Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Why I'm Not Writing About Thomas Cole and Visiting His Studio (Yet)

I've been meaning to write a new post about my visit two weeks back to what is in many ways "the birthplace of American landscape painting," Thomas Cole's home and studio in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Here I am above sitting on Cole's front porch drawing the view of the Catskills that appear in Cole's painting below. 

I'm just finishing up the last few paintings for the upcoming Aug. 13 - Sept. 2 show Inside Edward Hopper's World: Paintings by Philip Koch at Isalos Fine Art in Stonington, Maine. In a few days I promise to turn this post into a full-fledged blog about Cole and his role in American painting, and his very real influence on me.
Please check back early next week.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Museum with a Really Long Name and a Great Collection- Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute

Two weeks ago when I was in central and western New York State I drove east to Utica to visit a museum that had a big impact on me way back in 1967 when I was very early on in my art student days, the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute. It was the first time I'd really noticed American landscape painting and I credit MWPAI for planting a big seed in me that would sprout only a few years later. 

Mary Murray, the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, was kind enough to take a break from hanging their new Andy Warhol print show and spend time with me talking about the museum and her time working there. She was engaging and obviously loves the museum.

As I said the museum is hosting a big Warhol exhibition this summer (through Sept. 8). Warhol is an interesting figure. His celebrity rose to such a point that he was given walk on parts in Hollywood comedies, something unheard of for a visual artist.  

A real problem museums and galleries face in presenting contemporary art is much of the public feels unconnected to the work. Whether it's good or bad, a lot of people fear they don't know enough about contemporary art. Nobody wants to look ignorant,  so instinctively they stay away. It's understandable. I think the fact that many have heard of Warhol makes them more willing to come in and check out the exhibit.  And stick around to see what else the museum has hanging. Probably a lot of new feet that have never before entered the museum will come through their doors.

One of the crowning glories of MWPAI's Collection is Edward Hopper's The Camel's Hump, an oil from 1930 that Hopper painted from what would become his driveway to his studio in S. Truro on Cape Cod. The landmark "hump" in the painting sadly was destroyed years later by an over eager builder who bulldozed the thing to make way for a house he wanted to build, which strikes me as idiotic. Ironically he had failed to secure building permits and construction of the offending house never happened. To this day you can see the hole in the ground where the pyramid-shaped dune that attracted Hopper's eye once stood. 

When I first went to stay in Hopper's studio in the fall of '83 I did an oil from exactly the same spot Hopper stood on to do his painting, but without the central feature, the scene feels empty. Standing in the MWPAI looking at Hopper's magnificent oil I found myself toying with the idea of going back to my painting and inserting the old hump. Maybe I will. 

Here's a terrific George Luks (American 1867-1933) Roundhouse at High Bridge from 1909-10. Sadly my photo doesn't do the painting justice. There's an elegant range of colors to the rising columns of smoke and a daring asymmetry to the canvas.

Below is another of the paintings I find amazing Sunset from 1856 by Frederic Church (American, 1826-1900).  I think this is one of Church's very strongest paintings. Look at the skillful counterbalancing in the sky. He wants an authentic brilliance to the light, not some cheesy effect, so he makes the gold sky on the horizon strong but not as intense as it could be. Church turns the volume way down on the cool violet pink grays in the other clouds and makes most of the sky an almost neutral bluish gray. Also there is an admirable range of edge qualities to his clouds, from distinct in the low hanging oranges to filmy and in the upper reaches. When it came to artful paint handling, nobody could touch Church.

Church's teacher was Thomas Cole (1801-1848) who lived just a bit farther east from MWPAI in the town of Catskill, NY. It was there that Cole painted one of the most impressive holdings in MWPAI's Collection, the monumental four panel series The Voyage of Life from1839-40. (A second version of the series painted later is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC). Cole's a fascinating guy- his wholehearted embrace of nature wins you over. In particular, he had a gift for carving out deep spaces and filling them with luscious light-filled atmosphere. In a way he's the anti-Warhol, painting his vistas without a touch of the tongue-in-cheek irony you see in pop art. I find Cole's sincerity is quite moving.  

