana, in a land still grappling with its identity.

The class-laden print The Barbershop animates to the point of satirical comedy. A crowded barbershop is recast as a tableau of sublimated class-warfare. The two men being serviced clearly reign. One seems to eye, with lust or disdain, a young lower-class woman manicuring him. Seated in waiting, a middle-class man reads the satirical Puck magazine, and beside him lies a subversive Marxist magazine called The Masses, for which Sloan served as art editor. The complex, beautiful composition (less than 10 by 12 inches) is riddled with America’s contradictions of social indulgence and defiance.

Among Sloan’s numerously displayed gritty parables of the underclass is Night Windows. A Peeping Tom husband spies on a bathing neighbor in a nearby window, while his wife hangs out his family’s laundry amid squalling children. In Sloan’s world, God may or may not have been invited for dinner. They are too busy trying to put bread on the table for the brood.

Robert Henri, Dutch Joe, (or Jopi van Slooten), oil (24 by 20 inches), 1910, Pinterest 

Robert Henri, who was the movement’s leader, had the portraiture skill to humanize the mother, the man, or boy, in the brood.

Witness his marvelous portrait of a street urchin named Dutch Joe, (or Jopi van Slooten), from 1910. In this bundle of mischief, you sense potential, yet risk. “The disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation.” That’s how American literary critic Ihab Hassan characterized what he called America’s “radical innocence.” 2 It entailed the possibility that, in his scruffy vigor, brash will and ingenuity, Joe might get ahead in the world, or be swallowed up in it.

This show is populated with a fascinating array of colorful actors, many of problematic agency.

John Sloan, Reading in a Subway, etching, 1926. Pinterest

Everett Shinn, The Nightclub Scene, oil, (36 by 34 inches) 1934

From Shinn’s iridescent Nightclub Scene to Sloan’s bundled-from-the-cold flapper in Reading in a Subway, or the vibrant gaggle of 9-to-5 women in Return from the Toil, these artists encounter a diverse populous and gives lie to the contemporary criticism (on an exhibit wall commentary) that these artists diminished women and minorities in the class-struggle tableaux. They were doubtless men of their time, subject to certain biases, but by this evidence they strove for greater understanding and truth of how we live together, and in isolation, in America, to envision a real yet better way, one quotidian day at a time.

In other words, they often told a small “d” democratic story, creating heroes among quietly courageous women and other folks hidden in the cracks of society.

And the men depicted are often satirical subjects of classism and sexism, as in preacher Billy Sunday and Sloan’s “Barbershop” scene.

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, lithograph, 1923-24, (18 by 22 1/4 inches), Pinterest 

Perhaps the most famous image in the show is Dempsey and Firpo, the lithograph print that led to George Bellows’ explosive painting of a big-time heavyweight boxing match, a literal witnessing of the brutal sport that came of age in this era. “When Dempsey was knocked through the ropes he fell in my lap,” Bellows explained to Henri. “I cursed him a bit and placed him carefully back in the ring.” So, Bellows justifiably includes himself in the painting’s corner, a bit like director Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearances.

Bellows had studied art under Henri. John Fagg’s superb catalog essay describes how “Henri encouraged his students both to scour city streets for inspiration and to read widely and embrace culture in all its forms.” This sounds like the best kind of voraciousness that would exemplify the American striving these artists documented and interpreted, warts and all.

“Henri talked not only about the students’ paintings but also about music, literature, and life in general, and a very stimulating manner, and his lectures constituted a liberal education,” recalled Stuart Davis. 3

This exhibit constitutes such an education, as rare as it is valuable, at a time when it feels sorely needed. If you want to learn about confounding America, of both yesterday and today, in the Faulknerian sense that the past is never dead, this Ash Can art provides you, in immersive depth, yet free of academic pretenses, though the catalogue essays are welcome. It is an experience of vast pleasures amid what Duke Ellington called murmuring “Harlem airshafts,” and Hitchcock’s rear windows, and pregnant, grimy shadows of night. 4

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This review was originally published in a slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express: here: https://shepherdexpress.com/culture/visual-art/america-unvarnished-in-mams-ash-can-school-exhibit/

1 The exhibit also includes a lithograph version of The Sawdust Trail, which shows more of the fine details in the dense composition.

2 Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, Princeton, 1961, 7

3 John Fagg, “The Unseen City: The Ashcan School’s New York,” The Ashcan School and The Eight: Creating a National Art, show catalog, The Milwaukee Art Museum 2022, 78

4 A reflection of this collection’s ongoing contemporary relevance and vitality is that it is still growing even after decades. A primary curator of the show, Brandon Rudd explained to me: “One of the truly amazing things about the Ashcan School collection is that it is both such an integral part of the Museum’s rich history and is also active and growing: This exhibition features new acquisitions and never-before-seen donations, as well as loans from private collections in the Milwaukee community and works rarely displayed or seen by the public because of their fragility.”

