Spotlight: George Luks, Tenements

George Luks (American,   1867–1933) Tenements Ink and wash on paper 9 3?4 x 7 3?4 inches (sight) Ca. 19 x 17 inches (frame)

George Luks
(American, 1867–1933)
Ink and wash on paper
9 3?4 x 7 3?4 inches (sight)
Ca. 19 x 17 inches (frame)

George Luks wandered the streets of Manhattan in search of subject material for his art. He chronicled the immigrant neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, which had received attention in documentary photography and journalism but less so by artists at that time. Of all the painters of the so-called Ashcan school, Luks perhaps most embodied its rebellious spirit. He avoided the pretty, the fashionable, and the tasteful in his subjects as well as in his manner of painting. To depict with authenticity the harsh reality he observed on the streets, Luks believed his technique needed to be equally brusque. He was purportedly the most colorful character among his colleagues, known to be a heavy drinker and charismatic storyteller. Luks’s life met a tragic end. By certain accounts, he was the victim of his own hard living. A policeman on his morning beat discovered his corpse slumped in a doorway underneath the Sixth Avenue El. Luks’s cause of death was said to be a heart condition. But a different version describes a drunken barroom brawl in a speakeasy along West 52nd Street and dumping of the body away from the illicit site.

This sketch of an unidentified tenement residence may have been made on the Lower East Side, though the tall surrounding buildings could place the location elsewhere. Its view from the open back lot between city blocks captures the quotidian life behind New York’s bustling avenues and ornamental facades. This is the view that uptown visitors would not find on their own: the shabby rear exit, laundry lines strung between buildings, tumbled-down fences, and rickety sheds. Luks has positioned no human figures in the scene, but their presence is felt nonetheless. We know from the commonplace details included by Luks that this is not a vacant shell; more fundamentally than that, he imbues the scene with life and energy through the active manner in which it is drawn. Quick and vigorous marks animate the buildings. Patchy rendering of light and shadow pulls the viewer’s attention to and fro. One can sense the anxious speed in which Luks completed the drawing, and the viewer is likewise caught up in that frenzy.

An excerpt from the catalogue, “The Greatest Poem-” American Art from the Robert B. Ekelund, Jr. and Mark Thornton Collection. Catalogues are available now for purchase in the Museum Shop

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