The first two panels of The Voyage of Life series, Childhood (L) and Youth (R). If I could only have one, I'm a sucker for the first panel with the baby full of the glowing excitement of expectation 
flowing out of the mountainside cave. I want to hop in the boat with him.

Followed by Manhood (L), and Old Age (R). 

The museum also owns an oil study Cole made in preparation for his Manhood panel. I love the cool highlight in the churning water in the foreground played off against the warm yellow highlights in the sky.

One of the things that's fun about visiting a new museum is your eye doesn't quite know what to expect and can be caught by artists you rarely see. I spied this oil from a distance and immediately liked the sharp, truncated forms all crowding around each other. It's by Preston Dickinson (1891-1935), an early American modernist. Dickinson studied at my old Alma Mater, The Art Students League of New York. It's Fort George Hill from 1915. 

A composition like this could have just been a jumble, but Dickinson clusters together his separated forms into groups of similar tone and color to provide an overriding simplicity for the eye. Also like the Cole study above, he beautifully plays warm and cool off against each other in his highlights.

One other thing I loved at the museum was the brightly painted room where they have art supplies all laid out for kids (or maybe anyone else) to try their hand. Topping that off, you get to set up and work right next to a beautiful oil by one of the great masters of American landscape, George Inness (1825-1894).  I am sure old George is looking down approvingly from art heaven.

MWPAI lies just south of the Barge Canal, the successor to the historic Erie Canal that connected the Hudson River and New York City with Buffalo and the Great Lakes. In its day it was a technological and engineering marvel and it retains an unassuming sort of beauty. When I was very little we lived in Fairport, NY just a couple of blocks from the canal. I still recall the thrill to my 3 year old eyes of seeing the lift bridge on the town's main street raise up to let boat traffic pass through. I made a point of stopping at several points on my trip to check out my old friend the Canal. 
Here's one of the results I did early one morning, Barge Canal, vine charcoal, 12 x 9", 2013.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca, New York

Last week I traveled to Ithaca, NY to visit Cornell University's Johnson Museum of Art. Housed in a unique towering I.M. Pei designed building, the Museum is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The Museum's Director, Stephanie Wiles, who I knew as the Director at my alma mater Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum, took up the reins a year and a half ago at the Johnson. She very graciously had offered to give me a personally guided tour of her new Museum so I jumped at the chance.

Ithaca is on Cayuga Lake, the largest of New York's Finger Lakes and loomed large in my imagination. Years ago when I was living on my parents' money I used to race small sailboats all over the Finger Lakes. (The height of my youthful athletic achievement was winning the Central New York Penguin Class sailing championship one year at the Ithaca Yacht Club. Yes I will sign autographs if asked). 

I've been a committed landscape painter since 1971. My visual art has long drawn on my experiences in nature growing up in western New York, not the least the impressive hills around parts of the Finger Lakes. The Johnson Museum is perched way up on a steep hillside with a commanding view of Cayuga Lake. My cell phone photograph doesn't do justice to how the sweep of the space feels, but here's the view looking north out one of the Museum's windows. Pretty hard to beat.

Stephanie Wiles took me all through the Johnson, explaining the heart of their Museum is its Rockwell Collection of Asian art. They also have up right now (through Aug. 18, 2013) a wonderful show of photo realist landscape and architecture paintings by my old friend Alice Dalton Brown, one of the very few other professional painters to come out of Oberlin College as I did. Alice and I met years ago when we both showed in the same gallery in New York City.

Naturally as the American painting enthusiast that I am I paid special attention to those works, and the Johnson has some beauties (please excuse the tortured camera angles on some of these- I had to shoot obliquely on some to avoid glare from gallery windows). Below is a lovely and surprisingly modest George Luks (1867 - 1933, born not far from Ithaca down in Williamsport, PA). Luks was one of the Ashcan School painters and was known for his vigorous and expressionist style. 

