I missed out on the Golden Age of Paris, La Belle Époque, through no fault of my own, as it ended a good 36 years before I was born. Likewise, I did not make the scene at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village during the Golden Age of Abstract Expressionism, as I was a non-alcohol-imbibing infant at the time.
Happily, though, I was present (if not fully accounted for) during the Golden Age of New Paltz – and, if you’ll pardon my bias, I wouldn’t trade it for any other Golden Age, not even that of ancient Greece. That conviction has been reinforced by the current exhibition at the Wired Gallery in High Falls: “The Golden Age of New Paltz,” the first in a series of three exhibitions celebrating New Paltz artists of the 1960s. On Sunday, July 30, there will be a closing reception from 2 to 5 p.m. at the gallery for the first show, which covers the period from 1959 to 1963.
The erstwhile Dutch and French Huguenot town of New Paltz was, during the glorious ’60s, an incubator for radical politics and a vibrant locus for jazz and rock music, Beat-inspired poetry and the visual arts: painting, drawing, sculpture and mixed media, as well as the nascent stirrings of video art. Much of this activity took place at the college formerly known, somewhat risibly, as New Paltz Normal; but increasingly, as the decade progressed, there was symbiosis among artists on the faculty, their students and the growing number of artists living in the village and town.
That symbiosis – a generous, convivial spirit of sharing work, lives and bodies in a close-knit arts community, in a village and town that were still somewhat bucolic, as yet unmarred by malls and fast-food establishments – is what made it a “Golden Age” in the appraisal of those who were there. Everyone you knew, it seemed, was making art, and having a hell of a great time doing it.
“We would go to the CUB [College Union Building] cafeteria and look at each other’s drawings, or draw each other,” recalls Richie Corozine, who – like a goodly number of these artists – still resides in New Paltz or its environs. “And always, it was, ‘Yeah, man, I see what you’re trying to do,’ or ‘You know, man, I dig what you’re doing, even if I don’t know what it is you’re doing.’”
Not surprisingly, for students who put such time and energy into sketching their friends, portraits are an especially strong component of the show. There’s a delicately rendered pencil portrait of Adrian Guillery, who won renown as a blues vocalist with Jeremy (Steig) and the Satyrs, by his buddy Gene Hines. Guillery, in turn, is represented by (among other works) a rhythmically intense portrait of Dick Hogle, an ace drummer and a pioneer of psychedelic light shows.
(One example of Hines’ draftsmanship got me arrested: I was distributing copies of the Gargoyle, the Hudson Valley’s first alternative newspaper, in Poughkeepsie, and a cop asked to see it. He opened to the centerfold, which was a meticulously rendered pen-and-ink portrait of a policeman by Hines, depicting a small firearm emerging from the officer’s open fly. I was immediately busted.)
Among the many other fine portraits are an acrylic by Elaine Paioff Mars, Along the Wallkill River with Rich Rizzi, in which the quintessential old-school hipster Rizzi, clad in shades and black hat, looks like William S. Burroughs; an oil-on-canvas by Cynthia Winika of her sister Kristina, whose serious mien is offset by an ecstatic eruption of flowers in the foreground; and an encaustic self-portrait by Fran Sutherland, which situates her face amid a sensuous landscape of running water, rocks and the little bridge that spans the Wallkill at the western edge of the village.
Even before he moved to Taos, Bill Gersh was a wild man, an artist of furious energy and consummate skill in many media. Rumor has it that one of his works on display here – a woodcut with collaged elements titled “Both Hands” – was rejected for a student art show because the faculty was convinced that the titular hands were holding a penis, just out of the frame.
“Gersh always encouraged creativity however he found it,” recalls Larry Audette, who, like Gersh, eventually relocated to New Mexico. “I believe he inherited this attitude from his teachers at New Paltz, especially Ilya Bolotowsky. But you see it in all the contemporaries: Phil Paratore, Adrian Guillery, Joellen Trilling – hell, everybody was operating with a generosity of spirit that doesn’t seem to exist anymore, and you didn’t need to get rich and famous to be considered a success.”
There was plenty of antic behavior to go around, too; after all, these were the ’60s. Jack Murphy, who curated the exhibition, remembers attending a wild party that took place at Ray Flynn’s barn on Libertyville Road, which featured a naked female art student draped in Christmas lights and an animated Bob Schuler presiding over the festivities on the third floor. Sometime later Murphy encountered Schuler on campus, seated behind a desk, and queried him as to what he was doing there. “This is my office; I teach art,” Schuler replied, and a disbelieving Murphy laughed, “Yeah, right, you’re a professor!”
There’s no data to support this, but it does seem as if everyone who ever had Schuler as a teacher eventually became his close personal friend. He’s represented here by three stunning large-format prints and – by the gallery’s parking area – by three of the inscribed granite cubes from his incredibly herculean Tethys project, ongoing for several decades, which involves the dropping of a sculpted block every 100 miles in the ocean, eventually forming a subterranean necklace around the planet.
Another teacher from the old Art Education program at SUNY-New Paltz is Manny Bromberg, still going strong at age 100. Bromberg, who has long resided in Woodstock, is widely known for his epically scaled castings of cliff faces, one of which still graces the side of the Humanities Building at the college. The Wired Gallery is showing two of his landscapes on paper, plus two sculptural pieces made of paint and polyurethane resin, fashioned in 1999, when he was a mere stripling of 82. One of these sculptures, Big Foot, bears an arresting likeness of one of the great bulls of the Lascaux cave; it has the charged feeling of a talismanic object.
Earlier, I described the New Paltz arts community of the ’60s as “close-knit.” Others, less generous, might say that it was incestuous. I agree: It was, but in a good way. Connections were made between people that led to other connections; there was a web of relationships among the artists involved that remains tensile to this day, stretching without breaking, sustaining friendships, offering support and inspiring new work. Of the Golden Age of New Paltz, we may truly say that the community that drew together, grew together.
Sunday’s closing reception takes place from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Wired Gallery, located at 11 Mohonk Road in High Falls. Part II of “The Golden Age of New Paltz” will open in the spring of 2018, followed by Part III that fall.