Mystery and misery in a forgotten painter’s city

John R. Grabach didn’t just paint scenes of working-class life—he was the working class. [Below, “New York Street Scene: Man Made Canyons”]


Born in 1886, Grabach grew up in blue collar Newark. Set on becoming an artist, he held various jobs—die cutter, freelance illustrator, greeting card designer—while taking classes in Newark and at the Art Students League in Manhattan.

[“Sidewalks of New York,” 1920s, Lower East Side]


“Inspired by Ash Can school artists, Grabach became fascinated with the urban landscape,” the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) wrote on their website.

[“The Lone House,” 1929]


Like Ash Can artists George Bellows and Robert Henri, he began working in New York in the 1920s, where he painted everyday images of tenements, clotheslines, skyscrapers, and city streets.

Grabach’s work reflected the beauty and mystery of contemporary urban life, as well as its disorienting loneliness and despair.

[“New York East Side,” 1924]


“Toward the end of the decade his lighthearted treatment changed as he became more concerned with social conditions, and consequently during the Great Depression his urban images developed a stronger, satirical tone, and the figures were made larger and dominated the scene,” stated LACMA.

[“The Fifth Year,” 1934]


By now, he’d won awards and recognition, and he became a beloved teacher of drawing at the now-defunct Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art (a casualty of Newark’s budget woes in the 1990s).

JohnGheadshotBut like so many other artists, Grabach gradually lost prominence and never became a household name. He died in relative obscurity in 1981.

He may not have been a trailblazer in the art world, but his work reflects an unappreciated sensitivity to the urban experience.

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8 Responses to “Mystery and misery in a forgotten painter’s city”

  1. wack60585 Says:

    Reblogged this on wack60585.

  2. fla George Says:

    Grabach lived 97 years…long enough to bring him from “covered wagons” to “Rockets to the moon.”

  3. Aunt Deb Says:

    His art relected the times.

  4. Barbara Finkelstein (@Bookpod) Says:

    I love how you excavate lesser known artists. Thank you for pointing me to Grabach’s work.

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    You’re welcome! I’m caught up in his city.

  6. A. Fragale Says:

    It is interesting that Grabach and Philip Roth were both natives of Newark. Roth’s novels and writing was primarily concerned with Newark and the areas of that city in which he grew up, especially the south ward of Weequahic–where I resided at one time–while Grabach left Newark and the framework of his painting became New York, mainly Manhattan as is inferred from the article on him. No conclusions can be drawn, but seeing that Roth has held a more prominent step, at least on the literary ladder, than the relatively, now lesser-known Grabach, maybe it seems that one should remain at home where one is most familiar with to do one’s best work.

  7. Haunting emptiness of the city’s lone tenements | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] 1929 work, “The Lone House,” is a portrait of abandonment—of a tenement and […]

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