In the early 1970s, before the Woodstock Artists Association (WAA) started its permanent collection, the best local gallery was the town dump. At least that’s the story told more than once to art historian Bruce Weber, who recently moved full-time to the Woodstock area.
“Artists were dying, and they were no longer represented by galleries in New York,” he explained. “No one knew what to do with the paintings when they died, so they were thrown out. The Artists Association was the first organization to preserve the work of the colony.”
Weber, who has a Ph.D. in art history, is researching the history of Woodstock as a colony of the arts to deliver lectures at the WAA Museum (WAAM) and to write an essay for the group’s new permanent collection catalog, which will be published next year for its 100th anniversary. “The core of what I’m writing about,” said Weber, “is what the art colony was about: community and friendships between artists, and their relationships with people in the town. Much of the collection was gifts from artists or their widows or descendants, or from friends they did trades with. The collection is a mirror of the town itself and the camaraderie that still goes on and is why a lot of us are here. Artists built this spirit.”
Although Weber has had a connection with Woodstock area for decades — including attending the first day of the 1969 festival — he knew little about the art colony until the early 1980s. At that time, he curated an exhibition on Woodstock artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi at what is now the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. In the process, Weber became friendly with Kuniyoshi’s widow, Sarah, who still lived in town. Later, while working for the National Academy Museum in New York, he lectured on members of the academy who had worked in Woodstock, prompting research into the local scene.
Weber was curating and researching for Berry-Hill Galleries in New York in the 1990s when a friend made an intriguing discovery in the basement of the Art Students League, which had a school in Woodstock both before and after World War II. Stored in the League’s New York City building were 100 or so works by students who had done parodies of paintings first exhibited at Manhattan’s Armory Show of 1913. The historic show included many American artists but is famous for introducing the U.S. to the experimental styles of the European avant garde, including Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism.
Fast-forward to Weber’s recent research on Robert Chanler, whose “Parody of the Fauve Painters” is one of most reproduced works in the WAA collection. From his knowledge of the discovery at the Art Students League and the date on the painting, 1913, Weber knew the work must have been related to a piece from the Armory Show. Although the painting is said to make fun of Matisse and his fawning admirers, Weber thought it was probably based on a specific work. But he didn’t know the identity of the original.
This summer, he gave a series of lectures at WAAM. After the last one, he had a conversation with Mike Gotwein, author of a book on artist-made houses. Gotwein revealed that an ancestor of his, Nathan Dolinsky, once had a house in Hunter. Dolinsky had painted a work entitled “The Sightless,” which showed at the Armory in 1913 and was the model for his friend Chanler’s parody.
Solving such mysteries is part of Weber’s fascination with historical research. “Digging into a living history gets me going,” he said. “This place is so full of traces of the history that was here, including families and houses of artists.”
He has tracked down and interviewed descendants of several local artists, often by following the trails of relatives cited in obituaries. “With Google, it’s not so hard to find someone with an unusual name,” he said. “Now I’m looking for Judson Smith’s family. Smith is much harder.”
Weber has been in touch with a relative of Chanler’s and with a son of artist Gertrude Jarvis. The son said she had an antique shop on 57th Street in Manhattan, as well as a shop and gallery at the bottom of Ohayo Mountain. Jarvis, who showed her work at the WAA, was the donor of the Chanler painting in 1974, the year a benefit was held for the permanent collection. A historic photo shows staff holding up the painting in front of the WAAM building on Tinker Street.
“The nature of the permanent collection is that people wanted to give back to their ancestors,” said Weber. “They wanted to make sure people from that time in the early 70s till now would still be cognizant of the great things that happened here artistically. A lot of artists have been forgotten. When I research them, I get personally involved. I hope that by working on them, they’ll be remembered.”
Dr. Bruce Weber will offer lectures on the history of Woodstock as a colony of the arts in the summer of 2019. Check the website of the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum next spring at http://www.woodstockart.org.