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