Ashcan School Prints and the American City, 1900–1940 presents prints of city life made by urban realists during a time of rapid demographic, social, and economic change to America’s cities. With New York City as an epicenter of change—packed with vibrant new communities of immigrants from Europe and Latin American countries and with Black Southerners who had migrated north—artists responded to the everyday lives and experiences of city dwellers, incorporating advertising and mass media techniques into their depictions of the lower classes, immigrants, working women, and social elites alike.
The first two decades of the 20th century saw an explosion of visual culture in America’s cities, from advertising placards, painted storefronts, and newsstands stocked with illustrated magazines and comics to decked-out shop windows, vaudeville shows, and penny arcades. The city’s public spaces were also packed with people. In New York City, the vibrant street culture was the result, in part, of crowded living conditions, as the booming population sought to escape cramped tenement housing. The Ashcan School artists (a term coined for their apparently dingy subject matter) rejected academic artistic traditions and instead fed on the visual feast of the city, observing the interactions between people and the places they inhabited. John Sloan and George Bellows captured private moments in New York City’s public spaces, such as parks, streets, subways, bars, beaches, and amusement parks, largely overlooking any tensions in favor of positive, sometimes humorous spins on city life. By the 1920s and through the Great Depression, a new generation of urban realists including Edward Hopper, Isabel Bishop, and Benton Spruance took an often more skeptical or introspective approach to the changes and pressures of the American city. Others, such as Reginald Marsh, celebrated the visual decadence and the escapist delights that the city offered to all races, classes, and creeds.
Drawn from the CMA’s holdings and those of a local private collection, the works in this exhibition evoke a bygone era, yet one in which visitors might recognize some of the social and economic tensions that persist in America’s cities even today.
This exhibition is presented in conjunction with A New York Minute: Street Photography, 1920–1950 on view in the Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Gallery through November 7, 2021.