Art in the Hudson Valley is in conversation with our forests and mountains. The Jervis McEntee show last year at the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz helped me appreciate late fall where I live, at the base of Romer Mountain in Phoenicia. McEntee (1828-1891) grew up in Rondout before it was incorporated into Kingston, captured the bleak browns and grays of November in the Catskills woods. In his paintings, you see the thoughtful mood of our foliage, as though nature were pondering the interval between living and dying. William Blake wrote: that “A tear is an intellectual thing,” and so is a half-naked apple tree.
The Dorsky has been showing neglected masters of our region for decades. Unbelievably, it and a smaller companion show at the Friends of Historic Kingston on Wall Street in Kingston were McEntee’s first solo shows in history! In 2014 I was fascinated by the work at the Dorsky of Woodstock painter Eugene Speicher (1883-1962), whose meticulous, quietly dramatic portraits were famous in the 1930s (when Esquire called him “America’s most important living painter”) but are forgotten today.
Which reminds me, you must always visit the back room — the Towbin Museum Wing — of the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum at 28 Tinker Street in Woodstock. Every one of their shows is worth a look. The current offering is “Director’s Choice: The Responsive Eye.”
The Woodstock art scene before the 1970s was one of the most democratic art cultures in America. It produced few “stars,” but that wasn’t the goal. Local artists painted affectionate portraits, nudes, canvases of heroic workers unloading barges in the Rondout, outraged images of lynchings in the South. Perhaps the greatest Woodstock painter, Philip Guston (1913-1980), was an abstractionist until he encountered the underground comics of R. Crumb in the 1960s, and began painting cartoony figures — mostly men, some dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits, often smoking cigars and watching television. Guston’s nameless characters — usually outlined in red or black — have a stark solidity. One day I realized they are the boulders and outcroppings of the Catskill Mountains, translated into human form.
For more old-time Woodstock art, visit the Fletcher Gallery at 40 Mill Hill Road. As a teenager in 1967 I slightly knew John G. Ernst, who’d trade a post-Impressionist landscape for a bottle of whiskey. At the time, Ernst’s work looked childlike to me. Now it seems as valid as Gauguin. And the Fletcher has it!
At the moment four of my drawings are on display at my favorite Woodstock showplace, the Woodstock Framing Gallery at 31 Mill Hill Road. It’s an actual framing shop, with several rooms of art. Owner Sneha Kapadia has an eye for wit and adventure — abetted by gleeful Norm Magnusson, who curated the current show, “What is text-based art?”
Mount Tremper has the only gallery I know of that’s open 24 hours a day. It surrounds Bob Jacobson’s trailer on Route 212, just south of Wittenberg Road. Bob is a sculptor and painter who creates rain-proof aluminum “canvases” hanging on his exterior walls.
Since I moved to the area in 1998 I’ve seen Jacobson’s work evolve. At first he showed portraits of a young woman who looked vaguely English. These were replaced with geometrical abstractions in the bright colors of children’s blocks. (I prefer the latter work.) Bob’s sculpture is carved wood, and looks a bit like undulating body organs: giant pancreases and livers. Bob is a fascinating guy who listens to Finnegans Wake on CD, and reads The London Review of Books (to which he once – full disclosure – gave me a free subscription). His art is the product of a happy mind.
I can’t forget my own hometown gallery, Arts Upstairs at 60 Main Street in Phoenicia. The gallery has the same personality as Phoenicia itself: impudent, erratic, untamed. I recommend Ann Byers’ necktie-sculptures, Dave Channon’s sunny, post-apocalyptic landscapes, Bronson Eden’s Tantric eroticism, and Astrid Nordness’ unnerving ceramic lions.
One of the best Hudson Valley galleries is also one of the newest: The School in Kinderhook (25 Broad Street, only open Saturdays). This is one of the few galleries on earth that fills a former school. (PS 1 in Queens is a museum, with many curators, not a gallery that actually sells art.)
Gallerist Jack Shainman seeks out startling, intelligent work – some doll-like, some monumental. At the last show, “Winter in America” (named after a Gil Scott-Heron song), one immediately confronted a ten-foot-high head of Fidel Castro made from door hinges, by Yoan Capote. Of course, this wasn’t automatically recognizable as Fidel; it appeared to be a Greek god. But which god? Mercury? Is he the deity most closely associated with door hinges? Was Jack Shainman suggesting that his gallery is an ancient temple? A great curator asks nine questions at once. Don’t miss their gala opening May 22.
One of our underrated venues is the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art at 1701 Main Street in Peekskill. I’d call it the “youngest” of the major arts venues – the most willing to be messy and dissonant. (As it happens, most of the best contemporary art is messy and dissonant.) The HVCCA encourages installation, performance, collaboration with the Peekskill community. But it also hosts one of the great living masters, Olafur Eliasson, whose reflective tunnel, “Your Repetitive View,” is installed at the Riverfront Green by the Hudson. He also has a work not far from the Gehry theatre building at Bard College in Annandale.
The most mystical art locale in the our region may be the Seligmann Center in Sugar Loaf, former home to Kurt Seligmann and his wife Arlette. Seligmann was one of the first Surrealists to escape to America, in 1939. He was the author of a history of the occult, a professor at Brooklyn College, and a small-scale farmer. The Seligmanns’ house and gardens still glow with surreal hospitality, and its exhibitions are thick with dreams.
Well, I’ve run out of room without mentioning Dia: Beacon, Storm King, Olana, the Thomas Cole House, the Cox Gallery, the Woodstock Center for Photography, the Hessel Museum at Bard College, the Loeb Art Center at Vassar, and the Kingston O+ festival. And other venues. I apologize to them all!