ABBB: In The Eight and American Modernisms, you go out of your way to minimize the use of the term “Ashcan School.” I’m as guilty as anyone of using the two labels synonymously. Do you think that the “Ashcan School” label deserves a full retirement?
Dr. Kennedy: Since the catchy phrase “Ashcan School” was coined in 1934, it has caused much mischief in coming to terms with the painterly qualities of The Eight’s body of work as well as veiling the importance of them as early American modernists. The journalistic and commercial endeavors of the Philadelphia Four (Glackens, Luks, Shinn and Sloan), however, are somewhat connected to the concept of “realistic” portraying street life. The true connection to the term is Sloan’s 1905 etchings series of New York, which depict scenes that are alternatives to American academic artists’ genteel subjects.
For me, it is the careless mixing art and politics that is implied in the term “Ashcan,” invented during the Great Depression, which does a disservice to these artists’ ambitions to be “modern painters of one kind or another.” As early as 1907 Henri touted their differences (therefore, no school), and Sloan, until his death in the 1950s, disputed any political agenda for myself, who was at one time a socialist and a cartoonist for The Masses, or the other artists. In summary, there was no “social or political” agenda attached to these artists’ works of art.
ABBB: You chose Robert Henri’s Betalo Nude (1916) for the cover of The Eight and American Modernisms, which earned me several offended (and several lingering) stares while reading it on my commute. Do you feel that The Eight’s approach to the nude positions them closer to European modernism? If so, does that make them less “American”?
Dr. Kennedy: The human form is at the center of the western art tradition. The plethora of nude females pictured in US art after the 1860s continues until today. Art historian Kenneth Clark’s celebrated The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1972) makes the distinction between the “nude” and the “naked” model, which is an important difference to make for American art in the first decades of the 20th century. If the female nude form was idealized, then it could be accepted as a work of art; a realistic portrayal was problematic. While at the turn of the century, paintings of female nudes were found in American art exhibitions, but they were not as frequent as the French salons.
20th century avant-guard European art distorted the body—in color by Fauvist artists or in shape by cubists. Henri achieved his own ideas through the use of theories and inspiration—with no need to impose a national identity. The Betalo Nude is gorgeous because of the color harmonies used to create a shape that happens to be a body. Of course, a natural fission arises from viewing nudity but there are other paintings of nude women that do not have the same impact. Henri’s created an exceptional painting because if its color and composition.
ABBB: As The Eight and American Modernisms shows, the styles and personalities of the artists falling under that banner differ greatly. Is there one artist who stands out from the rest for you personally?
Dr. Kennedy: My favorite member of The Eight is Maurice Prendergast because of his willingness to explore unconventional ideas and, yet, when he found his original style that expressed his creativity he remained focused on his mission. His story is inspiring because eventually others, the important modern art collectors and artists, realized his brilliance. Nevertheless, he is an underappreciated modernist because he did not “fit the Ashcan” label nor did he preach a “mantra of modernism” in the style of Alfred Stieglitz or Thomas Hart Benton. Prendergast arose each morning and went to his studio to work and left behind some of the most beautiful paintings ever made.
ABBB: When The Eight whittled their number down to eight, they left Jerome Myers and George Bellows most notably outside the fold. Like the legendary “Fifth Beatle,” who would you nominate for the “Ninth” Eight? Are there any women candidates for the position?
Dr. Kennedy: If there had been a 9th artist, it should have been Herni’s protégée George Bellows. Bellows was an exceptionally inventive painter, whose brightly colored palette of men at work upset the “Ashcan” label—nothing gloomy about these New York streets. Bellows’ later portraits and nudes are equally exceptional for their technique and inventiveness. His work before his untimely death was verging on the surreal.