 

Jim Glynn, Restless Seeker, Part 2

 

Ed. note, This “Jim Glynn Part 2,” was accidentally posted a few days ago, even though obviously unfinished. I discovered that belately, after being out of town. Thanks for the generous “likes,” but here is the finished post. 

It was gratifying, but no great surprise, that many people responded to my last Culture Currents posting, with a vast array of comments and stories and appreciation of the late Jim Glynn. I now realize I can’t leave this subject at that. I need to add more to this man’s story and legacy, in my small way. Thus, this follow-up blog post.

What dawned on me today was about what Jim signified and how he functioned in our lives, meaning those who knew and were truly touched by him. In retrospect, it seems that for me, and I suspect a number of our other people, that this extraordinary Irishman may have been his own sort of “guru.” I believe he came to his wisdom the hard way, as perhaps most wisdom arrives, through the extraordinary trials, suffering and indignities that his paraplegia visited upon him over the course of most of his adult life.

I never really thought of him that way when he was alive, and I realize the “guru” notion may prompt a few eye rolls, but I doubt much among those who knew the man. Thinking back, I always felt somewhat blessed by his presence, and inspired, and perhaps, if I was lucky, even enlightened a bit by the restless seeker in him, in all its manifestations, towards what I recently called “enlightened serenity.”

This got me to thinking about a book I own and cherish, written by perhaps the most brilliant teacher I have ever had: Professor Ihab Hassan, an acclaimed literary critic, whom I had the privilege to study with in a graduate English lit seminar at UW-Milwaukee in the mid-1980s. And the notion of Jim’s seeking, or his quest in life — quiet as it may have seemed — led me back to Hassan’s superb book Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters.

I also thought part of Hassan’s rather poetic rigor (no oxymoron with him) and perspective came from being an Egyptian, emigrated to America at age 20, then specializing in American literature (His 1961 book Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, made his name in the literary world). Jim responded to the culture and wisdoms of the East, and Egypt is perhaps the most mystical (as in Eastern, more than Arabic) of Middle Eastern cultures.

In his introduction, Hassan characterizes “the seeker” he is trying to illuminate in his book, and, the more I recall Jim and his spirit, the more I feel that he was something of the kind of seeker Hassan contemplates and investigates in his book. I will quote from it:

“The seeker, as I hope to show, has many faces. But he is not characterless or faceless. He is certainly self-reliant, tolerant of risk. He is mobile. He seeks a meaning, even if danger must attend his pursuit; he intuits that individuals need and consume meanings far more than products. And he suspects that the sacred…camouflages itself in that pursuit…he disdains vicarious jeopardy, pseudo-risks, packaged by prurient media or proffered by amusement parks. He knows unreal America. He knows, therefore that in venturous quests he may recover reality, constitute significance, maintain his vigor, all in those privileged moments of being when life vouchsafes its most secret rewards (my italics). Is this not the whole sense of Emersonian experience?” 1

This photo illustrates how Jim Glynn could transform risk into reward with quick, deft wit and charm. I believe he had double-parked in Chicago’s Loop with some friends and, sure enough, the cops pulled up. Jim swiftly disarmed them (not literally) and, before we knew it, he’d “borrowed” their squad car for this crazy scene! Jim’s in the car at right, in his psychedelic shirt, wearing a Chicago cop’s hat, with our bemused friend Mitch (Mitar) Covic, to Jim’s left. The woman below was Jim’s current girlfriend (name escapes me) and the two to the far left were Jim’s friends who I didn’t really know. Photo by Kevin Lynch

Hassan’s characterization of an American archetype (especially that which I italicize), seems to fit Jim Glynn perfectly. As my first post indicated, he was amazingly mobile, despite his paraplegia and, man, did he seek meaning more than products (musical recordings aside), even despite danger.

His questing was largely manifest culturally, beyond good friends and acquaintances (“brothers and “sisters”) through his long-time radio show’s expansively “out there” musical variety: Not simply esoteric, but capable of gracefully bringing back in the general listener by integrating popular, or at least vernacular music, of many sorts. Few disk jockeys I’ve heard did this as well. Not even the great Milwaukee DJ Ron Cuzner, to compare another jazz-oriented programmer, who really “limited” himself to jazz. WMSE today still does have some arguably comparable like “Tom Wanderer” or Paul Cebar, and to a degree “Dr. Sushi,” for those with strong jazz tastes. WUWM’s Bob Reitman remains great, but with largely a ’60s-’70s throwback show.

Clearly Jim’s questing, and ability, to swim across mile-wide and unpredictable Elkhart Lake with arms, signifies that quest. This swim was beyond my ability, by contrast to a few more-capable swimmer/amigos, like Harvey Taylor, Tom Truel, Heiko Eggers, and perhaps Tim Reichart, at a genuine level of physical danger and risk. Truel admits he needed professional scuba fins to “pull this off” with Jim, and just barely.

