There are innumerable ways in which the current Towbin Wing exhibit, open through August 19, at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum — Nature Morte: The Early Years of Still Life Painting in Woodstock — needs to be not only seen, but discussed.
First off is the story behind the show’s origins, which curator Donn Mosenfelder said began “in a conversation with WAAM’s Janice La Motta whom we had invited to our home to see some works by Woodstock artists — in particular the work of my uncle, Hermon More, a largely forgotten but central figure in the Woodstock art scene from its early years through the 1950s.”
More, who had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before coming to New York, found employment in the late 1920s when Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded a museum of contemporary American art for her collection, which had been rejected by the Metropolitan Museum (the new Museum of Modern Art was focusing at the time largely on European Modernists). He and two other artists were named the Whitney’s curators. Later, in 1948, he became its second director, lasting until his retirement in 1958, during which time he moved the institution from its original home on 8th Street (where the Studio School now is) to quarters on 54th Street behind MOMA.
“As we viewed various pieces, I remarked that there were a number of beautiful still life paintings in the group and suggested that they might form the core of an exhibition, supplemented by other examples from the WAAM collection,” said Mosenfelder, an author of numerous top-selling educational books and a longtime Stone Ridge resident. “Janice agreed, and the idea of pulling them all together into a show was launched…from about 1915 on, Hermon spent summers in Woodstock and the rest of the year in New York City as part of the Greenwich Village art scene centered around the Whitney Studio Club. My sister and I inherited a few of his paintings from our parents, but the greater part of our collection came from the Mores when they both died in the late 1960s without children of their own.”
The curator noted how much of his uncle’s art ended up in Seattle; after his sister’s death, he bought (and brought) it back closer to where it originated.
“With the More collection more or less reunited, it seems time to bring these works from obscurity,” Mosenfelder said.
Which brings us to the second element that’s so special about what this collecting nephew has assembled in Woodstock: a rare focus on the art of still life painting, and that focus’ part of a growing revisionist look at Woodstock’s earliest years as a colony of the arts, which have also been the subject of a series of SRO lectures by arts historian Bruce Weber over recent months.
“Central to the still life tradition is the concept of nature morte where even the most vibrant freshly-cut blossoms or ripening fruit carry within them the unspoken recognition that beauty — and life — are transient. The blooms will soon fade, the fruit rot; and so it is with all of us. Thus, even the most exuberant floral pieces remind us to embrace the present moment, to revel in the beauty of life at its prime, for it will not last,” Mosenfelder has written of the exhibit he’s assembled. “Other pictures bring the hidden message to the fore, featuring skulls and similar symbols of mortality. This tradition was largely defined in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art when still life painting enjoyed great popularity. A highly refined language of symbolism developed, in which individual flowers and objects carried specific associations which were widely understood by artist and viewers alike. Among our paintings, Lucile Blanch’s The Internment of an Era is prime example of this approach.”
What the curator refers to is a deep tradition that stretches back to Roman art, and earlier times when artists painted food on funeral encasements as a means of providing the dead with eternal sustenance. It includes traditions of “memento mori,” involving skulls and bones, as well as “vanitas,” an entire movement tied to the temporality of life.
And yet he has also intimated the ways in which a pre-modern “Heirarchy of Genres,” instilled and kept in place by arts academies up into the 19th century, always kept still life painting below animal paintings, landscapes, scenes of everyday life, portraits and history paintings (especially when inclusive of allegorical leanings).
Remember how we’d spend hours in art classes painting set-ups of fruit and bottles, then compare our work with those by friends and siblings, trying to recognize genius?
“While schooled in this tradition, Woodstock artists departed from the highly realistic interpretations of preceding centuries, rendering their paintings under the influence of impressionism and pre-impressionism art. Following the 1913 Armory show in New York, currents of total abstraction and surrealism were circulating in American art, but few of the Woodstock artists did more than experiment with these concepts, most of them remaining firmly grounded in representation,” the current show’s curator notes. “Living in the shadow of the rapidly emerging School of New York, the work of these early Woodstock artists came to be seen as old-fashioned. By around 1950, even Hermon More selected fewer of their works for the Whitney Biennials, and he felt the resentment of his old friends. This impression of the Woodstock school has retained some currency, even as other regional schools have been rediscovered and newly appreciated. And yet, these Woodstock painters were highly skilled artists and produced a wonderful body of work, embracing a wide range of sensibilities and characterized by a zeal for the act of painting itself. A serious second look at their oeuvre is long overdue.”
Starting July 28, WAAM will expand its exploration of the many ways in which seemingly-ancient hierarchies (and their overturning a century and less ago) still play on our attitudes towards art and aesthetics.
“What is a landscape in 2018?” is how they’re introducing their latest Focus series exhibit, featuring ten regional artists brought together by noted landscape painter and SUNY New Paltz professor Thomas Sarrantonio. “Gallery visitors should expect to be surprised, challenged, and perhaps stimulated into rethinking their concepts of this familiar genre by some of the works on view. Then again there are many landscapes in the show that are stylistically very much as one would expect, with beautiful recognizable imagery from the region we know and love.
The artists chosen by Sarrantonio include Gertrude Abramson, Maxine Davidowitz, Yale Epstein, Jerry Freedner, Ginny Howsam Friedman, Milton Glaser, Tim Smith, Suzanne Stokes, Carol Struve, and Natalie Wargin, and there will be an informal discussion with the juror and his artists in Friday, July 27, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., the evening before the exhibit’s actual opening reception starting at 3 pm on Saturday, July 28.
Showing alongside Focus: Surveying the Landscape will be a solo show by Kingston’s Chris Gonyea entitled Hyphae: Connecting with the Forest, featuring the exploring artist’s latest leaps into large works that straddle abstraction and hyper-realism in an immersive, entirely contemporary yet localized way.