Here's an unusually quiet oil from him titled simply Nude, probably an earlier piece and one I find subtly appealing. I love the close attention Luks pays to the outer silhouette of the figure. For example the way he crafts the contours of the woman's left leg so its curves say something different than the much more straight trajectories of the right leg's outside edge. Also the colors in his mid toned shadows in the figure gradate from warm sienna red in the head and arms to cool beiges in the belly. This temperature shifting of the colors of skin adds such an expressiveness to the otherwise restrained pose. A beautiful little painting.

The Johnson also has a great George Inness (American 1837 - 1926) Landscape- Figures in a Field, from 1886. Inness had a gift for contrasting linear tree trunks against softer and more filmy foliage  and he's at the top of his game here. Inness always seems to me to have taken the time to really study the trees before him. He paints them as if they are awesome giant abstract sculptures. I sometimes think beginning landscape painters should be locked in a cell for a year with only a big book of George Inness paintings to look at before they're allowed to go outside to paint trees. It would be a better world.

Back in 2006 my wife and I journeyed out to Monhegan Island 12 miles off the coast of Maine where Edward Hopper (American 1882 - 1967) spent several summers painting as a young artist. Here's an early Hopper, Monhegan Landscape, ca. 1916-1919, that still has the broad wet-into-wet paint handling Hopper learned from his teachers like Robert Henri (the leading spirit of the Ashcan School). Later on Hopper's paint would become more thinly applied and more dry in appearance, but his devotion to clear, bright sunlight seen here would stay with him for the rest of his life. 

The Hopper oil has a distinctive rhythm to how the artist arranged his forms. Powerful but unusual compositions were one of his great strengths. In this one the color intensity of the blue water has been jacked up to a very high level. In turn Hopper turns down the intensity of the greens, grays and browns on the shore to let the viewer's eye rest. This sort of exaggeration played off against restraint is one of the things I so love with Hopper. Studying his work has taught me so much as a painter.

The Johnson also has a very famous oil by the American painter Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978), Woodland Scene, that Dickinson worked on from 1929-1935. I know it's not a great photo, but it's
a heck of a good painting, moody as hell. If you like it I urge you to look it up. 

Dickinson, by the way, years ago received an honorary degree from my art school, the Maryland Institute College of Art. By the time we got around to awarding it to him he was old, mostly blind, and couldn't travel. So we sent Doug Frost, then our Director for Development, up to Cape Cod to give Dickinson the award at his home. He told me that Dickinson took the distinction very seriously and was obviously delighted to be recognized by the country's second oldest art school. I've always taken pleasure in that story.

Finally here's a beautiful Arthur Dove ( American, 1880-1946) oil, Alfie's Delight from 1929. Dove knew his stuff, and here pulls off a little masterpiece of movement and delicious subtly surprising color. He doesn't tell you just what you're looking at, but he spells out just how the painting feels. 

I highly recommend a trip over to Ithaca to visit the Johnson. A beautiful museum in a stunning setting. You'll love it.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

It Came from the Vault...Memorial Art Gallery

Have you ever wondered what an art museum has stashed away in their storage room? If you hurry you can still catch a show designed to give you some answers.

Through June 9, 2013 there's a hoot of an exhibition at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY. Playfully titled It Came From the Vault by the show's curator Marie Via, the museum's Director of Exhibitions, the show sheds light on why some of the works it holds in storage are rarely exhibited. It's a big, boisterous show of several hundred pieces. If you can't find something you really like you're just not trying. Here's a link to the Memorial Art Gallery's page about the exhibition.

Sometimes the work that languishes in storage just doesn't fit the themes that the museum's curators develop for their shows. Other times the work is awaiting cleaning or restoration. Or the pieces are a bit odd and the curators don't quite know what to make of them. There are a few truly odd pieces here to ponder.

