Out of the Ashcan

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 35

Out of the Ashcan

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 35

Out of the Ashcan

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 35

Out of the Ashcan

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 35

George Luks (1867-1933), Copley Square, Boston, c. 1904, oil on canvas 20 x 24in

Out of the Ashcan

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 35

As likely to be holding a drink in his hand as a brush, George Luks was a pugilist-cum-painter – and a key chronicler of everyday life in turn-of-the-century America, says Neil Lyndon

1911 photograph of George Luks reveals the painter in a stance that discloses both his own character and the full-blooded commitment with which he followed the artist's style of life. Luks is in classic, sideways-on, pugilistic pose in the portrait, taken by the great photographer and his fellow American, Gertrude Käsebier. His left shoulder points past the lens, giving space for the fighter to lead with his left and then swing with his right. His arms are folded but his big, meaty mitts are ready to bunch. His chin is tucked in, protectively, but both eyes are wide open and squarely fixed on the adversary he faces. Luks seems to be addressing the camera with both a challenge and an invitation: "Do you fancy a fight? Or would you prefer a drink?"

In this duality, the subject of Käsebier's portrait might have been Luks' contemporary, the Californian writer and adventurer, drinker and fighter Jack London. The fighting-and-drinking style of life for a 20th-century artist which Luks so unreservedly personified became almost an obligatory attribute for an American artist. But Luks is also rightly recognized as a leading member the Ashcan School of early 20th-century American art, known for its spirited depictions of everyday streetlife. A memorable example of his early work, Copley Park, Boston, will be offered at Bonhams in New York in November.

Luks' early life was in Pennsylvania, a state with an ideal of muscular, martial masculinity in its veins. The American Civil War, which ended two years before Luks was born in 1867, had raged through Pennsylvania, culminating in its bloodiest battle at Gettysburg. Luks was born to an apothecary/doctor father and a painter mother in the small, rural town of Williamsport. But he was largely brought up in Pottsville – an even smaller town, built on coal and steel, where tough working men drank hard in saloons and fought furiously in the streets. Prostitutes paraded openly among alcoholics and street kids. All those sights would remain fixed in the boy's imagination as his artistic talents and techniques grew.

His mother's influence led George to an early certainty that he wanted to paint. His first paid work, though, was with his brother Will, playing the vaudeville circuit of Pennsylvania and New Jersey as a duo with blacked-up faces named 'Buzzey and Anstock'. The attractions of that occupation seem to have faded fast and George was still in his teens when he registered at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1884. The lad was even less naturally suited to the formalities of a student's life, however, than he had been to a career treading the boards. He quit after a month and took off for Europe, where he embarked on an autodidactic education in art.

Frans Hals was to be the special focus of Luks' studies in European museums. At the same time, the young man acquired the louche habits and manners of the Bohemian artist. The 16th-century Dutch painter's lively, loose technique in handling of the human face can clearly be seen in early Luks' pictures such as The Rag Picker (c. 1905), Pals (c. 1907) and The Guitar (1908). But he was perhaps equally affected by Toulouse-Lautrec's unification of an alcoholic way of life with an artistic sympathy with the poor.

In a succession of trips across the Atlantic in the early 1890s, Luks deepened his acquaintance with both drink and art, concentrating especially on Velázquez and Goya during a trip to Spain in 1892. Between these forays into Europe, Luks began to support himself with illustrations and pastel paintings for US magazines such as Truth, Puck, Music and Drama.

It was to be this journalistic work that led Luks into the society of a group of active, professional painters and illustrators at the Philadelphia Press newspaper. They were to become the founding spirits of the Ashcan School – named after the bins where residents dumped rubbish and ashes from their fires – with its focus on the everyday rough and tumble of life on the street. And it was their company, along with journalists and writers, that led him further into the bars and saloons where he honed his talents as a bruiser. For the next 20 years, he would earn most of his income from magazines and newspapers and spend much of it on hooch, continuing unabated through the Prohibition era. Three wives had to live with his drinking and taste for rough stuff.

One of his newspaper jobs, in particular, gave Luks not only a steady income but brought to the fore the social ethos that informed the art of his maturity. Gradually, the Ashcan School artists drifted towards New York, and The Yellow Kid cartoon series in Joseph Pulitzer's popular New York World newspaper featured a snaggle-toothed little boy whose head was shaved as if he had recently been rid of lice. He wore an oversized yellow nightshirt and hung around in Hogan's Alley, a fictional New York slum backstreet filled with equally unhygienic kids who all spoke in an invented patois. The Beano comic's filthy, unsavory, rascally Bash Street Kids – still alive and very much kicking in the UK today – are direct descendants of The Yellow Kid. So were many of Luks' own paintings in the Ashcan School.

Luks made up for his lack of formal training in the constant creation of these illustrations and cartoons, bringing to them the social perspective which he had acquired in his Pennsylvania upbringing and that characterized the Ashcan School. That outlook would fuse with his European studies in a spate of original paintings in the first decade of the 20th century, including two of his most memorable works, The Wrestlers and The Spielers. In the sweaty, muscly contortions of The Wrestlers, Luks expressed his feelings for tough, combative masculinity. In the grubby joys of the two poor girls dancing together in The Spielers, Luks made clear his regard for the spontaneous, open-hearted humanity of the working-class.

In later life, Luks nailed up a proclamation of his social and artistic principles when he delivered a diatribe against the contemporary art world at New York's Artists' Cooperative Market in 1932. "A child of the slums will make a better painting than a drawing room lady gone over by a beauty shop," he declared. "Down there, people are what they are."

When his audience grew restive under his barbs, he challenged them all to a fight, warning them that they would be taking on 'Chicago Whitey' – the name under which he claimed to have fought as "the best amateur boxer in America".

If that was a drunk's sodden fancy, it would match much of Luks' braggadocio about fighting. It was said that while he undoubtedly loved to start a fight in a bar, he preferred to slip away once fists started flying. Small, tubby and unfit, he convinced only himself of his athletic prowess.

During the night of 28 October 1933, however, Luks found himself in a fight which even Chicago Whitey could not handle. A bar-room brawl led to Luks receiving such a beating that, in the early hours of the morning, he was found dead by a policeman on street patrol in the doorway of a New York speakeasy. He was 66 – way past the point when he could carry off the pose of a pugilist. George Luks had finally met his match.

Neil Lyndon is a writer and journalist who has been a columnist for numerous national papers.

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