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.

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