Bruce Weber’s Woodstock Art Colony: The Nascent Years 1900-1930 four part lecture series, which will run the first Saturday of each month into September, seeks to demonstrate not only the importance of art in Woodstock’s history, but also the town’s effect on American and world art, via a close look at the scene and the many personable characters who came together here a century ago.
“Woodstock was a microcosm of the bigger picture,” the independent curator and arts academic noted, speaking in terms of the “epic long film” one could make of the scene and its leading actors. “You had people like Birge Harrison and Andrew Dasburg, Hervey White and Ralph and “Bird” Whitehead…it was if all were lighting matches together to start a creative fire.”
Dr. Weber, curator of the National Academy Museum and the Museum of the City of New York — and soon to be a permanent resident of Saugerties with his wife, after decades of regular visits to the area — talked about how great a place Woodstock became in the early part of the 20th century for artists to visit for a season of interaction with other artists. Plus it was cheap.
“People would joke about how every space could be made into a studio,” he explained. “The presence of the Arts Students League, the prestigious art school in the center of the art world at the time, lasted from 1906 to 1922 (it later came back even stronger in the years after World War II, when people were able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill)…New York had an effect on everything happening in Woodstock.”
But Weber is quick to add that while there were “conservative” forces among the 59 artist characters he’ll be discussing in his four lectures, plus dozens of cameos, innovation was quick to occur in the hotbed of creativity Woodstock became each summer, and increasingly throughout those early decades of the 20th century.
I ask for anecdotes and Dr. Weber responds with stories about the Sunflower Club, and short-term Woodstock resident Daniel Putnam Brinley, a young painter who came to town fresh from the scene of the day in Paris, where Modernism was taking shape via the hands of Picasso, Leger and Matisse, among many.
“Brinley comes because it’s cheap and there’s a scene and of course the Birge Harison students see what he’s doing, a form of neo-Impressionism with loads of radiant color that bounces off the canvas,” he recounts. “Then along comes James H. Wardwell, more conservative from an even wealthier family who is able to have his own ink made for him, and he latches on to what Brinley’s doing and Dasburg names the entire group ‘The Sunflower Club.’”
But through it all, a new form of Modernism takes form in town, moving the styles of Woodstock art forward.
Weber calls it an endless yin/yang between art’s more conservative and innovative, cutting edge sides. Later, it gets even more dramatic, he adds, with the arrival of Konrad Cramer and a number of artists who came in the 1930s, and then after the war.
He also points, though, to the ways in which community worked on the town’s artists, and how painters in particular grew close to “locals” while becoming local themselves. He notes the many portraits of Woodstockers painted by George Bellows, John Carlsen and Eugene Speicher, among many…a movement he feels Speicher started, then passed on to his friend Bellows.
That trend, Weber adds, may have proved instrumental in American art’s movement towards a social realism in the 1930s. This art history progresses, from movement to movement, from town to city to art world.
From where does Dr. Bruce Weber’s knowledge and love for Woodstock art of the early 20th century come?
The man speaks about his years of work in 19th and 20th century art, and a show of Yasuo Kuniyoshi he curated with Dr. Tom Wolf at Bard College in the early 1980s.
With his ties to the town, what’s resulted, Weber added, is the ability to dive deeply into a body of art he finds “fun and interesting.”
He plans to continue his series of lectures by moving deeper into the 20th century next year.
For now, The Woodstock Art Colony: The Nascent Years 1900-1930 kicks off at 2 p.m. on June 2 at the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum at 28 Tinker Street in Woodstock with a one hour lecture ($20 general admission, $15 for WAAM members) on Byrdcliffe and the local art colony’s origins. Future lectures will include a July 7 session on The Emerging Woodstock School of Landscape Painting, 1904-1920; and August 4 and September 1 lectures on Modernist Currents: Woodstock in the Age of the Armnory Show, charting the effects of European art on the American scene.
See woodstockart.org or call 679-2940 for further information.