Woodstock traces its landscape painting heritage to the mid-19th century. Painters Thomas Cole and Frederic Church pioneered plein air explorations in the Hudson Valley, creating a school of painting that combined visionary breadth and exactitude of observation. Birge Harrison and John Carlson, subsequent directors of the School of Landscape Painting, proved rightful heirs to this plein air tradition, which, filtered through a European sensibility, predominated until the 1920’s at the Art Students League’s summer school in the village. Zulma Steele’s Overlook Mountain, the earliest work in the show, wraps the beloved mountain in an atmospheric haze worthy of her teacher Birge Harrison. The foreground, however, reveals touches of the vivid post-Impressionist color and brushwork she would adopt later. Other views of Overlook, Woodstock’s constant guardian, reveal the full range of the painters’ sensibilities: Anton Fischer’s and Robert Angeloch’s fine balance of genius loci and exact observation; William West’s numinous interpretation in the style of New Mexico modernism; Madeleine Wiltz’s tipped-up Cezannean perspective; and Carole Uehara’s mystical, romantic vision.
Walter Goltz and Austin Mecklem chose to depict the verdant, sunny meadows that Woodstock was known for, while John Carlson focused closer on the beauty and strength of Spring Willows. Carl Lindin’s austere Old Farm seems to presage the ravages of the Depression. Many artists painted the roads they travelled daily. Marion Bullard’s charming, gentle curve in the road contrasts with Karl Fortess’s abrupt Cezannean twist on the Road to Shady. John Bentley’s Road to Willow is a radiant, post Impressionist foil to Julia Leaycraft’s lushly painted Snowy Rock City Road. A few artists went down to paint the great Hudson River. Nan Mason saw it through Harrison’s tonalist prism; Doris Lee, with the studied charm of her eccentric vision.
Artists’ lives, by definition, involve solitude and isolation. Pets alleviate both. Susan Marsicano, Charles Rosen, and James Turnbull portray their dogs and cats with intimate realism. Cows and horses get diametrically opposed treatment by two artists: Audrey Dick’s farm cows are sketched with scientific precision; Rolph Scarlett’s horses, inspired by Franz Marc, are caught in an expressionist blaze of color. Birds present equally varied depictions: Audubon-like detail from Susann Foster Brown; a somber memento mori from Tor Gudmundsen; and a haunting virtuoso drawing of an owl by Eduardo Chavez. In the world of illustration, Maud and Miska Petersham sketch a pair of naughty monkeys, while Ernest Fiene’s graceful deco oval encloses two dainty deer. Two frogs reveal their author’s esthetic predilections: Andree Ruellan’s, for academic French drawing; Tommy Beere’s, for Cubist structure. Finally, whimsy wins the day with monster caterpillars from Konrad Cramer, and a winsome Swamp Creature by Petra Cabot.
Proof of artists’ courageous need to touch base with themselves, self-portraits hold up a mirror to their most constant, creative companion and source. Judson Smith’s and Kurt Sluizer’s fine, old-fashioned male self-portraits greet us, directly confronting the easel and holding implements of their trade. I confess a preference for the next group of self-portraits, farther back in the gallery, the artists I first met when I came to Woodstock in 1970. What an extraordinary generation, who lived and worked by their rock-bottom values of independence and integrity. In their images, I recognize Jane Jones’ timeless elegance; Hannah Small’s fierce intelligence; Eugene Ludins’ impish imagination; Karl Fortess’ legendary grouchiness (though a softie when it came to cats); and Manuel Bromberg’s personal power, vital to this day. I wish I had met the next group, and experienced, at the source, Konrad Cramer’s multi-faceted skills; Julio de Diego’s strong sense of the surreal; James Turnbull’s shy directness; Joseph Pollet’s suave elegance; and Harriet Tannin’s touching self-identification with a Picassoid harlequin.
The contemporary self-portraits present a fascinating contrast between the female and the male approaches. Female artists selected a straightforward path to self-depictions. Sally Avery faces us with a direct, Matissean stare. Carolyn Haeberlin seems to have just put down her brushes to face us in a candid, welcoming stance. Eva Van Rijn’s close-up of her pensive face matches the beauty and delicacy of her technique. Male artists chose a more dramatic path. Sam Spanier picked a clown avatar, while Lynfield Ott took on a romantic posture outdoors. Paul Naylor’s impastoed, expressionist work transports us to the passion and turmoil of the ‘70s. And Richard Segalman’s virtuoso technique throws all expectations up in the air with that radiant rose atop his straw hat. Hats off to the heroism of self-portraits!
Thank you to Kate McGloughlin and Nancy Campbell for the concept of this exhibition, and for inviting me to implement it in Seldom Seen. The permanent collection of the Historical Society of Woodstock is a well-kept secret. Although individual works have been frequently seen and generously lent by the Historical Society, this exhibition is a first general look at the collection. My guiding principle—What the Artists Saw—was the singularity and variety of artists’ vision. Since 1903, they came and saw Woodstock as only artists can.
Space limitations mandated hard choices. I chose to leave out three genres: abstraction, nudes and still life. I hope other iterations of Seldom Seen will plumb the collection further and do them justice. I look forward to those future shows, hoping the Historical Society’s collection will get the recognition it deserves, and no longer be a well-kept secret.
I could not have done my curatorial work without the excellent help, advice, and companionship of Elizabeth Broad and Carol Davis from the Woodstock School of Art. Eric Angeloch’s expertise has been indispensable in the show’s design and installation, and I thank Mandara Calderon and Mizuyo Aburano for their assistance.
Deborah Heppner from the Historical Society achieved the impossible in finding, classifying and displaying one hundred works for me to view and select from. My sincere gratitude to her and Richard Heppner for the important work they do, which keeps Woodstock’s historical memory alive. Thank you also to Jean White.
Thanks to Ethan Breckenridge, newly-arrived artist in Woodstock, for good insights and conversation about the creative process. Finally, my gratitude to Tom Wolf, who first helped me see the importance of Woodstock’s art history.
Susanna Torruella Leval