“The Golden Age of New Paltz,” an exhibition in three parts celebrating the New Paltz artists of the 1960s, takes a nuanced and intimate look at the factors that fostered the cultural and artistic vibrancy of the small college town at that time. The first installment focuses on the art of New Paltz faculty, students and community members in the years of 1959 to 1963: a pivotal period nationally, something like the gathering of a storm. “The Golden Age of New Paltz” is thus both broad in its cultural resonance but acute in its focus not just on one locale and period, but on an intimately connected group of friends, makers and mentors who, together, created a lasting body of work ripe for reappreciation.
At the heart of the exhibition is the notion of a Golden Age, an unlikely but historically explicable confluence of people and conditions that led to a period of flowering and a loosely shared aesthetic. Like the digging of a canal or the discovery of a new passage, the completion of the New York State Thruway in 1954 played its part: a two-way connection between the young artists upstate and the currents and energies of the indisputable capital of the American art scene at what was a time of transition between the Modernist art that defined the first half of the century and the radical, political and Pop art innovations that would steal away with the second half.
The young artists of New Paltz did not have to find a sense of local significance and identity entirely on their own. They found antecedents in the famed Hudson River school of painters, such as Frederic Church, Thomas Cole and, closest to home, Jervis McEntee, the painter of the Rondout (with strong New Paltz ties) whose significance has been recently reassessed regionally and nationally. Proximity to Woodstock provided a more immediate and modern sense of identity and importance, its pre-counterculture legacy of art schools and colonies and the incubation of 20th-century thought.
Exhibition curator Jack Murphy understands the creation and evolution of the SUNY system itself as another factor that brought these people together at this time. The State University of New York was formed by legislative act in 1948, with the New Paltz Teachers’ College included in its fold. In 1951, an Art Education program was added to the curriculum (a full BFA program would not developed until the 1970s).
Most of the artists in this show were affiliated with the college, the art faculty and their students. Some, however, were drawn into the same circle from the larger community, interacting in the various venues and clubs in New Paltz at that time. Murphy recalls, “I came to New Paltz as an art student in June of 1967, and met some of these people that first summer I was here. Some had already been elevated to ‘legend’ status, and many had never left New Paltz, opting to stay and raise a family, take up an occupation, but, usually, continue making art. I heard the stories of the ‘old days,’ and met more of the ‘pioneers,’ becoming friends with many of them. Even though many have left the area, and too many have died, the friendships and connections made over 50 years ago are still strong today. It was a pleasure bringing this work back to the public, and recognizing it as timeless art, by accomplished artists.”
While Murphy does not seem to be campaigning for recognition of New Paltz as a “school” or making outsize claims about historical significance, he does note than an uncommonly large proportion of the New Paltz artists represented in this show did go on to work professionally and achieve recognition, as makers and, of course, as educators. The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of Marjorie Myers Simon, who came to New Paltz in the early 1960s as an Art Education student and who was a friend to many of these artists. She had conceived a similar show at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz to celebrate the 50 years since many of them graduated. Her plans were derailed by the development of an aggressive cancer. Jack Murphy, who was an art student in the late ’60s, stepped in to help realize Margie’s vision. She died in November 2016.
“The Golden Age of New Paltz: Part One” will be showing at Sevan Melikyan’s Wired Gallery in High Falls – a fixture and foundation of what may be the new mid-Hudson Valley Golden Age – from July 1 through July 30, with an opening reception on Saturday, July 1 from 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit includes works by professors Manny Bromberg, Ben Bishop, Harry Hurwitz, Ilya Bolotowsky, Bob Schuler and Edith Holt; students Karen Avey, Patricia Herz Deahl, Bob Draffen, Shelley Farkas Davis, Orelle Feher, Bill Gersh, Marie Greene, Betty Greenwald, Adrian Guillery, Robert Jones, Sharon Barry Logan, Elaine Mars, Joan Melnick, Michael Norcia, Kristina Winika Paratore, Philip Carlo Paratore, Wayne Quinn, Eddie Samuels, Michael Soles, Art Stockin, Fran Sutherland, Beverly Wallace, Cynthia Winika and Frank Wright; and residents Ted Knaflusky and Gene Hines.
The Wired Gallery is located at 11 Mohonk Road in High Falls. For information, visit www.thewiredgallery.com.