In the 1920s and ‘30s, Woodstock was a cauldron of creative activity. The founding of the Utopian Arts and Crafts community Byrdcliffe, followed by the Maverick, in the early years of the century and the establishment of the Art Students’ League summer school in 1915 had transformed the sleepy village into one of the nation’s leading art colonies. After the Armory Show, held in New York City in 1913, which introduced the American public to Cubism and other Modernist movements from Europe and spurred the opening of a new art market for American artists, Woodstock’s artist residents were on fire with ideas, and a multiplicity of styles blossomed in the community, each competing for dominance. For example, there were the “Rock City Rebels” – Andrew Dasburg, Konrad Cramer and Henry Lee McFee – so named both for the locale of their studios and their affinity with analytical and synthetic Cubism, which Dasburg and Cramer had personally discovered on their European sojourns. At the other end of the spectrum were the Romantic Realists, who included George Bellows, Eugene Speicher and Leon Kroll.
Collectively regarding these paintings, drawings and prints today, it’s possible to speak of a Woodstock School. Much of the work looks like variations on a theme: representation interpreted through the fractured planes and hard edges of Cubism. The paintings tend to be chromatically severe (with dashes of smoldering reds or oranges among the pervasive grays and browns), with solid, simplified shapes often described in impastos of paint. The art is moody, often characterized by a primitive awkwardness – some of the artists were folk art enthusiasts and collectors – and infused with linear, lyrical rhythms that reverberate through scenes that are often devoid of human presence, conveying a Surrealist-influenced alienation. Needless to say, landscapes predominate, depicting the bucolic fields and woods around Woodstock, as well as the industrial waterfront in Kingston.
This is, of course, a simplification: Sumptuously painted portraits and still-lifes inspired by the Ashcan School and Impressionism and abstract, Minimalist geometric prints at the other extreme, by such sophisticated artists as Yasuo Kuniyoshi, were simultaneously produced in Woodstock during those years. Regularly displayed at the gallery of the Woodstock Artists’ Association, which has a sizable archive, works for the Woodstock School are now getting a wider audience, thanks to the current exhibition, titled “The Woodstock Story: Told through Paintings, Photography, Sculpture and Ceramics,” at the D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc. gallery in New York City. Besides showcasing many artists whose names have fallen into relative obscurity, the exhibition also portrays themes taken from the local landscape, from Georgina Klitgaard’s Bear Mountain to Charles Rosen’s Hudson Riverboat to Ernest Fiene’s Precisionist farm and village scenes. The most famous artist represented in the show is Bellows, with two landscapes: a more conventional subject than the dynamic, dramatically lit boxing matches by which he is recognized today.
Several photographs by the artists are also on display, including images taken by Cramer (his Cubist-inspired Fish for Lunch – also in the show – was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939). Cramer’s Precisionist painting Willow Post Office, 1934, characterized by jazzy angles and collagelike layering, is a highlight of the show. The exhibition includes sculptures and ceramics, among them a bronze pelican by John Flannagan; two stunning metalwork pieces incorporating figures, consisting of a fire screen and metal balustrade, by William Hunt Diederich; a plaster cat by Paul Fiene that harks back to the feline sarcophagi of ancient Egypt; and a vase and colorful tiles designed by Ralph and Jane Whitehead, founders of Byrdcliffe.
D. Wigmore Fine Art is located at 730 Fifth Avenue, Suite 602, and is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The show is on view through January 28. For more information, log on to www.dwigmore.com.