Living with antiques: Elective affinities- the Ashcan school in Birmingham, Alabama

Reagan Upshaw

Reagan Upshaw Living with Antiques

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2011 |

Our grandparents all came from Eastern Europe,” Nan Skier says, “and they came with no money or language skills. By their strength they made a good life and were successful, but they were pushcart peddlers when they got here. That’s one of the reasons the Ashcan school appeals to us. It’s our roots, and it’s the Lower East Side where our families started their lives here.”

Over the past two decades, David and Nan Skier of Birmingham, Alabama, have put together an impressive collection of paintings and sculptures by the artists known today as the Ashcan school. The road to building this collection has been a long one. The Skiers met at Syracuse University, where Nan studied studio art and David ma­jored in fine arts while also taking the classes necessary for his entrance into medical school. As David progressed through his internship and army service, the Skiers began collecting work by artists from the various locales where they found themselves. Eventu­ally they arrived in Birmingham for David’s residency. They liked the city and have lived there ever since.

It was an exhibition at the Birming­ham Museum of Art in 1977 which, like many regional museums at that time, hosted occasional exhibitions of works for sale by New York dealers, that set the Skiers on the path to collecting art by more prominent artists. They began with a work by Jamie Wyeth and then moved on to such artists as Eugène Boudin and Abbott Fuller Graves. It was not until 1990, when the Skiers acquired Little One (Fig. 5), their first work by the charismatic leader of the Ash­can school, Robert Henri, that they began to focus their collection. Working with Michael Quick, former curator of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, they have continued to build it.

Little One is one of several portraits Henri did of a boy named Carl Sleicher in the 1920s. By this point in his career Henri had moved away from the dark tonalities that characterize such early pictures as his La Place de Saint Nazaire of about 1890 in the Skiers collection (Fig. 7). Nevertheless it still displays the artist’s bravura brushwork and his manner of sketching the overall effect, sharpened with the occasional telling detail. “It’s the handling of the paint that really attracts us,” David says. “Subject is important, but we really appreciate that juicy paint quality and the gesture-you can see the brushstrokes, and you can see the energy.”

The three most prominent members of Henri’s early circle, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan, are all represented in the Skiers’ col­lection. Street Fight, a pastel from 1910 by Shinn, is typical of his work of that period (see Fig. 16). From the very beginning of his New York career, however, Shinn was also drawn to scenes from the theater, and he would continue to depict them for the rest of his life. The Skiers own two of Shinn’s paintings of Barbara Frietchie, a popular play based on John Greenleaf Whittier’s famous poem (see Fig. 13). They also have a wonderful pastel of a cabaret performer, Brella (Fig. 15).

           The colorful and pugnacious George Luks is represented in the Skiers’ collection by Bowery Derelict, currently on loan to the Birmingham Museum of Art, a subject Luks knew all too well (frontispiece). Similarly, the boy in Luks’s Snack, Boy Eating an Apple, done in the second decade of the century, is not a winsome urchin but a street tough (Fig. 4). Another Luks painting of a denizen of the lower depths, which the Skiers did not buy, might qualify for the “one that got away.” The subject was an old woman with a ragbag on her shoulder and a wart on the end of her nose. Nan felt then that she couldn’t live with such a painting, but now she says, “I really didn’t see the qualities that made it great. I do regret that.”

Most of the Ashcan school’s classic scenes of daily life from the first decade of the twentieth century have long since found their way into the collections of major museums. In consequence, present-day collec­tors such as the Skiers have turned instead to portraits done by Ashcan school artists. All of George Bellows’s major boxing paintings are now in public collections, but a portrait of his father from 1906 was available to the Skiers and displays the same Dutch old master tonalities and technique as the boxing scenes. John Sloan’s Miss Manley with Red Hair, from 1904, also harks back to seventeenth-century prototypes.

In order to achieve greater publicity for his 1908 exhibition of the “Eight,” Henri included three well-known artists who had little or nothing to do with the Ashcan school. Collectors like the Skiers often acquire works by these three as well. One of them, Arthur B. Davies, was probably the Eight’s biggest name at the time. His dreamlike landscapes popu­lated by indolent nudes, such as Lily of Enoch and On the Road to the Enchanted Circle, both in the Skiers’ collection, were widely sought after around the turn of the century (see Fig. 17). Maurice Prendergast was a textbook example of a post-impressionist. Many critics consider his watercolors superior to his oils, and the Skiers’ Beach at San Malo from 1907 shows his bright colors and typical sketchy figures (Fig. 6). Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), though he preferred painting snowy landscapes on the then thinly-populated northernmost tip of Manhattan, occasion­ally painted urban scenes more in keeping with the Ashcan aesthetic, and the Skiers have a rare example of such work, Wet Night at Gramercy Square.

Sculptors were also influenced by the movement and some of their best works are still available. The Skiers recently acquired what might be termed a sculptural counterpart to Bellows’s boxing scenes, Right to the Jaw by Mahonri Young (1877-1957), a frank depiction of the brutal world of journeyman prizefighting. The Skiers also own Sculpture, Portrait Impression of Mrs. D. M. by Ethel Myers, in which the sculptor has followed Henri’s precepts and captured a fleeting impression in the solid medium of bronze (see Fig. 9).

Although several of the Ashcan artists lived into the mid-twentieth century, the move­ment itself was pretty much over by the end of World War I. To maintain their collection’s focus, the Skiers have tried to limit their acquisitions to works done before the Great Depression. Despite this, the criterion for new acquisitions is quality, not date. They are disciplined and confident enough to acquire a first-rate piece by a lesser-known artist rather than a mediocre work with a famous signature attached. Their philosophy, as David says, is that “the great ones don’t elevate the poor ones; the poor ones drag the great ones down. So we’re trying to refine.”

That approach also serves them well in their other collections. They have acquired a substantial number of tea caddies and calling-card cases. The variety of materials used by artisans in constructing these everyday accessories of Georgian and Victo­rian life-wood, tortoiseshell, ivory, antler, silver, mother-of-pearl, and paper, among others-and the multitude of variations on a standard shape make these elegant collections a strong counterpoint to the work of the Ashcan artists.

Although their painting collection represents a substantial investment, David makes it clear that “this is an avocation, a pleasure, and has nothing to do with investment. It’s just something we want to live with.” They see themselves as custodians of the works for future generations, and it is likely that some of the collection will be left to public institutions. For the moment, however, the collection is a private pleasure. “We go downstairs every evening, we turn the lights on, and we look at the pictures,” David says.

REAGAN UPSHAW, director of the Gerald Peters Gallery in New York, writes widely on American art.