Or, they may be works on paper that can't have sustained exposure to bright light. The Winslow Homer watercolor below is an example, Paddling at Dusk,from 1892. Homer does a great balancing act between the relatively simplified figure (who has an active silhouette but almost nothing else in the way of details) and the boldly stated waves and ripples. I love the simple contrasts of the warm hues of the paddler and the boat against all the surrounding cool colors. (please excuse the reflections from the gallery's lights at the top of this and a few of the other photos below).

Below is a painting by the less well known Birger Sandzen (American, 1871- 1956). Up close one gets almost lost in a sea of heavy palette-knife-applied pigment. All you can see is the richness of the surface. Then stepping back the painting transforms completely and one sees it's also about deep space, light and atmosphere.

A real treat for me was this woodcut by the Polish artist Janinn Konarsky (1900-1975), an artist I hadn't known about before, which always makes for a little extra excitement of discovery. Konarsky playfully tilts up the angle of the tennis court to let us see the action of her four figures. This could have made for problems with so much empty pavement to cover. So the artist puts in this lovely subtle texture to the court's orange surface. The trees that line the court add a muscular rhythm of their own, as if they're aching to grab a racquet and join the game too. 

Kathleen McEnery (American, 1885 -1971) was there with a big impressive painting. Marie Via's notes for the painting add "The artist was about twenty-two when she painted this bold and modern woman." McEnery, another artist I hadn't known obviously knew her stuff. 

Her dates are almost exactly the same as the much better known artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and like Hopper, she too studied at the New York School of Art with the famous painter and teacher Robert Henri. I wonder if they knew each other back then. And she had two of her paintings included in the historic Amory Show of 1913 (whereas Hopper only got one of his pieces included). McEnery later moved to Rochester and was for many years active with the Memorial Art Gallery. One wonders if her career might have gone very differently had she not been a woman in those times when female artists so often were ignored. I love coming across really strong work like this by artists who aren't household names. I think she's one of the stars of The Vault.

Via's show also had some very heavy hitters. Degas (French 1834-1917) weighs in with Dancers from about 1900. It's a pastel and charcoal drawing done on tracing paper and it's a real beauty. Degas liked to really get down and sink into his compositions, studying them and making all sorts of versions of the same basic pose of figures to extract the most expressive compositions. Perhaps this piece is on tracing paper as he'd borrowed the grouping from an earlier drawing or painting and wanted to continue exploring new possible arrangements of his shapes and colors. (There's an old quote from Degas where he urges young artist to do a drawing over ten times and then to do it over a hundred times. Sure he was exaggerating, but you get the idea. And he often followed his own advice).

Here's a detail of the central section of Degas' pastel. I love the squeezed tiny intervals of empty space in between all the torsos, arms, and heads. Here Degas is showing us how much visual energy can be achieved just by careful placement and positioning of his forms. It's a delightful maze-like passage. This guy is good.

And in honor of the spirit of the unexpected, which was one of Marie Via's ideas for this wide ranging show, here's a piece I loved by another artist who's new to me, Carol Aquilano, who is on the staff at the Memorial Art Gallery. It's North River, Marshfield, MA, a sumi ink and acrylic wash on paper piece from 2003. 

I was immediately drawn to it for its artful balance between heavily patterned grasses played off against smoother passages. Aquilano gets a wonderfully wide range of greens and grays to do a lot for her in this piece. My eye was immediately reminded of all the great Charles Burchfield watercolors of waving grasses and leaves I had seen just the day before over in Buffalo, NY at the Burchfield Penny Art Center.

Marie Via was kind enough to give me a personal guided tour of her show which was fun. I had a chance to tell her how much I loved the show's title and the spooky old-horror-movie image of the spaced out woman. Art is serious business, of course, but it's not without humor sometimes. As a kid who wasted countless hours growing up watching really bad science fiction movies on late night TV in a Rochester suburb, as soon as I saw the title for this show I knew I had to come. Glad I did. Highly recommended.