Truel’s generous and detailed e-mail response to me, a remembrance/tribute of it’s own, underscores what I’m driving at here.

Time, as Tom notes, was a profoundly relative term in Jim’s seemingly timeless quest” Tom writes:.

“I call it ‘Jimmy Glynn Time’. You might get together with Jim for a swim day and to truly enjoy it, one needed to clear the calendar for the day. ‘We will leave at 10AM from my house.’, would become 11 or 11:30. Time was never wasted. Many preparations. Plenty of yuks (eg. see photo above) and endless chat of music, great women and sacred herb. Not a boring delay to say the least, as long as one made no plans for the day and if you knew what you were getting into — no plans were made. With Jim –‘The Journey Was The Adventure’.”
(I’ll add that Jim wasn’t above transgression. I know that he drove his car many times under the influence of herb. Illegal yes, but, as with most comparative aspects of herb consumption, I consider that far less dangerous than drunken driving. Also, in his early radio years at WUWM, Jim would invite friends to the studio during his late night show, and everyone would partake of the “sacred herb,” whether toking or “indirectly,” amid the celestial cloud-offering to the bodiless goddess Mary Jane, suffusing the studio on high.)
Then, Tom Truel recalls: “(Jim, the DJ, is getting ready to play Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind” in its entirety, one of his favorites, to set the mood and leave a clue in regard to shadow elements as well.)”

So I’m trying to work my way out of the “shadow elements” before they recede too far into the mists of time, or transcendence?

Another even more dramatic example of Jim’s seeking, regardless of danger, may have led directly to the accident that disabled him. I’m going to speculate here a bit, as Jim never told me the full details of the accident in any self-dramatizing or aggrandizing way. But consider the very fact that he was driving a Jeep (still infamously unsafe vehicles in the 1960s) through the Alps on a trip from Germany to France. Perhaps it was a personal trip but more likely military duty which, as a soldier, he would probably have volunteered for — given the risk and isolated, extended nature of it.

There was GI Jim Glynn, in the process attaining the sort of ultimate natural high he would strive to later simulate, or somewhat achieve, through exploratory creative music, simpatico friendship and marijuana. And then, in a sudden fated instant, he was tumbling, but also flying, through the air, in the mountains. This recalls a great Herman Melville notion of “a Catskill eagle in some souls” 3

Or, less exaltedly, Townes Van Zandt’s simpler image of “to live’s to fly, both low and high,” in his masterful song, “To Live’s to Fly.”

The last two-part chapter of Jim Glynn’s life-mission, finally was to leave Milwaukee — the city where many people loved him to varying degrees and to which he’d given so much — and embark on a late-life quest, by himself. He said he felt this city had grown stale for him. To the shock of many friends, he moved to Portland, Oregon, while a paraplegic in his early 60s.

It all soon fell apart. A “friend” who helped Jim move in, then ripped off a couple of boxes of “personal papers,” Jim said, which really had little value except to Jim himself.

He did some radio shows for the local Portland community station and the NPR outlet. Then one day he fell, probably on a rainy Portland street, and broke his leg, and found himself laid up with a large cast for quite a while.

Then he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, possibly the result of his constant need for a catheter, and being out there without a girlfriend/caretaker his hygiene likely suffered. .To say the least, Jim never really found his mojo in Portland.

Another person who addressed his quest was writer Doug Hissom, in his excellent 2004 Shepherd Express feature on Jim when he returned home. Hissom opens simply and directly, “Jim Glynn has come home to die.” He’d found the Portland jazz scene amazingly similar to Milwaukee,  “I found that jazz has a precarious toehold these days. To my horror. The extensive music scene (in Portland) Is aimed at people under 25.”

Yet, amid loneliness in the Northwest, his painful seeking earned wisdom and serenity. “I suddenly found myself a man without a country. I just realized one day, that yeah, it’s time to come back for my people. Where my roots are. It’s just time to come back to Milwaukee.

“They say you can’t come home again and some of that is right. But my rhythm’s gotten back. I’ve got back into a natural rhythm

“It’s the Zen feeling and Zen quality in Milwaukee where you can move at what I thought was a slow pace before, but now it’s about right.” Hissom writes that Jim was going to try to get back on the radio and spend some time in the clubs. “It’s like a whole world opened up to me when I came back,” Jim continued.

Then he told Hissom the same thing he said to me. “I really don’t know how much time I have. They say I’m really sick, but I don’t act sick. They told me today it’s a short time, maybe. But I’ve no idea.”

Hissom’s article ran in the Shepherd Express September 30-October 6, 2004 edition. Now, please note the photograph of Jim (at the top) from his memorial brochure. The photo was taken October 2, and there he is, with his rhythm back, paradiddling his conga drum, at a jam in a club.

On October 18, Jim took his restless quest for enlightened serenity out, to the greatest unknown of all.

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  1. Ihab Hassan, Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters, University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, 13
  2. ““There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than the other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” — Herman Melville, Chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” Moby-Dick.