Bolton Brown was one of the three visionaries who made Woodstock into the colony of the arts. He was the site man who found the mountainside upon which Ralph Whitehead would build his Byrdcliffe experiment alongside Hervey White, who would later start up the nearby alternative Maverick colony.
But before then, and long after, Brown was as a master printmaker and artist: a mantle that has been slowly restored to the man in recent years, and should get another big boost as Byrdcliffe launches its well-curated new exhibition, “Bolton Brown: Strength and Solitude,” on January 17 through March 2.
Born during the Civil War in the Finger Lakes area, Brown gained a footing when he created the Art Department at Stanford University in California, where he befriended Sierra Club founder John Muir and became known as a hardtack mountaineer with a brittle personality. He was eventually fired by Stanford over a disagreement involving nude models, but by then had gotten to know Whitehead, who later fired him within two years of hiring him to help start Byrdcliffe.
Originally a painter, with a work in the legendary Armory Show of 1913, Brown eventually became known as a master lithographer, a reputation earned for both his own work and his printmaking for others ranging from George Bellows to Rockwell Kent. He settled in Woodstock, but spent much time in the City, and ended up dying broke and alone in 1936, known as much for his personality failings as for the rigor of his work, which holds up for its stark beauties to this day.
Brown wrote about art, often in a harsh, technical manner; and in his own memoirs, including the essay “How I Shed My Religion,” Brown noted how his beliefs left him coldhearted to many, including his own father. Some said, for years, that it was this aspect of his being that kept him from being better-known – or collected – in his day.
“As a propagandist I fell short,” he wrote late in life, looking back. “It seems an unfortunate fate to have tried so hard and so long to paint well enough to be worthy of my public, and then to find that instead of hitting that public taste, I paint way over their heads.”
As part of this long-awaited return show in his former hometown, Bolton Brown’s changing legacy will be discussed in a pair of gallery talks on Saturday, January 18 by printmaker Ronald Netsky, professor of Art at Nazareth College, and Dr. Patricia Phagan, curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. An optional reception will follow. The catalogue and curation are by Derin Tanyol.
“Bolton Brown: Strength and Solitude” opening, Saturday, January 18, 2:30 p.m., runs January 17-March 2, Kleinert/James Arts Center, 36 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-2079, www.byrdcliffe.org.