John R. Grabach (1886 - 1981).
"Back Yard Spring," ca.1931,
oil on canvas, 29 x 36.
Artist Best Auction Price: $48,000 Offered At: SORRY SOLD
Be they 'The Eight' or 'The Ten' or the 'Ash Can School' one thing is certain--the painters emphasizing social realism amounted to one--George Bellows. The rest of these mainly PAFA trained boys, many of whom worked as illustrators for Hearst's jingoist yellow press were artistic rebels of a different sort. Like Henri, they opposed Merritt Chase and the artistic establishment and the NA but really never featured a lot of tenements. Can we call Prendergast, Lawson, and Glackens Social Realists? Allied with Bellows were Luks and Sloan--where a political thrust can be seen. And Bellows was to become the chief influence on Jersey boy John R. Grabach who in turn was to become the mentor of Henry Gasser. This is why the Smithsonian owns six works by Grabach--the leading American painter of the Great Depression--including his masterful The Fifth Year and Prosperity--two of the greatest works in the cannon of American Social Realism.
Grabach was born in Newark in 1886 and died in Irvington in 1981. He left New Jersey only briefly--at the start of his career when he painted at Greenfield Massachusetts and in the 1920s when he was active and a prize-winner in Los Angeles. His near 100-year span means that he taught entire generations of devoted students. His earliest art training came from artist Albert Dick, and then
August Schwabe who introduced him to the Newark Sketch Club. While a metalworker in Newark, he commuted to New York, where he was enrolled in night classes at the Art Students League and studied under Kenyan Cox, George Bridgman, and Frank Vincent Dumond. In 1935, he accepted an instructional position at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, where he would go on to
mentor Henry Gasser, who traveled with Grabach on painting trips to Cape Ann, and whose early works echo Grabach's lurking figures.
'The Fifth Year' in the Smithsonian
Grabach & Gasser
'Prosperity'--A Back Yard Masterpiece
From the 1920s through the 1960s, Grabach was the subject of numerous one-man exhibitions in prestigious galleries and institutions across the country. In 1928 he had a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1980, The Smithsonian honored Grabach with a solo retrospective show of his work--an unusual tribute for a living artist, and our essay is based on Virginia Mecklenburg's, John R. Grabach: Seventy Years An Artist, published for the retrospective. John R. Grabach: Century Man, a more recent retrospective curated by Gary Erbe, traveled widely. As Grabach continued to focus on the despair and raw emotions millions experienced during the Great Depression the urban backyard became a symbol. It is both jammed in, overcrowded, and fenced into isolation. Grabach's urban landscape tells a tale beneath a discolored sky whose smog darkens its houses and their blue-collar occupants. This is the landscape of an industrial society, but also a private place, unseen from Main Street--a map of consciousness in the back, out of sight, behind the fence. There is despair, hope, and struggle--all hidden. Looking at Back Yards in Early Spring, we quickly learn that the foreground belongs to a foreclosed, abandoned property where grassy streaks tint dirty snow. On the far left we see daffodils a plenty--the aesthetic impulse is preserved. In the middle, a working class immigrant couple is removing autumn leaves and tilling a red cabbage patch for new planting. The houses match this psychology. Reality dominates. Some people have lost all hope, others
continue on--in the spirit of the Victory Gardens of wartime--others plant flowers to signify hope eternal. But nothing is romanticized. The washing is a flag signaling life and industry--the best and brightest gardens--and the newest painted of all houses. But community joins all--that is the deepest and most important of Grabach's messages. We believe this painting won a $1,500 (in Depression dollars) Corcoran Museum prize in 1932.