Movements, Styles & Schools
The Art Movement Named After a Trash Receptacle
On the rise of the “apostles of ugliness”: The Ashcan School
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Have you ever heard of the Dustbin Style or the Ashtray Movement? The Ashcan School—a group of New York–based painters active in the early 20th century—has a nice vintage ring to it now, but its moniker pretty much means the same thing: It’s an art movement named after a trash receptacle. Clearly, those who nicknamed it didn’t think too highly of these artists’ paintings of Manhattan’s seedy underbelly or insistence on devoting precious oil paints to hookers, street urchins, and immigrant slums.
The Ashcan gang thought otherwise.
The “Apostles of Ugliness”
Let us remove all doubt: This loosely organized group of artists occasionally painted ashcans, but not just. All social classes were created visually equal, they reckoned, so they painted a multifaceted New York from urban vibrancy to grit (where even trash was worthy of being memorialized on canvas). The Ashcan artists were united by this “hashtag no filter” belief in painting the city like it is, following the credo of Ashcan School founder Robert Henri of creating “art for life’s sake” (instead of “art for art’s sake”).
The group got its name in 1916, almost a decade after its first exhibition, when a staff writer at The Masses (a socialist magazine where many of the artists worked as illustrators) complained that there were too many “pictures of ashcans and girls hitching up their skirts on Horatio Street.” The criticism was heard by John Sloan and George Bellows, who were tickled at being affiliated with the grime of New York City’s meatpacking district and proudly made the insult their own.
The Ashcan style
Many Ashcan paintings are characterized by a dark color palette and loose brushstrokes, but overall the group was more unified by its philosophy than a specific visual style. Many of these artists were newspaper illustrators working at a time before journalistic photography. This trained them to observe the everyday scenes that weren’t typically painted as fine art.
Their newspaper illustrating experience also accustomed them to capture quick impressions in a reporting style (think courtroom illustrator), a habit that translated to their canvases later on. Many Ashcan paintings look loosely and speedily drawn, an aesthetic that matched the fast-paced and modern New York life they were portraying.
America’s first avant-garde movement
The Ashcan School was relatively short-lived, active for around 15 years at the turn of the 20th century. But in that brief timespan it was lively and is now credited as America’s first real avant-garde movement. Its artists rebelled against the academic realism then taught in art schools and the cheerful American Impressionism that artists such as Childe Hassam had brought over from Paris. Most other artists were painting a very buttoned-up and upper-class New York, including locations like Washington Square Park and Central Park.
The Ashcan School wanted to give contemporary art a change of address and migrate from posh uptown aspirational lifestyles to the gritty and overcrowded Lower East Side. These artists audaciously devoted paint to immigrants and prostitutes instead of ladies who lunch. They also adopted thoroughly contemporary subjects, like the dramatic electric lighting used in boxing arenas or films being projected in movie theaters.
As with most avant-garde movements, nobody wanted to give them a chance to show their outrageous work at first. When Robert Henri and some of his artist friends were rejected from the juried National Academy of Design exhibition in the spring of 1907, he decided they should put on their own show (a bold move made popular by the Parisian Impressionists when they were rejected from the French Salon).
In 1908 Henri mounted a show at the Macbeth Gallery called “The Eight” for the number of participating artists. Two years later Henri, Sloan, Walt Kuhn, and Arthur Davies established the Exhibition of Independent Artists so artists could always exhibit freely without being vetted by a jury.
The Ashcan artists maintained their shock value until the 1913 Armory Show—a large-scale exhibition of around 1300 European avant-garde artworks that introduced American audiences to modernism. By comparison, impressionistic paintings of tenement buildings by the Ashcan crew looked fairly tame. Other American artists began experimenting with Cubism and Fauvism, and the Ashcan School was practically obsolete before it really began.