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Art Reviews: WMAA exhibit celebrates Henri, Ashcan School painters

Saturday, July 06, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

"If you want to be a historical painter, let your history be of your own time, of what you can get to know personally -- of manners and customs within your own experience."

American artist Robert Henri painted this "Portrait of Ira Glackens," the son of fellow "Ashcan School" artist William Glackens, in 1911. It's one of more than 40 works in "Robert Henri and His Influence" at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

When Robert Henri (1865-1929) is remembered, it is in equal parts as artist and teacher. The above quote is from "The Art Spirit," a compilation of his philosophy written in 1923 and still in print. While it's good advice, it was also a rebellious challenge to the control of the prevailing academy and typifies the man who organized the group of urban realists known as "The Eight." Their subject matter -- the less refined side of urban life -- gained them the label "Ashcan School."

Like a breath of fresh air, "Robert Henri and His Influence," at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, introduces artists who carried on beneath the radar of the global art scene, which was fixed on Europe in the early decades of the 20th century, pre-Abstract Expressionism.

The artists varied widely stylistically, and Henri's own reach is broad. His paintings range from two glorious formal full-length wedding portraits of William and Edith Dimock Glackens (William Glackens is the only member of The Eight with no work included) to an equally dignified, if rustic, full-length Gypsy mother and baby; from a muted Bastille Day evening celebration to an almost primitive Maine landscape that's half atmosphere. In some portraits, brushstrokes that are precise at the face dissolve into sensual flows that suggestively construct clothing.

Other works, which I haven't room to do justice to, include exquisite mysterious small moonlit landscapes by Arthur Davies that recall Ryder and Van Gogh and the rough-and-tumble, voyeuristic street scenes drawn by George Bellows and John Sloan, the latter's "Window Cleaners" a breathtaking commentary on the urban working class.

"Robert Henri
and his Influence"
"Cory Rockwood"

WHEN: The exhibitions continue through July 21 at 221 N. Main St., Greensburg. Jazz composer and guitarist Pete Smyser will give a free workshop at 3:30 p.m. today in conjunction with the Westmoreland Arts & Heritage Festival.

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays. Suggested donation for adults and children over 12 is $3.

INFORMATION: 724-837-1500 or visit www.wmuseumaa.org.


George Luks' portrait of Henri presents a more intense fellow than Henri does in his own self-portrait. Also represented, by one landscape painting each, are Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson (with the brightest, most Impressionistic palette), and Arthur Carles, the most abstract work. While Carles wasn't a member of The Eight, the Sheldon Gallery included him as one influenced by Henri, as was Walt Kuhn, whose "Guide" tests notions of portraiture.

Among the works the Westmoreland has added to the traveling exhibition are Everett Shinn's color-steeped "Green Ballet," a fantasia of floating white tutus, and a carefully composed "Cat and Kittens" by Luks from a private collection.

This exhibition, which originated at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Lincoln, Neb., is a good match for the Westmoreland, which has work by many of the artists in its permanent collection. Some of these may be seen in a handsome complementary exhibition of works on paper, "The Ashcan School."

Highlights include a number of Bellows' and Sloan's unblinking takes on city life, two very fine Shinn pastels, a Prendergast that surpasses the one in the main exhibition, Luks' study for the cat and kittens painting and Glackens' marvelous St. Patrick's Day Parade. On the way to it, don't miss three paintings in the permanent collection by Henri -- including the exceptional "Dutch Fisherman" -- and Davies' "Forest Movement."

At 7 p.m. Thursday, museum director/CEO Judith O'Toole will give a free gallery talk on The Ashcan School. O'Toole is a nationally recognized expert on The Ashcan School and The Eight member George Luks.

Cory Rockwood

In "Cory Rockwood: The Perils of Living in 3-D," the Pittsburgh artist continues his exploration of sculptural forms that combine painted and stretched canvas with found objects, text, lights and projections. This is a lot of visual information that at times overwhelms so that it's difficult to find the composition or concept, while at other times its banality -- certain texts, yet another nude figure -- detracts.

But the most successful pieces suggest complexity without overload, integrate idea and aesthetic expression and make good use of Rockwood's painting ability. These large works need space to keep from blending into an installation and the strongest works -- "The Slippery Slope," "Looking Back Fondly in Y1K," "Electric Fence" and the title work (which incorporates a cast of the artist's body) -- may have been sufficient for the size of the museum gallery.

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